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We may have only weeks to act before a variant coronavirus dominates the US

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The US may face a rapidly closing window to bring a suspected extra-contagious variant of covid-19 under control.

If the variant strain, first spotted in the United Kingdom, is as infectious as some suspect, it could dominate US case numbers by March, send covid-19 deaths to unprecedented levels, and collide with the rollout of vaccines, research suggests.

British scientists fear that the new strain, which they say is 50% to 74% more transmissible (meaning the average case generates even more follow-on infections), has put wings on the feet of the pandemic in the UK, where covid-19 case numbers have risen swiftly.

More than 20 other countries have now also spotted the variant, including the US, where it was first reported on December 29 in Colorado. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of January 11 there were 72 confirmed variant cases in 10 states. California has 32 cases, Florida has 22, and Georgia, Indiana, and Pennsylvania each have one.

That’s a drop in the bucket given that the US is confirming over 200,000 cases of covid per day, and the rate of infection per million people has tripled since November—even without considering the variant.

Yet the variant is likely more widespread than it appears. Many cases found so far don’t have a clear link to UK travel, meaning that it’s already spreading, unseen, in local communities and could pick up speed quickly.

“If the strain become common in the US,” Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC, said on Twitter, it’s “close to [a] worst-case scenario.” He says political turmoil, overtaxed hospitals, and an unrelenting new form of the virus could create a “perfect storm.”

That appearance of the variant has already led the US to require British visitors to test negative before flying. Some scientific leaders say the US should now consider a coordinated national lockdown period. “I think we have to aggressively consider the upsides, and the downsides, of another lockdown to crush the curve,” says Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists. “We are hitting record numbers of cases and deaths, and on top of it we are dealing with a situation where we may be confronted with a highly transmissible variant. It’s going to exacerbate a situation that is already stretching hospitals to the breaking point in some areas. It’s a really bad situation.”

Easier to spread

The variant virus, known as B117, was discovered by UK scientists in December and carries mutations that many researchers believe allow it to spread between people more easily. There is still scientific uncertainty as to whether the variant is truly more transmissible or whether it’s been fueled mostly by superspreading events including holiday gatherings in Europe. However, if more countries, including the US, see the same pattern as the UK, the case for easier spread will look indisputable.

Such data is coming into view already. Researchers at the Serum Institute in Denmark, for example, said on Saturday, January 9, that the variant has been doubling as a percentage of cases every week in that country. It now accounts for 0.9% of cases there, and Danish researchers predict it could become the dominant form by February.

“Preliminary data from Denmark also indicate that the growth rate for this variant is 70% higher than for other variants,” the institute said.

The variant virus is detected via genome sequencing: diagnostic test swabs are subjected to a detailed analysis that reads out the complete genetic sequence of the virus, revealing what mutations it has.

At Helix in San Mateo, California, a large lab funded by the US to run diagnostic tests for covid-19, researchers also began looking for the variant in December and have identified most of the cases reported to the CDC. Nationally, the company estimates, 0.3% of cases are the B117 strain.

Although that percentage remains small, if the doubling trend from Europe holds, the variant could account for most cases in the US by mid-March. However, groups involved in modeling the pandemic said they are still unable to project the spread of the new variant in the US, or how it will affect the burden of cases.

“With not a lot more than anecdotal evidence of cases of the new variant being detected and no systematic testing for the new variant in the US, it would be exceedingly hard to do any modeling of the current and potential future spread,” says Theo Vos, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington. He says higher transmissibility “would lead to the expectation that it can eventually become the dominant strain, but when and where is highly uncertain for the moment.”

Lack of surveillance

Even as new variants threaten to emerge, the US still lacks the ability to adequately monitor changes to the virus, according to James Lu, cofounder and president of the Helix lab. He says the US as a whole has been sequencing about 300 to 400 virus samples a day but needs to sequence around 7,000 each day (or 5% of all tests) to get an accurate picture what variations of the virus are spreading.

The UK strain isn’t the only one worrying researchers. Additional variants with overlapping constellations of genetic changes have been seen in South Africa and Brazil, leading scientists to conclude that the germ is adapting and raising concerns over what the changes signify.

By comparison with other advanced countries, the US sequences a much smaller proportion of cases. According to the Washington Post, the country is sequencing one in every 300, compared with about 60% in Australia, 12% in Denmark, and 7.5% in the United Kingdom.

“We’re off by more than an order of magnitude from a proper level of surveillance,” says Lu. “The goal is to catch it before it before it becomes common.”

The Helix lab, funded by the US over the summer to increase testing, currently carries out about 45,000 daily covid-19 tests for hospitals and others. Since December, it has been reanalyzing many of those samples to look for B117, work it carries out with a partner company, Illumina.

“We need more data to see the trends, but as we scale up the sequencing, if we start to see it as a larger and larger fraction, then it is likely more transmissible,” Lu says. He says the CDC has been coordinating with labs to look for the variant, “but we think a cohesive federal response is going to be necessary to get surveillance in place.”

Race with vaccine

The possibility of a new surge in a novel form of covid-19 has some researchers comparing 2021 to last spring—that is, we are facing a short window to clamp down on the variant before it, too, spirals out of control.

In an editorial in Stat News, published January 9, MIT professor Kevin Esvelt and Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch wrote that this time around “we are better prepared for this new enemy” and argued that the US should aim its countermeasures at suppressing the new strain.

For instance, as the new variant is found, US contact tracers should “drop everything” and focus on isolating contacts of those cases, the two argue. They also say vaccines should be rushed to affected areas to surround variant outbreaks, a concept sometimes known as ring vaccination.

While the UK variant doesn’t seem to cause more severe disease, a faster-spreading virus will lead to more death simply by causing many more cases, according to Adam Kucharski, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has shown how a 50% more transmissible strain would end up killing many more people than one that is 50% more lethal but spreads no quicker.

The emergence of the variant may also mean there is less time to vaccinate people before they catch the disease. According to Bloomberg, which analyzes CDC data, about 10 million vaccine doses have been given out in the US since the vaccination campaign began shortly before Christmas.

The incoming Biden administration has said it will push for a vaccine blitz that would see “at least 100 million” shots given during the president’s first 100 days in office, or between late January and the beginning of May.

Nouri, the president of the FAS, says the US vaccination rate remains “woefully slow,” and he notes it is still unproven whether vaccination stops people from spreading the virus or just from falling ill. He says that means familiar measures, like masks and physical distancing, remain essential, especially as long as the weather remains cold and people spend their time indoors.

In addition, Nouri thinks the US may need to consider going further, with measures such as coordinated restrictions on indoor gatherings. “I think the conversation is going to shift if and when this variant gets a greater hold. It could be a game-changer,” he says. “We can’t afford to do the same thing when our enemy is adapting, changing tactics, and becoming more transmissible. We have to have those conversations immediately, because our enemy is getting better and we are not.”

–with reporting by Lindsay Muscato

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

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Facebook’s ‘oversight’ body overturns four takedowns and issues a slew of policy suggestions

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Facebook’s self-regulatory ‘Oversight Board’ (FOB) has delivered its first batch of decisions on contested content moderation decisions almost two months after picking its first cases.

A long time in the making, the FOB is part of Facebook’s crisis PR push to distance its business from the impact of controversial content moderation decisions — by creating a review body to handle a tiny fraction of the complaints its content takedowns attract. It started accepting submissions for review in October 2020 — and has faced criticism for being slow to get off the ground.

Announcing the first decisions today, the FOB reveals it has chosen to uphold just one of the content moderation decisions made earlier by Facebook, overturning four of the tech giant’s decisions.

Decisions on the cases were made by five-member panels that contained at least one member from the region in question and a mix of genders, per the FOB. A majority of the full Board then had to review each panel’s findings to approve the decision before it could be issued.

The sole case where the Board has upheld Facebook’s decision to remove content is case 2020-003-FB-UA — where Facebook had removed a post under its Community Standard on Hate Speech which had used the Russian word “тазики” (“taziks”) to describe Azerbaijanis, who the user claimed have no history compared to Armenians.

In the four other cases the Board has overturned Facebook takedowns, rejecting earlier assessments made by the tech giant in relation to policies on hate speech, adult nudity, dangerous individuals/organizations, and violence and incitement. (You can read the outline of these cases on its website.)

Each decision relates to a specific piece of content but the board has also issued nine policy recommendations.

These include suggestions that Facebook [emphasis ours]:

  • Create a new Community Standard on health misinformation, consolidating and clarifying the existing rules in one place. This should define key terms such as “misinformation.”
  • Adopt less intrusive means of enforcing its health misinformation policies where the content does not reach Facebook’s threshold of imminent physical harm.
  • Increase transparency around how it moderates health misinformation, including publishing a transparency report on how the Community Standards have been enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic. This recommendation draws upon the public comments the Board received.
  • Ensure that users are always notified of the reasons for any enforcement of the Community Standards against them, including the specific rule Facebook is enforcing. (The Board made two identical policy recommendations on this front related to the cases it considered, also noting in relation to the second hate speech case that “Facebook’s lack of transparency left its decision open to the mistaken belief that the company removed the content because the user expressed a view it disagreed with”.)
  • Explain and provide examples of the application of key terms from the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, including the meanings of “praise,” “support” and “representation.” The Community Standard should also better advise users on how to make their intent clear when discussing dangerous individuals or organizations.
  • Provide a public list of the organizations and individuals designated as ‘dangerous’ under the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations Community Standard or, at the very least, a list of examples.
  • Inform users when automated enforcement is used to moderate their content, ensure that users can appeal automated decisions to a human being in certain cases, and improve automated detection of images with text-overlay so that posts raising awareness of breast cancer symptoms are not wrongly flagged for review. Facebook should also improve its transparency reporting on its use of automated enforcement.
  • Revise Instagram’s Community Guidelines to specify that female nipples can be shown to raise breast cancer awareness and clarify that where there are inconsistencies between Instagram’s Community Guidelines and Facebook’s Community Standards, the latter take precedence.

Where it has overturned Facebook takedowns the board says it expects Facebook to restore the specific pieces of removed content within seven days.

In addition, the Board writes that Facebook will also “examine whether identical content with parallel context associated with the Board’s decisions should remain on its platform”. And says Facebook has 30 days to publicly respond to its policy recommendations.

So it will certainly be interesting to see how the tech giant responds to the laundry list of proposed policy tweaks — perhaps especially the recommendations for increased transparency (including the suggestion it inform users when content has been removed solely by its AIs) — and whether Facebook is happy to align entirely with the policy guidance issued by the self-regulatory vehicle (or not).

Facebook created the board’s structure and charter and appointed its members — but has encouraged the notion it’s ‘independent’ from Facebook, even though it also funds FOB (indirectly, via a foundation it set up to administer the body).

And while the Board claims its review decisions are binding on Facebook there is no such requirement for Facebook to follow its policy recommendations.

It’s also notable that the FOB’s review efforts are entirely focused on takedowns — rather than on things Facebook chooses to host on its platform.

Given all that it’s impossible to quantify how much influence Facebook exerts on the Facebook Oversight Board’s decisions. And even if Facebook swallows all the aforementioned policy recommendations — or more likely puts out a PR line welcoming the FOB’s ‘thoughtful’ contributions to a ‘complex area’ and says it will ‘take them into account as it moves forward’ — it’s doing so from a place where it has retained maximum control of content review by defining, shaping and funding the ‘oversight’ involved.

tl;dr: An actual supreme court this is not.

In the coming weeks, the FOB will likely be most closely watched over a case it accepted recently — related to the Facebook’s indefinite suspension of former US president Donald Trump, after he incited a violent assault on the US capital earlier this month.

The board notes that it will be opening public comment on that case “shortly”.

“Recent events in the United States and around the world have highlighted the enormous impact that content decisions taken by internet services have on human rights and free expression,” it writes, going on to add that: “The challenges and limitations of the existing approaches to moderating content draw attention to the value of independent oversight of the most consequential decisions by companies such as Facebook.”

But of course this ‘Oversight Board’ is unable to be entirely independent of its founder, Facebook.

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Workday nabs employee feedback platform Peakon for $700M

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Workday started the work day with some big news today. It’s acquiring employee feedback platform Peakon for $700 million in cash.

One thing we have learned during the pandemic is that organizations need to find new ways to build stronger connections with their employees, and that’s precisely what Peakon provides. “Bringing Peakon into the Workday family will be very compelling to our customers — especially following an extraordinary past year that has magnified the importance of having a constant pulse on employee sentiment in order to keep people engaged and productive,” Workday co-founder and co-CEO Aneel Bhusri, said in a statement.

Without the ability to have face-to-face meetings with employees, managers have struggled throughout 2020 to understand how COVID, working from home and all the trials and tribulations of the last year have affected the workforce.

But this ability to check the pulse of employees goes beyond this crisis period. Managers of large organizations know that the bigger and more spread out your firm becomes, the more challenging it is to understand what’s happening across the company. The company uses weekly surveys to ask specific questions about the organization. For them it’s all about getting good data, and so far customers have used the platform to ask over 153 million questions since inception six years ago.

Peakon CEO and co-founder Phil Chambers sees Workday as a logical partner. “Workday excels at helping enable customers to leverage their data. Together, we’ll be able to help drive greater productivity, talent development and employee retention for our customers — and unify how employees interact with their organizations,” he said in a Workday blog post announcing the deal.

Peakon was founded in Copenhagen in 2014 and has raised $68 million along the way, according to Crunchbase data. Its most recent round was a $35 million Series B in March 2019. The deal is expected to close by the end of this quarter subject to typical regulatory review.

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Shopalyst aims to make e-commerce advertising more effective

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Indian startup Shopalyst has officially launched a new platform that it calls the Discovery Commerce Cloud, which it says can help brands take full advantage of digital advertising.

Co-founder and CEO Girish Ramachandra told me that Shopalyst was created to allow for “one seamless journey for the shopper” across advertising and e-commerce — something he said current systems are not currently designed to support.

The startup’s first product was a “universal buy button,” and Ramachandra said that has “naturally progressed” into a broader set of tools for cross-platform advertising, which Shopalyst has been beta testing for the past year.

The Discovery Commerce Cloud consists of five modules, which Ramachandra said work best together but can also be purchased separately. That includes:

  • a market intelligence product with information about what consumers are searching for and what’s popular on media and e-commerce platforms
  • an audience intelligence product to target ads based on audience interest, behavior and purchase intent
  • a Universal Ads Manager to deliver ads across Google Ads, DV360, Facebook, Instagram, Amazon Ads, Twitter and TikTok
  • a landing page builder that can support instant checkout on a brand’s own direct-to-consumer site, comparison shopping across e-commerce marketplaces, instant delivery or a physical store locator
  • real-time metrics that measure the full customer funnel
Shopalyst header

Image Credits: Shopalyst

Ramachandra also noted that the ads created in the Universal Ads Builder optimized to each platform, with dynamically generated creative based on audience data. And by using the landing page builder, brands are also able to gather new data about the audience’s “shopping actions.”

“In the past, [brands] didn’t have shopping actions, because retailers don’t share that data back with them,” he said. “That is all changed. Now they’re able to acquire first-party data [from Shopalyst], which will help them use the right advertising in future campaigns.”

Shopalyst customers include Unilever, Nestle, Diageo, Nivea, L’Oreal and Estee Lauder. And while the startup was initially focused on its home market of India, the platform is now available across 30 countries.

Shopalyst also says that in beta testing, campaigns run through the Discovery Commerce Cloud have seen up to a 3X improvement in targeting relevance, a 5X increase in audience attention and an 8X increase in ad-activated shopping trips.

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