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Today — April 4th 2020Your RSS feeds

Zoom admits some calls were routed through China by mistake

By Zack Whittaker

Hours after security researchers at Citizen Lab reported that some Zoom calls were routed through China, the video conferencing platform has offered an apology and a partial explanation.

To recap, Zoom has faced a barrage of headlines this week over its security policies and privacy practices, as hundreds of millions forced to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic still need to communicate with each other.

The latest findings landed earlier today when Citizen Lab researchers said that some calls made in North America were routed through China — as were the encryption keys used to secure those calls. But as was noted this week, Zoom isn’t end-to-end encrypted at all, despite the company’s earlier claims, meaning that Zoom controls the encryption keys and can therefore access the contents of its customers’ calls. Zoom said in an earlier blog post that it has “implemented robust and validated internal controls to prevent unauthorized access to any content that users share during meetings.” The same can’t be said for Chinese authorities, however, which could demand Zoom turn over any encryption keys on its servers in China to facilitate decryption of the contents of encrypted calls.

Zoom now says that during its efforts to ramp up its server capacity to accommodate the massive influx of users over the past few weeks, it “mistakenly” allowed two of its Chinese datacenters to accept calls as a backup in the event of network congestion.

From Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan:

During normal operations, Zoom clients attempt to connect to a series of primary datacenters in or near a user’s region, and if those multiple connection attempts fail due to network congestion or other issues, clients will reach out to two secondary datacenters off of a list of several secondary datacenters as a potential backup bridge to the Zoom platform. In all instances, Zoom clients are provided with a list of datacenters appropriate to their region. This system is critical to Zoom’s trademark reliability, particularly during times of massive internet stress.”

In other words, North American calls are supposed to stay in North America, just as European calls are supposed to stay in Europe. This is what Zoom calls its datacenter “geofencing.” But when traffic spikes, the network shifts traffic to the nearest datacenter with the most available capacity.

China, however, is supposed to be an exception, largely due to privacy concerns among Western companies. But China’s own laws and regulations mandate that companies operating on the mainland must keep citizens’ data within its borders.

Zoom said in February that “rapidly added capacity” to its Chinese regions to handle demand was also put on an international whitelist of backup datacenters, which meant non-Chinese users were in some cases connected to Chinese servers when datacenters in other regions were unavailable.

Zoom said this happened in “extremely limited circumstances.” When reached, a Zoom spokesperson did not quantify the number of users affected.

Zoom said that it has now reversed that incorrect whitelisting. The company also said users on the company’s dedicated government plan were not affected by the accidental rerouting.

But some questions remain. The blog post only briefly addresses its encryption design. Citizen Lab criticized the company for “rolling its own” encryption — otherwise known as building its own encryption scheme. Experts have long rejected efforts by companies to build their own encryption, because it doesn’t undergo the same scrutiny and peer review as the decades-old encryption standards we all use today.

Zoom said in its defense that it can “do better” on its encryption scheme, which it says covers a “large range of use cases.” Zoom also said it was consulting with outside experts, but when asked a spokesperson declined to name any.

Bill Marczak, one of the Citizen Lab researchers that authored today’s report, told TechCrunch he was “cautiously optimistic” about Zoom’s response.

“The bigger issue here is that Zoom has apparently written their own scheme for encrypting and securing calls,” he said, and that “there are Zoom servers in Beijing that have access to the meeting encryption keys.”

“If you’re a well-resourced entity, obtaining a copy of the Internet traffic containing some particularly high-value encrypted Zoom call is perhaps not that hard,” said Marcak.

“The huge shift to platforms like Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic makes platforms like Zoom attractive targets for many different types of intelligence agencies, not just China,” he said. “Fortunately, the company has (so far) hit all the right notes in responding to this new wave of scrutiny from security researchers, and have committed themselves to make improvements in their app.”

Zoom’s blog post gets points for transparency. But the company is still facing pressure from New York’s attorney general and from two class-action lawsuits. Just today, several lawmakers demanded to know what it’s doing to protect users’ privacy.

Will Zoom’s mea culpas be enough?

Yesterday — April 3rd 2020Your RSS feeds

Google is now publishing coronavirus mobility reports, feeding off users’ location history

By Natasha Lomas

Google is giving the world a clearer glimpse of exactly how much it knows about people everywhere — using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to repackage its persistent tracking of where users go and what they do as a public good in the midst of a pandemic.

In a blog post today the tech giant announced the publication of what it’s branding ‘COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports‘. Aka an in-house analysis of the much more granular location data it maps and tracks to fuel its ad-targeting, product development and wider commercial strategy to showcase aggregated changes in population movements around the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has generated a worldwide scramble for tools and data to inform government responses. In the EU, for example, the European Commission has been leaning on telcos to hand over anonymized and aggregated location data to model the spread of COVID-19.

Google’s data dump looks intended to dangle a similar idea of public policy utility while providing an eyeball-grabbing public snapshot of mobility shifts via data pulled off of its global user-base.

In terms of actual utility for policymakers Google’s suggestions are pretty vague. The reports could help government and public health officials “understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings”, it writes.

“Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing,” it goes on. “Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”

The location data Google is making public is similarly fuzzy — to avoid inviting a privacy storm — with the company writing it’s using “the same world-class anonymization technology that we use in our products every day”, as it puts it.

“For these reports, we use differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets enabling high quality results without identifying any individual person,” Google writes. “The insights are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default.”

“In Google Maps, we use aggregated, anonymized data showing how busy certain types of places are—helping identify when a local business tends to be the most crowded. We have heard from public health officials that this same type of aggregated, anonymized data could be helpful as they make critical decisions to combat COVID-19,” it adds, tacitly linking an existing offering in Google Maps to a coronavirus-busting cause.

The reports consist of per country, or per state, downloads (with 131 countries covered initially), further broken down into regions/counties — with Google offering an analysis of how community mobility has changed vs a baseline average before COVID-19 arrived to change everything.

So, for example, a March 29 report for the whole of the US shows a 47 per cent drop in retail and recreation activity vs the pre-CV period; a 22% drop in grocery & pharmacy; and a 19% drop in visits to parks and beaches. While the same date report for California shows a considerably greater drop in the latter (down 38% compared to the regional baseline); and slightly bigger decreases in both retail and recreation activity (down 50%) and grocery & pharmacy (-24%).

Google says it’s using “aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential”. The trends are displayed over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior, it adds.

The company says it’s not publishing the “absolute number of visits” as a privacy step, adding: “To protect people’s privacy, no personally identifiable information, like an individual’s location, contacts or movement, is made available at any point.”

Google’s location mobility report for Italy, which remains the European country hardest hit by the virus, illustrates the extent of the change from lockdown measures applied to the population — with retail & recreation dropping 94% vs Google’s baseline; grocery & pharmacy down 85%; and a 90% drop in trips to parks and beaches.

The same report shows an 87% drop in activity at transit stations; a 63% drop in activity at workplaces; and an increase of almost a quarter (24%) of activity in residential locations — as many Italians stay at home, instead of commuting to work.

It’s a similar story in Spain — another country hard-hit by COVID-19. Though Google’s data for France suggests instructions to stay-at-home may not be being quite as keenly observed by its users there, with only an 18% increase in activity at residential locations and a 56% drop in activity at workplaces. Perhaps because the pandemic has so far had a less severe impact on France, although numbers of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise across the region.

While policymakers have been scrambling for data and tools to inform their responses to COVID-19, privacy experts and civil liberties campaigners have rushed to voice concerns about the impacts of such data-fuelled efforts on individual rights, while also querying the wider utility of some of this tracking.

And yes, the disclaimer is very broad. I'd say, this is largely a PR move.

Apart from this, Google must be held accountable for its many other secondary data uses. And Google/Alphabet is far too powerful, which must be addressed at several levels, soon. https://t.co/oksJgQAPAY

— Wolfie Christl (@WolfieChristl) April 3, 2020

Contacts tracing is another area where apps are fast being touted as a potential solution to get the West out of economically crushing population lockdowns — opening up the possibility of people’s mobile devices becoming a tool to enforce lockdowns, as has happened in China.

“Large-scale collection of personal data can quickly lead to mass surveillance,” is the succinct warning of a trio of academics from London’s Imperial College’s Computational Privacy Group, who have compiled their privacy concerns vis-a-vis COVID-19 contacts tracing apps into a set of eight questions app developers should be asking.

Discussing Google’s release of mobile location data for a COVID-19 cause, the head of the group, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, gave a general thumbs up to the steps it’s taken to shrink privacy risks.

Although he also called for Google to provide more detail about the technical processes it’s using in order that external researchers can better assess the robustness of the claimed privacy protections. Such scrutiny is of pressing importance with so much coronavirus-related data grabbing going on right now, he argues.

“It is all aggregated, they normalize to a specific set of dates, they threshold when there are too few people and on top of this they add noise to make — according to them — the data differentially private. So from a pure anonymization perspective it’s good work,” de Montjoye told TechCrunch, discussing the technical side of Google’s release of location data. “Those are three of the big ‘levers’ that you can use to limit risk. And I think it’s well done.”

“But — especially in times like this when there’s a lot of people using data — I think what we would have liked is more details. There’s a lot of assumptions on thresholding, on how do you apply differential privacy, right?… What kind of assumptions are you making?” he added, querying how much noise Google is adding to the data, for example. “It would be good to have a bit more detail on how they applied [differential privacy]… Especially in times like this it is good to be… overly transparent.”

While Google’s mobility data release might appear to overlap in purpose with the Commission’s call for EU telco metadata for COVID-19 tracking, de Montjoye points out there are likely to be key differences based on the different data sources.

“It’s always a trade off between the two,” he says. “It’s basically telco data would probably be less fine-grained, because GPS is much more precise spatially and you might have more data points per person per day with GPS than what you get with mobile phone but on the other hand the carrier/telco data is much more representative — it’s not only smartphone, and it’s not only people who have latitude on, it’s everyone in the country, including non smartphone.”

There may be country specific questions that could be better addressed by working with a local carrier, he also suggested. (The Commission has said it’s intending to have one carrier per EU Member State providing anonymized and aggregated metadata.)

On the topical question of whether location data can ever be truly anonymized, de Montjoye — an expert in data reidentification — gave a “yes and no” response, arguing that original location data is “probably really, really hard to anonymize”.

“Can you process this data and make the aggregate results anonymous? Probably, probably, probably yes — it always depends. But then it also means that the original data exists… Then it’s mostly a question of the controls you have in place to ensure the process that leads to generating those aggregates does not contain privacy risks,” he added.

Perhaps a bigger question related to Google’s location data dump is around the issue of legal consent to be tracking people in the first place.

While the tech giant claims the data is based on opt-ins to location tracking the company was fined $57M by France’s data watchdog last year for a lack of transparency over how it uses people’s data.

Then, earlier this year, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) — now the lead privacy regulator for Google in Europe — confirmed a formal probe of the company’s location tracking activity, following a 2018 complaint by EU consumers groups which accuses Google of using manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ locations for ad-targeting purposes.

“The issues raised within the concerns relate to the legality of Google’s processing of location data and the transparency surrounding that processing,” said the DPC in a statement in February, announcing the investigation.

The legal questions hanging over Google’s consent to track likely explains the repeat references in its blog post to people choosing to opt in and having the ability to clear their Location History via settings. (“Users who have Location History turned on can choose to turn the setting off at any time from their Google Account, and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline,” it writes in one example.)

In addition to offering up coronavirus mobility porn reports — which Google specifies it will continue to do throughout the crisis — the company says it’s collaborating with “select epidemiologists working on COVID-19 with updates to an existing aggregate, anonymized dataset that can be used to better understand and forecast the pandemic”.

“Data of this type has helped researchers look into predicting epidemics, plan urban and transit infrastructure, and understand people’s mobility and responses to conflict and natural disasters,” it adds.

Apple brings its hardware microphone disconnect feature to iPads

By Zack Whittaker

Apple has brought its hardware microphone disconnect security feature to its latest iPads.

The microphone disconnect security feature aims to make it far more difficult for hackers to use malware or a malicious app to eavesdrop on a device’s surroundings.

The feature was first introduced to Macs by way of Apple’s T2 security chip last year. The security chip ensured that the microphone was physically disconnected from the device when the user shuts their MacBook lid. The idea goes that physically cutting off the microphone from the device prevents malware — even with the highest level of “root” device permissions — from listening in to nearby conversations.

Apple confirmed in a support guide that its newest iPads have the same feature. Any certified “Made for iPad” case that’s attached and closed will trigger the hardware disconnect.

It’s a subtle acknowledgement that Apple devices get malware, too. Although rare, there has been a steady stream of exploits targeting Macs and iOS devices in the past few years, prompting Apple to raise its bug bounty payouts to compete with the growing exploit market. Just last year, Apple patched a number of vulnerabilities that were used by China to break into the iPhones belonging to the phones of Uyghur Muslims, a persecuted minority group in the China’s Xinjiang state.

Apple also said that all apps running on iOS or iPadOS 13.4 will be sandboxed in a “data vault,” to help prevent apps from accessing data without authorization.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Henry Ford Health System to conduct first large US study of hydroxychloroquine’s ability to prevent COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

Despite false assertions by the president to the contrary, any potential treatments to counter or prevent COVID-19 are still only at the stage of early investigations, which include one-off treatment with special individual case authorizations, and small-scale clinical examinations. Nothing so far has approached the level of scrutiny needed to actually say anything definitively about their actual ability to treat COVID-19 or the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes it, but the first large-scale U.S. clinical study for one treatment candidate is seeking volunteers and looking to get underway.

The study will be conducted by the Henry Ford Health System, which is seeking 3,000 volunteers from healthcare and first responder working environments. Depending on response, the researchers behind the study are looking to begin as early as next week. Study lead researcher Dr. William W. O’Neil said in a press release announcing the study that the goal is to seek a more definitive scientific answer to the question of whether or not hydroxychloroquine might work as a preventative medicine to help protect medical front-line workers with greater risk exposure from contracting the coronavirus.

Hydroxychloroquine (as well as chloroquine) has been in the spotlight as a potential COVID-19 treatment due mostly to repeated name-check that President Trump has given the drug during his daily White House coronavirus task force press briefings. Trump has gone too far in suggesting that the drug, which is commonly used both as an anti-malarial and in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, could be an effective treatment and should be thrust into use. At one point, he claimed that he FDA had granted an emergency approval for its use as a COVID-19 treatment, but Dr. Anthony Fauci clarified that it was not approved for that use, and that clinical studies still need to be performed to evaluate how it works in addressing COVID-19.

Studies thus far around hydroxychloroquine have been small-scale, as mentioned. One, conducted by researchers in France, produced results that indicated the drug was effective in treating those already infected, particularly when paired with a specific antibiotic. Another, more recent study from China, showed that there was no difference in terms of viral duration or symptoms when comparing treatment with hydroxychloroquine with treatment using standard anti-viral drugs, already a common practice in addressing cases of the disease.

This Henry Ford study looks like it could provide better answers to some of these questions around the drug, though the specific approach of seeking to validate prophylactic (preventative) use will mean treatment-oriented applications will still have to be studied separately. The design of the study will be a true blind study, with participants split into three groups that receive “unidentified, specific pills” (possibly anti-virals or some equivalent); hydroxychloroquine; or placebo pills, respectively. They won’t know which they’ve received, and they’ll be contacted weekly by researchers running the study, then in-person both at week four and week eight to determine if they have any symptoms of COVID-19, or any side effects from the medication. They’ll get regular blood draws, and the results will be compared to see if there’s any difference between each cohort in terms of how many contracted COVID-19.

These are front-line healthcare workers, so in theory they should unfortunately be at high risk of contracting the disease. That, plus the large sample size, should provide results that provide much clearer answers about hydroxychloroquine’s potential preventative effects. Even after the study is complete, other competing large-scale trials would ideally be run to prove out or cast doubt on these results, but we’ll be in a better position than we are now to say anything scientifically valid about the drug and its use.

Modsy confirms layoffs, 10 months after announcing its $37M Series C

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Modsy, an e-commerce company that creates 3D renderings of customized rooms, has confirmed to TechCrunch that it laid off a number of staff. In addition, several of its executives, including CEO Shanna Tellerman, will take a 25% pay cut. TechCrunch first heard about the layoffs from a source. The company’s confirmation of cuts comes amid a wave of layoffs in the technology and startup communities

In a statement from the CEO Shanna Tellerman to TechCrunch, Modsy said that “[i]n an effort to maintain a sustainable business during these unprecedented circumstances, we made a round of necessary layoffs and ended a number of designer contracts this week.” The company reaffirmed belief in its “long-term growth plans” in the same statement.

Modsy did not immediately respond when asked about how many individuals were impacted by this layoff. Update: The company declined to share the number of employees impacted.

The startup is backed by investors including TCV, Comcast Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, GV, BBG Ventures, according to Crunchbase data. It has raised $70.8 million in known capital to date. 

Modsy bets on individuals looking to glam up their homes by better visualizing the new furniture they want to buy. Users can enter the measurements of their living room and add budget and style preferences, and Modsy will help them with custom designs and finding furniture that fits — literally.

The layoffs show that customer appetite might be changing. Last week, home improvement platform Houzz confirmed that it has scratched plans to create in-house furniture for sale. It also laid off 10 people across three locations: the U.K., Germany and China. Houzz is comparatively larger than Modsy, with a roughly $4 billion valuation. But scratching its in-house plan that would have likely brought in more capital is yet another data point in how e-commerce companies are struggling right now to get consumers to spend on items other than beans, booze and bread starters.

In retrospect there were rumblings that the company was cutting staff. A number of recent reviews from its Glassdoor page note layoffs, with one review from March 25, 2020 calling them “mass” in nature; our original source on the company’s recent cuts also noted their breadth.

You can find other social media posts concerning the company’s layoffs, some noting more than one wave. TechCrunch has not confirmed if the recent layoffs are the first of two, or merely the first set of cuts. 

A little over 10 months ago the company was in a very different mood. Back in May of 2019, flush with new capital, Modsy’s CEO said that the “home design space, the inspiration category is thriving.” 

Pinterest just IPO’d, and it seems as if every TV channel is entering the home design category,” she said. “Meanwhile, e-commerce sites have barely changed since the introduction of the Internet.”

Forward launches ‘Forward At Home’ primary care service to address COVID-19 healthcare crunch

By Darrell Etherington

The global coronavirus pandemic has already caused a tremendous strain on healthcare resources around the world, and it’s leading to a shift in how healthcare is offered. Startup Forward, which debuted in 2016 and has since expanded its tech-focused primary care medical practice to locations in major cities across the U.S., is launching a new initiative called ‘Forward At Home’ that reflects those changes and adapts its care model accordingly.

Forward’s primary differentiator is its focus on what it terms a patient’s ‘baseline,’ which is established by an in-person visit they make when they join that employs a body scanner at a doctor’s office to take a number of readings and produce an interactive chart displayed on-screen in the doctor’s exam room. Forward founder and CEO Adrian Aoun, who previously led special projects at Google before building the health tech company, said that as the company has ramped its efforts to support patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, including through in-clinic and drive-through testing, it also wanted to address the ongoing need for care for non-COVID patients.

“If people aren’t leaving their homes, and frankly, you don’t really want them to leave their homes unless you need them to, you have to figure out how to do all that remotely,” Aoun said in an interview, referring to Forward’s comprehensive biometric data gathering process. “So we’ve we’ve implemented a bunch of different things as rapidly as possible. The first is, how do we collect some biometrics – so we put together a kit that has a bunch of sensors in it that we actually mail to you. This includes an EKG, a connected thermometer, connected blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter.”

This approach provides a whole new level of remote care, over and above what’s typically defined as “telemedicine,” which generally amounts to little more than video calls with doctors, Aoun points out. Forward’s approach includes automated vitals monitoring for alerting a doctor if a patient needs intervention, and a patient has access to all their own data in the app as well. The Forward At Home product also take their exam room smart display and brings it to their mobile devices, presenting it for shared consultation between doctor and patient during viral visits, which are available 24/7 to Forward members.

At launch, the service also includes home visits to collect urine and blood samples, as an added measure designed specifically to help patients adhere to CDC and health agency guidelines around self-isolation while also getting a detailed and thorough level of care. Aoun says that this part of the offering doesn’t make sense at scale, and will likely revert to in-clinic visits once the COVID-19 crisis passes.

The rest of the model, though spurred into deployment because of the coronavirus conditions, and the need to limit the number of people going in to medical facilities and hospital all across the country unless they absolutely need to, is here to stay, however. Aoun says that Forward’s goal has always been to address the need for tech-friendly, advanced and comprehensive primary care for everyone, but that it took an approach similar to Tesla’s by addressing the top end of the market first in order to be able to fund development of more broadly available services later on.

Meanwhile, the need to shift as much care as possible to in-home is pressing, and evidence from countries around the world is increasingly pointing to how important that is to stopping the spread.

“The big thing to flatten the curve, the whole point of it, is that the hospitals are going to be overrun,” Aoun said. “So you want to take as many cases as you can, where they don’t actually have to be in the ICU, and treat them outside of the ICU – that’s your first principle. Then your second principle is, and China kind of discovered this early […] they started moving to getting people out of the hospitals, as much as possible for a second reason, which is not that the hospitals are overloaded, but that the hospitals are one of the fastest ways to spread COVID-19.”

That’s a perspective also supported by lessons shared from Italian medical professionals in their effort to deal with the COVID-19 situation there, which has essentially decimated large parts of their medical facility infrastructure.

Forward is also still continuing the other work it’s doing to address COVID-19 needs, including providing its risk assessment screening tool to all, as well as offering testing via clinics and drive-throughs to members, as well as mental health support. It’s also looking to expand its drive-through testing to new sites across the U.S. The Forward At Home initiative, meanwhile, will help ensure that clients who have other pressing health needs aren’t left behind while the effort to combat COVID-19 continues.

Venture-backed Celularity receives FDA approval for early trials of a new cell therapy for COVID-19

By Jonathan Shieber

Celularity, the venture-backed developer of novel cell therapies for cancer treatments, has received an initial clearance from the Food and Drug Administration to begin early-stage clinical trials on a potential treatment for COVID-19.

The company, which has raised at least $290 million to date (according to Crunchbase), uses “Natural Killer” (NK) cell therapies to boost the immune system’s disease-fighting response.

For Celularity, those NK cells are derived from stem cells cultivated from placental tissue, which hospitals typically treat as medical waste.

Backed by the venture investment firm Section 32, and strategic investors including Celgene, now a division of Bristol Myers; United Therapeutics, a biomedical technology developer; Human Longevity, the troubled venture-backed startup founded by J. Craig Venter; and Sorrento Therapeutics, a publicly traded biomedical company, Celularity was pursuing a number of applications of the novel cell therapy, but its initial focus was on cancer treatments.

The real breakthrough for the company, and one of the reasons it has attracted so much capital, is that its cell therapies don’t need to be cultivated from a patient donor — a lengthy and expensive process. Celularity is able to produce NK cells and store them, so that they can be ready for transfusion when they’re needed.

With the the FDA’s clearance, Celularity is going to begin a small, 86-person trial to test the efficacy of its CYNK-001 immunotherapy to treat COVID-19 infected adults, the company said.

There are at least two studies underway in China that are also testing whether Natural Killer cells can be used to treat COVID-19.

NK cells are a type of white blood cell that are part of the body’s immune system. Unlike t-cells, which target particular pathogens, NK cells typically work to support the immune system by identifying and destroying cells in the body that appear to be stressed, either from an infection or a mutation.

The therapy seems to be successful in treating certain types of cancer, and the company’s researchers speculate that it can provide similar results in stopping the ability of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 to spread throughout the body.

However, there are some potential roadblocks and risks to pursuing the NK therapy. Chiefly, COVID-19 is deadly in part because it can push the immune system into overdrive. The “cytokine storm” that results from the infection means that the body starts attacking healthy cells in the lungs, which leads to organ failure and death. If that’s the case, then boosting the immune response to COVID-19 might be dangerous for patients.

There’s also the possibility that NK cells might not be able to detect which cells are infected with the coronavirus which causes COVID-19, rendering the therapy ineffective.

“Studies have established that there is robust activation of NK cells during viral infection regardless of the virus class,” said Celularity’s chief scientific officer, Xiaokui Zhang, in a statement. “These functions suggest that CYNK-001 could provide a benefit to COVID-19 patients in terms of limiting SARS-CoV-2 replication and disease progression by eliminating the infected cells.”

An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

By Natasha Lomas

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

Dear Mr. Commissioner, please be cautious comparing Singapoore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.

— Wojtek Wiewiorowski (@W_Wiewiorowski) March 27, 2020

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

Pre-school edtech startup Lingumi raises £4m, adds some free services during COVID-19

By Mike Butcher

At these difficult times, parents are concerned for their children’s education, especially given so much of it has had to go online during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about pre-schoolers who are missing out?

Pre-school children are sponges for information but don’t get formal training on reading and writing until they enter the classroom when they are less sponge-like and surrounded by 30 other children. Things are tougher for non-English speaking children who’s parents want them to learn English.

Lingumi, a platform aimed at toddlers learning critical skills, has now raised £4 million in a funding round led by China-based technology fund North Summit Capital – a fund run by Alibaba’s former Chief Data Scientist Dr Min Wanli – alongside existing investors LocalGlobe, ADV and Entrepreneur First.

The startup, launched in 2017, is also announcing the launch of daily free activity packs and videos to support children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak, and it has pledged to donate 20% of its sales during this period to the Global Children’s Fund.

Lingumi’s interactive courses offer one-to-one tutoring with a kind “social learning” and its first course helps introduce key English grammar and vocabulary from the age of 2.

Instead of tuning into live lessons with tutors, which are typically timetabled and expensive, Lingumi’s lessons are delivered through interactive speaking tasks, teacher videos, and games. At the end of each lesson, children can see videos of Lingumi friends speaking the same words and phrases as them. Because the kids are watching videos, Lingumi is cheaper than live courses, and thus more flexible for parents.

The company launched the first Lingumi course in China last year, focused on teaching spoken English to non-English speakers. The platform is now being used by more than 100,000 families globally, including in mainland China, Taiwan, UK, Germany, Italy and France. More than 1.5 million English lessons have taken place in China over the past six months, and 40% of active users are also playing lessons daily. Lingumi says its user base grew 50% during China’s lockdown and it has had a rapid uptake in Europe.

“Lingumi’s rapid expansion in the Chinese market required a strategic local investor, and Dr Min and the team had a clear-sighted understanding of the technology and scale opportunity both in China, and globally.”

Dr Wanli Min, general partner at North Summit Capital, commented: “It is only the most privileged children who can access native English speakers for one-on-one tutoring… Lingumi has the potential to democratize English learning and offer every kid a personalized curriculum empowered by AI & Lingumi’s ‘asynchronous teaching; model.”

Competitors to include Lingumi include live teaching solutions like VIPKid, and learning platforms like Jiliguala in China, or Lingokids in the West.

The FDA just okayed multiple 15-minute blood tests to screen for coronavirus, but there are caveats

By Darrell Etherington

On Thursday, the FDA amended their emergency policy around diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Following on a change made March 16, the agency opened the door for a number of specific private entities and labs to develop and distribute tests that can provide results on the spot in as little as 15 minutes – but there are some pretty big caveats to keep in mind as you hear about more of these coming to market.

The tests, which are ‘serological,’ meaning they identify the presence of antibodies in a person’s blood, differ considerably from the molecular testing that is currently in use under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by FDA-approved labs and drive-through testing sites. The serological tests show that a person has developed antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, which means they very likely came into contact with it (and either have it, or have already recovered from having it). The molecular tests actually detect the presence of viral DNA in the blood stream, which is a much more definitive indicator that they currently have an active infection (at least at the time the swab was taken).

Serological tests have still been used widely in countries where the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been shown to be effective, including in China, Taiwan and Singapore. They’ve also been used in different communities in the U.S., based on earlier guidelines around private lab diagnostics, but on March 26 the FDA named 29 entities who had provided notification to the agency as required and are now therefore able to distribute their tests.

It’s important to note that these tests have not been reviewed or validated by the FDA, unlike those molecular tests that are included in the organizations emergency use category. Instead, the FDA “does not intend to object to the development and distribution by commercial manufacturers” of these tests, provided they meet a number of criteria, including qualifying the results of their reported test results with the following information:

  • This test has not been reviewed by the FDA.
  • Negative results do not rule out SARS-CoV-2 infection, particularly in those who have been in contact with the virus. Follow-up testing with a molecular diagnostic should be considered to rule out infection in these individuals.
  • Results from antibody testing should not be used as the sole basis to diagnose or exclude SARS-CoV-2 infection or to inform infection status.
  • Positive results may be due to past or present infection with non-SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus strains, such as coronavirus HKU1, NL63, OC43, or 229E.

The FDA specifically notes in its emergency use FAQ that these entities have reported their own validation of these tests, and that they won’t be pursuing Emergency Use Authorization. That said, there’s now nothing stopping the entities on this list from distributing their tests, which means they will be able to be put to use in testing Americans and painting a larger picture of the potential spread of the novel coronavirus – with the caveat noted above that the FDA doesn’t consider these tests used alone to be positive confirmation of a definite SARS-CoV-2 case, or conversely, a sure indicator that someone doesn’t have the virus.

Still, in the absence of better options like expanded available of the tests that are approved under the EUA, these serological tests (many of which can provide on-site results with just a pinprick of blood) will be useful in painting a more accurate picture of the overall spread and reach of the coronavirus, especially for smaller clinics, GP clinics and local labs that don’t have priority access to the equipment and supplies needed for the molecular testing efforts.

For instance, ne test on this list, the Healgen Scientific COVID-19 IgG/IgM (Whole Blood/Serum/Plasma) Rapid Test Device, requires no instrumentation and can provide results in just 15 minutes. Distributor Ideal Rehab Care is working with its legal representation Fox Rothschild to begin importing the tests from Singapore for use “as soon as possible.”

The FDA updating its website with Healgen as one of the entities that have notified it of intent to use its serological test is what unlocked the ability for the company to begin distribution: It’s still illegal for anyone not on this list to do so, and the FDA still also specifically prohibits the use of at-home serological tests on its official guidelines.

TuSimple partners with supplier ZF to mass produce self-driving truck tech

By Kirsten Korosec

Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale.

The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America. The two companies will co-develop sensors needed in autonomous vehicle technology such as cameras, lidar, radar and a central compute. As part of the partnership, ZF will contribute engineering support to validate and integrate TuSimple’s autonomous system into the vehicle.

TuSimple launched in 2015 and has operations in China, San Diego and Tucson, Ariz. The company has been working on a “full-stack solution,” an industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

TuSimple has managed to scale up its operations and attract investors even as other companies in the nascent autonomous vehicle technology industry have faltered. The company has raised nearly $300 million to date from investors such as Sina, UPS and Tier 1 supplier Mando Corporation. It’s now making about 20 autonomous trips between Arizona and Texas each week with a fleet of more than 40 autonomous trucks. All of the trucks have a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The partnership is an important milestone for TuSimple as the startup prepares to bring autonomous-ready trucks to market, TuSimple chief product officer Chuck Price said in a statement. The plan is for TuSimple to combine its self-driving software with ZF’s ability to build automotive grade products.

The partnership doesn’t remove every barrier for TuSimple. Moving from development to deployment takes millions of dollars of investment. If a company can move from testing to commercial deployment, it must still navigate daily operations efficiently in the aim of becoming profitable.

Major automakers Toyota, Honda, FCA extend factory closures

By Kirsten Korosec

Toyota, Honda and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will not reopen North American factories at the end of the month as planned as the COVID-19 disease spreads and dampens demand for new cars, trucks and SUVs.

FCA said Thursday that plants across the U.S. and Canada, as well as headquarters operations and construction projects, are intended to remain closed until April 14, dependent upon the various states’ stay-in-place orders and the readiness of each facility to return to production.

FCA’s Mopar Parts Distribution centers, which have been deemed essential to keeping first responders and commercial vehicles on the road, will continue to operate with paid volunteers. The status of production for FCA’s Mexico operations will be subject to a separate announcement, the company said in a statement emailed Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ford, Toyota and Honda also announced plans to extend closures. Ford will also said it will extend its closure until April 7.

Honda also said will keep all of its automobile, engine and transmission plants in the U.S. and Canada closed into the first week of April. Operations will resume on April 7, Honda said.

“This extension is in response to the continued steep decline in market demand across the automotive industry due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, resulting in the inability of consumers in many markets to purchase new vehicles,” Honda said in an emailed statement. “As the market impact of the fast-changing COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, Honda will evaluate conditions and make additional adjustments as necessary. In undertaking this production adjustment, Honda is continuing to manage its business carefully through a measured approach to sales that aligns production with market demand.”

Toyota said its manufacturing facilities will remain closed through April 17 and will resume production on April 20. Toyota has numerous factories in North America, including Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and Baja California, Mexico and Guanajuato, Mexico.

Toyota said its service parts depots and vehicle logistics centers will continue to operate.

Earlier this month, major automakers suspended productions at factories across the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Most had planned to restart March 31. Now as that date gets closer, a number of automakers are pushing back plans to restart production.

COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has caused upheaval across every major industry as governments issue stay-at-home orders or directives for nonessential businesses to close in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic. Closures first hit China, where the first cases of COVID-19 popped up three months. Those factories are now coming back online as plants in Europe and North America shut down temporarily.

UK researchers develop new low-cost, rapid COVID-19 test that could even be used at home

By Darrell Etherington

A new type of test developed by UK researchers from the Brunel University London, Lancaster University and the University of Surrey can provide COVID-19 detection in as little as 30 minutes, using hand-held hardware that costs as little as £100 (around $120 USD) with individual swab sample kits that cost around $5 per person. The test is based on existing technology that has been used in the Philippines for testing viral spread in chickens, but it’s been adapted by researchers for use with COVID-19 in humans, and the team is now working on ramping mass production.

This test would obviously need approval by local health regulatory bodies like the FDA before it goes into active use in any specific geography, but the researchers behind the project are “confident it will respond well,” and say they could even make it available for use “within a few weeks.” The hardware itself is battery-operated and connects to a smartphone application to display diagnostic results and works with nasal or throat swabs, without requiring that samples be round-tripped to a lab.

There are other tests already approved for use that use similar methods for on-site testing, including kits and machines from Cepheid and Mesa Biotech. These require expensive dedicated table-top micro-labs, however, which is installed in dedicated healthcare facilities including hospitals. This test from UK scientists has the advantage of running on inexpensive hardware, with testing capabilities for up to six people at once, which can be deployed in doctor’s offices, hospitals and even potentially workplaces and homes for truly widespread, accessible testing.

Some frontline, rapid results tests are already in use in the EU and China, but these are generally serological tests that rely on the presence of antibodies, whereas this group’s diagnostics are molecular, so it can detect the presence of viral DNA even before antibodies are present. This equipment could even potentially be used to detect the virus in asymptomatic individuals who are self-isolating at home, the group notes, which would go a long way to scoping out the portion of the population that’s not currently a priority for other testing methods, but that could provide valuable insight into the true extend of silent, community-based transmission of the coronavirus.

New study casts doubt on hyrdoxychloroquine’s effectiveness in treating coronavirus

By Darrell Etherington

In a prime example of why President Trump shouldn’t be endorsing any unproven potential treatments for the novel coronavirus behind the current global pandemic, a new small-scale study by researchers in China indicates that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine actually isn’t any more effective than standard, existing best practice for conventional care of patients with the virus.

The study, which included 30 patients with a control of 15 who received no treatment, with the other half being treated with hydroxychloroquine, showed that there was a statistically insignificant difference in the number of patients who tested negative for the drug after a week. During the study, those who received conventional treatment were provided anti-virals that are currently recommended for use in China, including Iopinavir and ritonavir. After a week, 13 of the 15 control patients showed no sign of the virus, while 14 of the 15 who were treated with hydroxychloroquine showed the same.

An earlier small-scale study of 30 patients by French researchers published last week had shown indication that hydroxychloroquine used alone was effective in reducing the duration and severity of COVID-19, while using it in combination with an antibiotic called azithromycin increased its effectiveness. The study has been criticized by some for its methods – which is the entire purpose of scientific study and medical research, wherein people submit their studies for peer review prior to publication, and then other researchers challenge their assumptions, results and findings.

Trump is obviously not a scientist or medical professional, and yet he has been touting the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine during the White House’s daily coronavirus task force press briefings, and on Twitter, including when he called for them to be “put in use IMMEDIATELY” on March 21. The drug can be lethal in doses that exceed physician’s guidance, however, and a Phoenix-area couple subsequently self-medicated with a form of chloroquine used for cleaning aquariums, citing the President’s information about it as the cause of their decision to take it.

White House task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci has attempted to dissuade anyone from reading too much into what amount to scattered and early scientific research results, but Fauci seems to be falling out of favor with Trump and has not appeared on recent task force briefings.

The bottom line is that all of these potential treatments require, as Fauci has said, proper large-scale clinical trials before any definitive statements can be made about their efficacy against the coronavirus one way or the other. Relying on small scale investigations means that you will see variances in results, which is why you do large-scale testing with proper controls to arrive at more consistent and verifiable research.

Medical professionals around the world are working tirelessly to research various forms of treatment, and to launch exactly these kinds of clinical trials, but they will take time to produce results – and then corroborating research will need to be conducted to show that their results are repeatable and reliable. Meanwhile, treatment using unproven methods will continue due to the severe and life-threatening nature of this disease, which has encouraged the FDA to allow case-by-case use of methods without formal approval on compassionate and investigatory grounds. That said, no one (least of all the President) should be pointing to these as proven solutions before public health agencies have actually done the work to certify them as such.

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

By Kirsten Korosec

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Nonprofit aims to get COVID-19 field tests, N95 masks and more to healthcare workers without markups

By Darrell Etherington

A new Sydney-based nonprofit volunteer organization called RapidWard launched this week, with a focus on getting critical medical supplies from producers in China to healthcare professionals, doctors, hospitals and governments worldwide who need them. The group, founded by serial entrepreneur and advisor Milton Zhou, has ample supply chain experience and recognized the need for a solution that focused on establishing distribution pathways that eschew markups in order to make supplies available at-cost.

Zhou, Australian-born founder of Chinese descent who leads Australian sustainable energy company Maoneng as CEO, has been following the coronavirus pandemic and the impact its had in terms of incurring panic buying and hoarding behaviour for much-needed medical equipment. Through existing personal connections, Zhou says that he has access to a factory in China that produces a type of test kit used broadly in that nation’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 (and approved by its equivalent of the FDA).

These kits can produce results in just 15 minutes, using a serological assay that looks for the presence of antibodies in a patient’s bloodstream. This differs from the PCR type of test that is currently in use in the U.S., which looks for the presence of viral DNA in patient mucus samples collected via swab. While the serological test can’t detect COVID-19 during the incubation period, it is reliable once symptoms begin to present, and could help greatly with in-situ diagnostic efforts for patients already presenting with known indicators – freeing up PCR tests for broader use, including asymptomatic screening.

These kits can be provided in volumes of 70,000 per day by RapidWard’s suppliers, the company says, and will be available at the cost of production and shipping of $12 per test. Zhou said that RapidWard is also sourcing lab-free 15-minute saliva-based tests that are in use in both Korea and China, and that can be supplied at a volume of up to 20 units per day.

RapidWard’s supplies also include disposable N95 masks that meet the standards of the FDA and the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, and its partners can produce them (to FDA specs) at a volume of up to 100,000 per day. As with the tests, RapidWard’s focus is on sourcing and supplying these at-cost, without any markups or profits for the organization itself.

Right now, the company is focused on working with and supplying official health organizations and governments in need, but it does have a means for individuals to sign up to register interest, since it plans on offering equipment directly to consumers should supply ever catch up to a point where it’s meeting critical health professional demand and that becomes possible.

RapidWard is encouraging any government or medical institution in need of supplies to get in touch. Even if it can’t provision directly, Zhou says they’re interested in working with these parties to sort out supply chains in China wherever they’re able.

Ford, 3M, GE and the UAW to build respirators, ventilators and faceshields for coronavirus fight

By Darrell Etherington

Ford announced the details of its current manufacturing efforts around building much-needed medical supplies for front-line healthcare workers and COVID-19 patients on Tuesday. Its efforts include building Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) with partner 3M, including a new design that employs existing parts from both partners to deliver effectiveness and highly-scalable production capacity.

Ford says that it’s also going to be building face shields, leaning on its 3D printing capabilities, with an anticipated production rate of over 100,000 units per week. These are key pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by frontline healthcare staff to protect them against virus-containing droplets that are spread by patients through coughing and sneezing in clinical settings. The company has designed a new face shield, which will be tested with the first 1,000 units this week at Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Health Systems and Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace Hospitals in Michigan to evaluate their efficacy. Provided they perform as planned, Ford anticipates scaling to building 75,000 by end of week, with 100,000 able to be made in one of the company’s Plymouth, MI production facilities each week thereafter.

The automaker is also going to be working with GE on expanding production capacity for GE Healthcare’s ventilator, with a simplified design that should allow for higher volume production. That’s part of a response to a U.S. government request for more units to support healthcare needs, the company said. On top of its U.S.-focused ventilator project with GE, Ford is also working on a separate effort to spin up ventilator production targeting the UK based on a request for aid from that country’s government, and it’s also shipping back 165,000 N95 respirator masks that were sent by the company from the U.S. to China earlier this year, since the need for that equipment is now greater back in the U.S., the company said, and China’s situation continues to improve.

Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted that U.S. automakers, including Ford, GM and Tesla had received the “go ahead” to make “ventilators and other metal products, fast.”

“We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and looking into the feasibility,” Ford spokesperson Rachel McCleery said at the time in a statement to TechCrunch . “It’s vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever.”

Based on this update, it seems like Ford did indeed move quickly to take stock of where it could contribute, and in what capacity. The company will be looking at using both its own and partner facilities to produce this much-needed medical equipment, it said on Tuesday during a press conference call about the announcement, and it’ll also be leveraging existing parts and equipment to speed production capabilities and capacity.

The PAPRs that Ford is building, for instance, will use off-the-shelf components from the automaker’s F-150 truck’s cooled seating, as well as 3M’s existing HEPA filters. These respirators could potentially offer significant advantages in use compared to N95s, since they are battery-powered and can filter airborne virus particles for up to eight hours on a single, swappable standard power tool battery pack worn at the waist. Asked about production timelines and capacity, 3M Global Technical Director Mike Kesti said that they’re still working that out, with a focus on how Ford can supplement existing PAPR production before moving into producing their new version.

“[Ford is] helping us expand the capacity of our existing units,” Kesti said. “So impact will be over the next days and weeks to just increase capacity of our existing [PAPR]. But we’re also working closely together with them the leverage components both from Ford, that they have available, and 3M, particularly our filters that meet the NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] regulatory requirements, and trying to integrate that into a modified design that will meet the NIOSH regulation performance requirements, and scale it up as as quickly as possible.”

Ford is also assisting 3M with ramping production of its existing N95 respiratory masks, Kesti said.

Ford and GE don’t yet have a timeline, or estimates of production capacity for the new types of ventilators they’re working on either, but the team is “working feverishly to get to the release point,” according to GE Healthcare VP and Chief Quality Officer Tom Westrick.

“We don’t have specific timelines and numbers related to the to the design and the release of the new ventilators,” he said. “Although, obviously this is of utmost importance to both us and Ford.”

LetsBeatCOVID.net launches to track the spread of the Coronavirus in the UK/US

By Mike Butcher

A startup behind one of the world’s most successful tech platforms for doctors has launched a new initiative to try and track the spread of the Coronavirus, initially in the UK but soon in the US.

Developed by MedShr – the app used by a million doctors to aid them in the diagnostic process – LetsBeatCOVID.net is designed to allow members of the public to complete a short survey about their health and exposure to COVID-19 in order that health services can save more lives.

Members of the public are asked to complete a short anonymous survey about themselves and are able to add information for others in their household or family. They can then update their responses if their situation changes using a randomly generated code to log back in. MedShr says users will, therefore, be able to hide their identity if they are concerned about their privacy. They will, however, be asked to verify their location via the phone’s browser in order to generate more accurate data about the spread of symptoms.
 
Anyone who completes the survey and chooses to enter their email will also get personalized guidance to help them understand their personal situation.

The not-for-profit initiative is led by Dr Asif Qasim, a Consultant Cardiologist based in London, England. Dr Qasim founded MedShr, an online network that enables doctors to connect and share data and knowledge with each other, in 2013.

Dr. Qasim said: “A million doctors around the world are working very hard to protect patients with COVID-19 in difficult and unprecedented circumstances. We are hearing from them that they don’t have the information they need to plan services and avert a crisis such as the one Italy is now facing. We believe this app could help.” Dr. Qasim says the data will be shared with health authorities fighting the pandemic.

LetsBeatCOVID.net could make it easier for members of the public to provide the information urgently needed by hospitals and governments by allowing hospitals to understand how many people are: more likely to require medical help or hospitalization; have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 but do not have any symptoms; have mild symptoms of COVID-19; or believe or know they have already had COVID-19 and recovered.

The spread and devastating impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is unprecedented. Hospitals in China and Italy have struggled to care for the large numbers of people who become infected with the virus, especially those who needed Intensive Care and breathing support with a ventilator. Doctors and scientists believe that the UK, US and many other countries could be just a few weeks away from the devastating death toll that Italy is now experiencing. 

MedShr is a HIPAA and GDPR compliant professional network for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals currently used by over one million members in 190 countries.

Stocks fall again on continued coronavirus worries

By Jonathan Shieber

Is it good news to say that stocks fell less sharply than they had on previous days?

That’s the bright side of another turbulent trading day across the Nasdaq and New York Stock Exchange. The major indices were down again — although their declines were less severe than they had been during the week.

Investors appeared to shake off positive labor statistics (the U.S. added 273,000 jobs, ahead of expectations), as the expanding number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. and lack of a coordinated response from the Trump Administration took their toll on investor confidence that the impact on the economy would be minimal.

With that said, things could have been worse?

The Dow fell 256.50 points, or just under 1%, to close at 25,864.78, while the S&P stumbled 51.57 points, or 1.7%, to close at 2,972.37 while the Nasdaq slid 1.8%, or 162.98 to close at 8,575.62. The benchmark indices are in the territory of a market correction — hovering at around a 10% loss already on the year.

For startups, it’s important to note that these market pressures can have implications for their businesses. Jittery buyers may be inclined to curb spending and save to conserve cash on their own balance sheets; consumers may rethink priorities and focus on essential purchases as they tighten their own belts.

Sequoia Capital warned in a blog post yesterday that things may change as time rolls along and the global economy stutters.

Here’s their take:

  • Drop in business activity. Some companies have seen their growth rates drop sharply between December and February. Several companies that were on track are now at risk of missing their Q1–2020 plans as the effects of the virus ripple wider.
  • Supply chain disruptions. The unprecedented lockdown in China is directly impacting global supply chains. Hardware, direct-to-consumer, and retailing companies may need to find alternative suppliers. Pure software companies are less exposed to supply chain disruptions, but remain at risk due to cascading economic effects.
  • Curtailment of travel and canceled meetings. Many companies have banned all “non-essential” travel and some have banned all international travel. While travel companies are directly impacted, all companies that depend on in-person meetings to conduct sales, business development, or partnership discussions are being affected.

This isn’t the first time that one of the country’s most successful venture capital firms has warned its portfolio about the possibility of an economic crisis. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis the firm issued an infamous slide deck warning “RIP Good Times”.

For financial markets the funeral bells are already tolling in the early part of the year. Now, a reckoning may be coming for startups that were on the edge of the bubble.

Delivery startups set up contactless delivery options as coronavirus fears grow in U.S.

By Sarah Buhr

Postmates announced today it would be adding a “non-contact delivery option,” for those concerned about COVID-19 exposure from workers bringing them food. Instacart set up something similar earlier this week, announcing sales were 10x higher this week over last due to coronavirus concerns and rolling out the “leave it at my door” option for customers concerned about coronavirus.

This flu-like virus has already infected nearly 100,000 people worldwide, killing thousands, including one man so far in the Bay Area, the hub of Silicon Valley and the startup world.

Similar services starting offering this contactless option in China last month, where COVID-19 took a stronghold and started spreading from Wuhan. The majority of stores in the area had closed shop, leaving delivery as most people’s only option. The contactless measure seemed aimed at keeping everyone safe and minimizing exposure.

Lmaoo postmates gets it pic.twitter.com/4t1fc5sxzV

— Teal (@teal_xo) March 6, 2020

While plenty of customers have praised this effort, not everyone is pleased, believing this move is just passing the buck to low-wage workers.

This new option from Postmates is the most cynical thing I’ve seen today. Come on, cook at home instead of moving risk down the inequality ladder… pic.twitter.com/AiMIbn5LWy

— Romain Dillet 🙃 (@romaindillet) March 6, 2020

Postmates counters this argument, telling TechCrunch the move is beneficial to both customers and couriers. “Community health and safety is paramount at Postmates, and we have shared precautionary CDC guidance with our Postmates,” a Postmates spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Customers have an option to designate the drop-off of item without contact; and we’ll continue to encourage employees, merchants and consumers to follow preventative measures. While we are operating with business as usual, we are tracking the situation closely and will help provide the resources necessary to mitigate increased risks.”

Instacart mentioned similar sentiment, telling Techcrunch, “Our goal is to continue to work with and serve the entire Instacart community safely, while also ensuring our customers have access to uninterrupted delivery and pickup services for the groceries and household essentials they need.”

For those who like this option and want to use it, just order as normal on Postmates. You’ll then be prompted to select your delivery preference before checking out. The option is similar with your Instacart order.

While we’ve so far only heard this option is being offered by these two delivery startups, we’re likely going to see more contactless rollouts as coronavirus fears continue to change our shopping habits in the next couple of months.

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