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Starlink Satellites Are Now Invisible to The Naked Eye, But Astronomers Still See Them

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SpaceX is on course to rocket tens of thousands of satellites into Earth’s orbit, part of Elon Musk‘s plan to blanket the planet in high-speed internet. For the first time, data shows that the company may be able to accomplish this feat without marring everyone’s view of the night sky.

 

When the first bright trails of the company’s Starlink satellites paraded across the night in May 2019, scientists feared that it was a preview of a future in which points of moving light swarm the skies and overshadow the stars.

But Starlink may now be largely invisible to the naked eye, according to a new analysis. The paper suggests that new sun-visors added to the most recent 415 satellites SpaceX has launched may have significantly darkened them.

The visors deploy after launch and block sunlight from reflecting off the satellites’ shiniest surfaces.

These “VisorSats,” as SpaceX calls the satellites with this built-in feature, are on average 31 percent as bright as the 540 Starlink satellites that came before them, according to the paper.

The research, which was based on 430 observations of satellites flying overhead, was published Saturday on the open repository ArXiv.

However, this visor improvement still leaves the satellites about 2.5 times brighter than SpaceX’s goal, and they’re still far too bright for telescopes to be unaffected. The visors probably won’t prevent Starlink from permanently changing ground-based astronomy.

“It’s a win, but not a complete victory,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Centre for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian, told Business Insider.

 

“It’s a win for the worry about changing the night sky for the average person,” he added. “I think we’ve avoided that fate.”

But for telescopes, the skies could still be swarming with false stars in just a few years, making it nearly impossible to get a clear look at the cosmos. That could hamper efforts to study celestial bodies and protect the Earth from deadly asteroids.

SpaceX has launched more than 950 Starlink satellites into Earth’s orbit over the last two years. Early iterations of the internet service have provided broadband-like performance in rural America.

The company has permission from the Federal Communications Commission to rocket 12,000 satellites into orbit by mid-2027. Its filings suggest a long-term plan involving 42,000 spacecraft; 20 times the total number of working satellites pre-Starlink.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment and has not shared its own data on the VisorSats’ brightness.

Starlink satellites are photobombing telescope observations

In the new analysis, engineer Tony Mallama calculated that the visored Starlink satellites have a magnitude, or brightness, of 5.92. This means that under certain conditions, you could still see them with the naked eye.

“In most circumstances, even in fairly dark sites, they’re going to be just below naked-eye visibility; or most of them are,” McDowell said.

 

SpaceX has said its minimum goal is to get the satellites to magnitude 7, which would be more than 2.5 times darker than they are now and well below naked-eye visibility.

But even then, Starlink could still photobomb telescope observations and ruin astronomers’ data.

A single satellite can create a continuous streak of light across a telescope’s long-exposure images of the sky, blocking the objects astronomers want to study. Satellites can especially affect telescopes that observe objects close to the horizon near dawn; and those are the observations that help astronomers track asteroids flying close to Earth.

“Some projects really won’t mind this. Other projects we’ll have to really rethink, and some will be impossible,” McDowell previously told Business Insider.

Satellites also broadcast radiowaves and emit invisible wavelengths of light, like infrared. That can interfere with telescopes that use those waves to observe the Universe.

Even for Earth-orbiting space telescopes like Hubble, the satellites may frequently streak across a field of view and ruin hard-won images of deep space.

“We’re in a new phase of space utilization. It’s a new space industrial revolution, things are different, and astronomy’s going to be affected,” McDowell said in August.

“We just have to make sure we’re part of the conversation so we can keep it down to the ‘pain in the neck’ level and not the ‘give up and go home’ level.”

 

Satellite regulations don’t take astronomy into account

Musk has said the Starlink service could eventually fund SpaceX missions to Mars. But the company isn’t the only one planning a constellation of satellites.

Companies like Amazon and OneWeb aim to establish their own fleets of thousands of satellites, and a Chinese company called GW has filed a proposal to launch a constellation of nearly 13,000 satellites.

McDowell is particularly concerned about OneWeb, which has proposed sending its satellites to a much higher altitude than Starlink. That would make them visible for longer portions of the night. If that project goes forward as planned, McDowell said, it will be “pretty impossible” to do most ground-based observations during the summer.

OneWeb satellites will appear about as bright as SpaceX’s VisorSats, according to Mallama’s analysis.

The FCC, which authorizes the flight and use of internet satellites in the US, has said that preventing disruption to astronomy is “not a condition” for licensing.

McDowell said he would like to see the FCC, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the United Nations hammer out satellite regulations that would take such impacts into consideration.

“There’s some relief that, yeah, they did manage to make their Starlinks a little less bright. And that was nice that they chose to work with the community, ” McDowell said.

“But it doesn’t take away the need for a more regulatory approach; a global regulatory approach.”

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Early Results Suggest Pfizer Vaccine Will Work Against Coronavirus Mutations

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The COVID-19 vaccine from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech looks to be effective against 16 different mutations of the coronavirus, according to a study that has not yet undergone peer review.

 

As Reuters reported, the study, by researchers at Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch, suggests the vaccine will not need to be tweaked in order to work against a seemingly more contagious variant of the coronavirus that arose in the UK.

The British variant, known as B117, was recently detected in the United States among people who had not travelled to the UK, indicating community spread.

Viral mutations are a typical occurrence and is there no indication that any to date have made COVID-19 more dangerous than it already is. And while vaccines can be tweaked to address new variations, there is no sign that is necessary yet.

“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” Phil Dormitzer, a scientist at Pfizer, said Thursday. “That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”

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A Baby Was Born With Protective Antibodies After Mom Had COVID-19 During Pregnancy

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When Celine Ng-Chan was 10 weeks pregnant, she was diagnosed with COVID-19. Back then, in March, even less was known about how the coronavirus affected pregnant women and their future children.

 

But now that Ng-Chan, a private tutor in Singapore, gave birth to her son Aldrin in early November, the news is encouraging both for Ng-Chan and other women who have or contract COVID-19 when pregnant.

Aldrin is COVID-19-free and appears to have acquired protective antibodies at least temporarily from his mother’s illness, Ng-Chan told the Straits Times. Ng-Chan wasn’t COVID-19 positive during delivery.

“My pregnancy and birth was smooth sailing despite being diagnosed with COVID-19 in my first trimester, which is the most unstable stage of the pregnancy. I’m very blessed to have Aldrin and he came out very healthy,” Ng-Chan said. “I feel relieved my COVID-19 journey is finally over now.”

Her story adds a face to research suggesting that mother-to-infant COVID-19 transmission is rare, and that babies born to women who’ve had the illness may be somewhat protected, Dr. Jessica Madden, a paediatrician and neonatologist who serves as medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, told Insider.

Some COVID-19 antibodies seem to cross the placenta

Small studies have suggested that COVID-positive mothers pass on IgG antibodies – the type that indicate recovery – against the virus to their fetuses in utero.

One March paper of six women who tested positive for the virus at delivery, for instance, found five of the babies had elevated levels of IgG antibodies even though none had COVID-19. All of the women wore masks, delivered their babies via C-section in negative-pressure isolation rooms, and were isolated from their children immediately after delivery – something more recent research has suggested is unnecessary.

 

An October case report also describes an infant born to a mum with asymptomatic COVID-19 who had IgG antibodies but a negative COVID test, demonstrating “passive immunity” through the placenta, the authors write.

In some ways, this is expected, since IgG antibodies against other bacteria and viruses are known to protect fetuses and newborns against infectious diseases, Madden told Insider.

“This is the reason why certain vaccines, like pertussis and flu, are recommended during pregnancy,” she said. “IgG antibodies increase in fetuses later in pregnancy, especially after the 36-week gestation mark.”

Still, more research is needed to understand how severity of illness affects antibody levels, how time of infection during pregnancy plays a role, and how strong and long-lasting babies’ presumed immunity is.

One study out of Wuhan, China, including 24 COVID-19-positive pregnant women suggested any immunity in newborns wanes quickly.

What’s more, Madden said, “we do not know if having COVID-19 prior to pregnancy will provide IgG immunity to fetuses who are conceived after a mother has already recovered from the virus.”

Breast milk has detectable antibodies too

The breast milk of mums recently infected with COVID-19 is also believed to offer some protection to newborns. One preprint study in September showed that of 37 milk samples, none had detectable virus but all had antibodies thought to neutralise COVID-19.

This too isn’t entirely surprising since some breast milk antibodies are known to help protect babies from various diseases like measles while they’re too young to receive a vaccine. Breastfeeding is also associated with a lower risk of conditions including diabetes, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome, and some gastrointestinal illnesses.

Those benefits outweigh the still-yet-unseen risks of breastfeeding with COVID-19, according to top health organisations like the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, as long as new mums with the illness take precautions like wearing a mask and washing their hands and breasts before nursing.

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On The Eve of Thanksgiving, The US Recorded Its Highest COVID-19 Death Toll Since May

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Thanksgiving could not be better designed to be a coronavirus superspreading event.

Already, COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are skyrocketing around the US, approaching a new peak. Thanksgiving will likely accelerate that uptick, allowing the virus to enter millions of densely-packed and insufficiently-ventilated homes.

 

As of Thursday, at least 12.8 million Americans have tested positive for coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University

The COVID Tracking Project reported that nearly 90,000 people in the US were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, with hospitalizations breaking national records daily for the past 16 days.

More than 262,400 Americans have died of COVID-19, and more than 2,300 of them died on Wednesday alone. This week marks the first time the US has surpassed 2,000 daily deaths since early May, per The New York Times.

It’s been more than 10 months since the first coronavirus case was detected in the US, but these grim milestones are becoming more frequent.

Still, President Donald Trump, who tested positive in October, has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, insisting that the country is “rounding the turn” and that COVID-19 will “just disappear”

The White House is even planning indoor holiday parties over Christmas and Hanukkah, officials told Axios.

The opportunity to ‘translocate disease’ across the US

Health experts have urged Americans to reimagine Thanksgiving and the 2020 holiday season and avoid situations where they can contract or transmit the virus. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has asked people to avoid mixing households and to hold small, brief, and masked gatherings that are outdoors, if possible.

Travel has been a major point of concern with the CDC categorising medium-sized events with people travelling from outside the area as “higher-risk”.

“Right now, as we’re seeing exponential growth in cases and the opportunity to translocate disease or infection from one part of the country to another leads to our recommendation to avoid travel at this time,” Dr. Henry Walke, the COVID-19 incident manager at the CDC, told reporters on November 19.

 

One in 3 Americans aren’t changing their plans

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, made a “final plea before the holiday” while speaking to ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday.

“We all know how difficult that is because this is such a beautiful, traditional holiday. But by making that sacrifice, you’re going to prevent people from getting infected,” said Fauci, whose own daughters declined to travel home for Thanksgiving in a bid to protect their 79-year-old father.

He added: “If we can just hang in there a bit longer and continue to do the simple mitigation things that we’re talking about all the time – the masks, the distancing, the avoiding crowds, particularly indoors. If we do those things, we’re going to get through it.”

Still, not everyone has heeded this advice. An Insider poll of 1,110 people in the US revealed that nearly one in three people surveyed – or 37 percent – are not doing things differently this year. And 57 percent of respondents said they plan to bring different households together around their dinner tables in the absence of masks and open windows.

Airports are also seeing a surge in travellers. The Transportation Security Administration reported screening more than 1 million passengers last Friday and then again on Sunday and on Wednesday. These have been the biggest days for air travel since March 16, per the agency’s logs.

 

Daily COVID-19 deaths could double in the next 10 days

Meanwhile, the CDC published a forecast on Wednesday projecting an increase in coronavirus deaths over the next four weeks, with between 10,600 and 21,400 new deaths likely to be reported the week of December 19.

“The national ensemble predicts that a total of 294,000 to 321,000 COVID-19 deaths will be reported by this date,” the CDC said.

Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine at George Washington University, predicted to CNN that daily recorded deaths will not simply jump but double in the coming 10 days.

5fbfe16d037cbd0018612804Daily new COVID-19 deaths in the US. (Worldometers)

There’s about a two-week lag between people getting infected and winding up in hospitals, with symptoms showing up around five to seven days in.

“We’ll be seeing close to 4,000 deaths a day,” he said on Thursday.

And as it gets colder and people move indoors, experts are concerned about a “humanitarian crisis,” Dr. John Brownstein from Boston Children’s Hospital, told ABC News.

“If we layer in travel and large indoor gatherings which we know are drivers of transmission, we expect to see a massive surge on top of an already dire situation,” he said.

 

Michael Osterholm, the director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, echoed that sentiment.

“I worry that the Thanksgiving Day surge will then just add into what will become the Christmas surge, which will then make this one seem as if it wasn’t so bad,” he told CNN, adding, “We have to understand we’re in a very dangerous place. People have to stop swapping air. It’s just that simple.”

Already, medical resources across the country are being stretched thin, with nurses and doctors working around the clock and risking exposure to the coronavirus themselves.

Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of staff at United Memorial Medical Centre in Houston, Texas, told CNN that the pandemic has forced him to work 251 days in a row. His hospital is at maximum capacity, and scrambling to open two new wings in preparation for an influx of patients after Thanksgiving.

Varon described treating people amid the pandemic as “a never-ending story,” and warned of a rapidly deteriorating situation nationwide, without proper precautions.

“My concerns for the next six to 12 weeks is that if we don’t do things right, America is going to see the darkest days in modern American medical history,” he said.

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US Could Have 1 Million Daily Virus Cases by The End of The Year, Report Finds

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In March, when New York City hospitals were reeling from an overwhelming surge of coronavirus cases, the US was only catching a glimpse of the bigger crisis to come.

The highest number of cases ever recorded in one day this spring was around 35,000, though many went uncounted. Now, the US has recorded an average of more than 112,000 daily cases over the last seven days. Cases reached an all-time peak of more than 132,000 on Friday.

 

On Monday, the US surpassed 10 million total cases – just 10 days after cases topped 9 million. Before that, it took two weeks for cases to rise from 8 million to 9 million, and three weeks for cases to jump from 7 million to 8 million.

The nation’s weekly per cent positivity rate – the share of coronavirus tests that come back positive – has reached 9 percent. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the rate should ideally sit below 3 percent. Only six states and Washington, DC, currently meet that threshold. Half of states have test-positivity rates in the double digits. South Dakota’s rate is highest, at around 54 percent.

Experts predict this fall-winter surge will be the largest, and perhaps deadliest, yet. Indeed, the second surge the country experienced over the summer, from June through August, resulted in nearly 4.2 million cases. Since September, the US has already recorded about 4 million more.

According to a recent prediction from Pantheon Macroeconomics, the US could be on track to record 1 million daily coronavirus cases by the end of 2020 if average cases continue to grow 34 percent from week to week, as they are currently.

new daily cases bi chart

The US is ‘about to enter COVID hell’

Other models offer more conservative, albeit still troubling, estimates.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, for instance, predicts that daily cases could peak at nearly 306,000 on December 31. (The institute defines daily cases as all infections on a given day, not just new cases identified through testing.)

 

If states continue to relax restrictions, the model suggests the fall-winter surge could be even worse, reaching a peak of nearly 793,000 daily cases on January 23. The institute’s model predicts that 160,000 more people in the US could die of the coronavirus from now through February 1.

“I am tremendously concerned,” Megan Ranney, an emergency-medicine physician at Brown University, told Business Insider.

“The other surges were very localised,” she added. “This is different because it is truly nationwide.”

Weekly hospitalizations have also risen about 18 percent from week to week. If that trend continues, daily hospitalizations could triple to 180,000 by the end of the year.

On Monday, Dr. Michael Osterholm, a recent appointee to President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus advisory board, told CNBC that the US was “about to enter COVID hell.”

But public-experts say the US can lower daily cases – and consequently, deaths – this winter, before a vaccine hits the market. The solution would involve more lockdown restrictions.

Lockdown measures could prevent a worst-case scenario

In a Monday report, Pantheon Macroeconomics’ chief economist, Ian Sherpherdson, warned that the US should brace for the worst-case scenario of 1 million daily cases this winter. The longer states and cities wait to impose lockdown restrictions, he added, the more likely that scenario becomes.

“When it gets as bad as it appears to be in some parts of the country, and potentially others in the weeks to come, you really have little choice left than to do a short-term lockdown, trying to get the numbers down to a point where testing and contact tracing can actually have an impact,” Marissa Levine, a public-health professor at the University of South Florida, told Business Insider. “I hate to say that because we didn’t necessarily have to be in this position.”

 

Many states are taking the opposite approach, however.

In October, Texas began allowing counties with relatively few coronavirus hospitalizations to reopen bars and other businesses at limited capacity. Pennsylvania, too, started permitting venues like concerts and stadiums to operate at 10 percent to 25 percent occupancy. Restaurants in South Carolina have been able to operate at full capacity since October 2.

Other states have reinstated some restrictions, but not nearly to the extent that they did in the spring.

Illinois, Massachussetts, and New Mexico recently imposed curfews that limit how late certain businesses can remain open. Illinois began prohibiting indoor dining in bars and restaurants earlier this month. And at the end of October, Michigan reduced the maximum capacity at indoor venues from 500 people to 50.

Some other states – including Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, and North Carolina – have simply put their reopening plans on pause.

Public-health experts say it’s likely that under a Biden administration, states may get more concrete guidelines as to when they can safely reopen or should enact new restrictions. Biden’s campaign website at one time stated that if elected, he would tailor reopening guidelines to individual communities based on their levels of transmission.

 

But any lockdown is likely to be met with some opposition, due to a combination of pandemic fatigue and politics.

“Even if we make it completely clear: ‘This is the line, if you cross this line, you should shut down,’ it’s still ultimately a political decision,” Ingrid Katz, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, told Business Insider. “If decisions are being driven by forces other than science, then they are not always going to be decisions that are in people’s best interests.”

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Infectious-Disease Expert Urges For Caution Over Pfizer’s Vaccine. Here’s Why

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On Monday, Pfizer marked a milestone in society’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, announcing its experimental vaccine was highly effective at preventing COVID-19 in a 43,538-person study.

 

The US$220 billion drugmaker said a two-dose regimen of its shot was found to be more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, based on 94 cases of the disease observed in the large-scale trial.

But even with the good news, there are caveats and unanswered questions for Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

William Haseltine, a longtime biotech executive and infectious-disease expert, told Business Insider he wanted to see the underlying data to support the efficacy claim.

Haseltine has previously criticised other front-runners in the race for a coronavirus vaccine, namely Moderna, for touting study results in news releases before releasing detailed data. With Pfizer’s release on Monday, however, Haseltine said there wasn’t any data in the release.

The analysis was based on 94 cases of COVID-19 among study participants, but Pfizer didn’t share an exact breakdown of how many got sick from getting Pfizer’s vaccine versus the placebo. The release also didn’t specify how many of the cases were severe or mild or if different age groups had varying levels of protection.

Beyond saying there have been no serious safety concerns, Pfizer didn’t provide any details on the safety profile, such as the frequency and severity of typical side effects. CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement the company would share additional efficacy and safety data “in the coming weeks.”

 

“This is science by public pronouncement,” Haseltine said.

Haseltine is a former Harvard medical professor who founded two research centres focused on HIV/AIDS and cancer at the school. The virology and infectious-disease expert is now the chairman and president of Access Health International, a nonprofit healthcare think tank. He has also founded and led several biotech companies, including Human Genome Sciences, which was eventually bought by GlaxoSmithKline for US$3 billion.

During the pandemic, he has advocated the US to embrace an expansive testing strategy, previously saying the country’s response was overly reliant on a vaccine.

“It is very welcome news that the vaccine has a measurable effect,” Haseltine said, adding there was still much to learn about Pfizer’s shot.

“There are many, many outstanding questions which are left unanswered,” he added.

We don’t know if Pfizer’s vaccine prevents infection, raising possibility of asymptomatic carriers

Most of the questions have to do with the limitations of the study. The trial was designed to see if there were fewer cases of symptomatic COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in people getting the vaccine rather than placebo.

It brings up one crucial distinction that could have a major influence on the pandemic response: Does this vaccine prevent infection as well as disease?

 

Pfizer’s trial, and the ongoing studies of other leading coronavirus-vaccine developers, aren’t regularly testing volunteers to gauge asymptomatic infections. That may mean vaccinated people could still become asymptomatic carriers and unknowingly spread the virus to others.

“That’s a major point that I don’t think most people appreciate,” Haseltine said. “It doesn’t mean an end to the epidemic.”

Haseltine also raised the question of if the vaccine reduces serious disease and ultimately affects the number of hospitalizations and deaths.

Again, the study’s findings are limited by its main goal, which did not distinguish between a mildly ill COVID-19 patient – maybe someone with a minor fever and cough for a few days – and someone who is critically ill.

Finally, Pfizer’s news release made no mention of if the vaccine appeared as effective in different subgroups, such as older people, who are more susceptible to the worst outcomes of the virus.

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Here’s a Timeline on How The COVID-19 Vaccine Might Reach People, if All Goes Well

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Drugmaker Pfizer said on Monday that its coronavirus vaccine had succeeded in the final stage of clinical trials, and is more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.

As Business Insider’s Andrew Dunn reported, developing a vaccine for a brand-new virus in less than a year is something that has never been achieved.

 

But announcing a vaccine and having large numbers of people receive it are two different things.

Here is Business Insider’s summary of what needs to happen next, and how long it might take:

  • Pfizer wants more data on the vaccine’s safety before moving ahead. It says the data will be available the week of November 16.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration then needs to decide whether to give emergency approval. It is unclear how long this might take, but the agency has said it wants to move fast. (Another caveat: The authorization at first may only be for the most at-risk groups like the elderly and healthcare workers.)
  • Pfizer said some doses can be delivered this year – but only 50 million for the whole world.
  • Each dose takes two shots, so the 50 million doses are only good for 25 million people. Patients also have to wait three weeks between their first and second shots.
  • 2021 is when the bulk of doses will arrive – up to 1.3 billion. This is when people who aren’t considered high risk might start to get it.
  • The vaccine has to be moved at ultra-cold temperatures – as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 70 degrees Celsius – which could make it hard to get to some places quickly.
  • Other logistical issues – like a shortage of glass vials – could stand in the way of a smooth vaccine rollout.

A number of countries have already put in orders for millions of doses of the vaccine, in the hopes that it will work to protect their populations, including the US, the UK, Canada, Japan, and countries across the European Union.

Other companies around the world are also working on producing coronavirus vaccines, with results expected soon.

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It’s Official. The World Has Surpassed 50 Million Confirmed Coronavirus Cases

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There are over 50 million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

With about 10 million cases, the United States is the country with the most confirmed coronavirus cases, followed immediately by India and Brazil. At least 230,000 people have died from the disease in the United States.

 

The World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.

The coronavirus has killed more Americans than every war US troops have died in since 1945 combined, Business Insider’s John Haltiwanger reported. The leading cause of death for Americans, heart disease, typically kills fewer than 650,000 people a year in the US.

The pandemic has created uncertainty and instability, leading to roiled marketsshuttering many small businesses nationwide, and forcing the world to adapt to a new normal.

For nearly nine months, people have been learning to live under once unfamiliar laws and recommendations from health officials. Quarantining, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks have become the relative norm in most countries.

But as the numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise, health officials say practices will remain the new norm well into 2021 and possibly 2022.

Meanwhile, scientists and pharmaceutical companies have been racing to create a vaccine to prevent COVID-19.

But it will take more time to release safe and effective shots – and even longer to inoculate enough of the global population to achieve herd immunity.

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These Countries Got COVID-19 Under Control. Here’s 3 Things They Did Right

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Nine months into the pandemicthe US and parts of Europe are seeing their coronavirus outbreaks spiral even further out of control, with record-breaking daily infection counts.

 

And then there’s Taiwan, which just marked its 200 consecutive day without a single new COVID-19 case.

Or take the epicentre of Australia’s pandemic, the state of Victoria, which recorded zero cases for the first time in four months on both October 26 and 27.

South Korea’s daily case count, too, continues to hover around 120 – about 1/1000 of the nearly 100,000 new cases reported in the US on Friday.

According to public-health experts, these successes are the result of a clear recipe: Create a cohesive federal plan with consistent messaging, get everyone to wear masks, and implement widespread testing and contact tracing. The countries failing to curb their outbreaks are missing at least one of those elements.

The US lacks all of them.

“I think an organised federal response and the populace trusting their leaders and public-health officials is the most important, and we have failed miserably at both,” Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Business Insider.

Having a plan, and communicating it effectively

Emma Hodcroft, a scientist from Basel, Switzerland, who studies the coronavirus’ genetic code, said she sees a common trend among governments that got the virus under control: They have a plan in place in case cases rise, communicate it clearly to the public, and enact it quickly whenever numbers start going up.

“A lot of countries have tried to kind of figure this out as they go in the autumn, rather than having pre-set limits and recommendations on when and what measures should be taken, and by whom this is done, and at what level,” Hodcroft told Business Insider.

 

The problem with a reactive approach, Hodcroft added, is that “it can encourage remaining in the status-quo.”

“Especially if cases are rising gently at first, which was the case in many countries, it’s incredibly temping to downplay this and hope that it will go away, or plateau, and not take action,” she said.

The timelines in western Europe serve as good examples of this inertia: Cases have been rising steadily for nearly six weeks in many countries, but the UKBelgiumPortugalGermany, and France only just implemented new lockdowns.

Even Sweden, which had initially instituted relatively few shutdown orders, recently adopted stricter guidelines about gatherings and non-essential recreation after cases there surged 70 percent in one week.

By contrast, AustraliaChina, and New Zealand have used location-targeted lockdowns to great effect over the last several months, requiring shutdowns only in cities and regions experiencing outbreaks.

Japan’s government, meanwhile, put out clear messaging early on instructing citizens to avoid the three C’s: closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings.

Then the country used a comprehensive system of regional healthcare facilities, partially funded by the federal government, to expand testing and public-health communication. Combined, these actions meant Japan didn’t have to lock down at all.

 

South Korea, for its part, leveraged smartphone technology to communicate its response and give the public clear information. Its government provided free apps that sent people emergency text alerts about spikes in infections in their local area, granted access to telemedicine, and informed users about the number and type of face masks available at stores for purchase.

According to Gandhi, it’s now too late for countries that didn’t pursue this type of approach from the beginning.

“I don’t believe we can get to zero transmission in the US given our initial failed response,” she said. “Therefore, I think we have to focus on minimising transmission and minimising the severity of disease.”

To do that, Gandhi added, new policies and public messaging need to better encourage people to avoid crowds, wear masks, practice good hand hygiene, and properly ventilate indoor spaces.

Masking, masking, masking

Despite overwhelming evidence that face coverings prevent coronavirus transmission, the US still doesn’t require universal mask wearing.

A mask mandate is “incredibly simple, yet increasingly looks to be effective way to help control transmission,” Hodcroft said.

 

One model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted that if 95 percent of Americans wore masks, at least 63,000 lives might be saved between the end of September and March 1.

But in the US, masks have come to be seen by some, including President Donald Trump, as a political statement. Protesters have rallied against mask mandates, saying they violate personal freedom.

The lack of federal guidance about masks from the White House resulted in piecemeal policies: A majority of US states have statewide mask rules, though 17 have mask requirements in only in some areas, and South Dakota has no rule at all.

Masking rules are lax in many regions of Europe, too. Face coverings are compulsory in public indoor settings and on public transportation in the UK, for workplaces across France, and for all Parisians. But these mandates didn’t go into effect until summer

Sweden, neither requires nor recommends universal mask use.

In countries like China, Taiwan, and Singapore, by contrast, mask use is almost universal. In South Korea and Melbourne, Australia, residents who don’t wear a mask in public and businesses that do not enforce mask-wearing can be fined.

Even Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has in the past downplayed the pandemic, announced a national mask mandate last week.

Effective testing and tracing

The other crucial tool that successful coronavirus responses all have in common is a combination of testing and contact tracing. Gandhi and Hodcroft both said the key to minimising transmission is offering robust, accessible, free testing to identify and isolate coronavirus patients, then tracing their contacts and getting those people to quarantine.

“‘Test and trace’ is one of the most effective tools in containing spread because, if it’s working ideally, you find these spreading events and all the people attached to them, and cut them off quickly,” Hodcroft said.

China, for example, tested 2.8 million people in one day after a single case was reported in Kashgar. That led authorities to catch and contain an additional 137 cases.

But for this tool to be effective, anyone with exposure – the suspected cases – must isolate. The same goes for people coming into the country from abroad. But in the US, that process is typically an honour system that relies on individuals to voluntarily follow recommendations.

In South Korea, on the other hand, many international travellers are transported straight from the airport to a government quarantine facility. They stay in a hotel room, have meals brought to them, then leave after two weeks.

If a South Korean resident tests positive or is suspected of coming into contact with a coronavirus patient, health authorities have them download self-quarantining apps that monitor their condition and set off an alarm on a user’s phone reminding them not to venture out of a designated quarantine area.

While the US’s and Europe’s testing and tracing programs have vastly improved since March, there are now too many new cases reported per day for that strategy to work on its own, experts say.

“When you start getting the numbers of cases in the hundreds and potentially thousands, it’s almost impossible for contact tracers to be effective,” Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, previously told Business Insider.

That’s why the US’s first step must be to get its surge under control; then cases could get back to a level where testing and tracing are once again effective, Hodcroft said.

“I don’t think it’s impossible that the US could turn this around,” she added.

Aria Bendix contributed reporting to this story.

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Scientists Analysed Twinkies Kept in a Basement For 8 Years, And Got a Surprise

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Matthew Kasson usually studies fungi that sicken trees and wipe out crops. But lately, he’s gotten into moldy desserts. A plant pathologist and mycologist at West Virginia University, Kasson tested how various types of fungi grow on marshmallow Peeps last year.

 

So when he saw photos of strange-looking Twinkies on the Twitter account of former biology professor Colin Purrington, he reached out.

Purrington, a self-described “science fan,” turned out to have unearthed some Twinkies he’d kept in his basement since 2012.

Thinking the preservative-packed treats might have survived those eight years unscathed, Purrington unwrapped one and took a bite. It turned out to be a bad idea.

“The one I bit into was chewy, unsweet, and smelled like rotting ginkgo fruit,” Purrington tweeted on October 4. “I gagged.”

One of Purrington’s Twinkie photos in particular intrigued Kasson and his colleague Brian Lovett.

“It look[ed] like a mummy finger,” Kasson told Business Insider.

Once in contact with the scientists, Purrington mailed them a few Twinkies. Kasson’s team analysed the desserts by drilling into their cores using a bone-marrow biopsy tool, then extracting long cross-sections.

They put the samples in lab dishes with fungi nutrients to find out what the Twinkies had living in them.

Mouldy twinkies side by sideTwinkies colonised by various types of mould. (Matt Kasson)

So far, they have discovered that one of the Twinkies contained cladosporium, a common kitchen mould. They couldn’t coax any mould from the wrinkly old Twinkie seen above on the left, likely because it had long since eaten through the cake and died.

The researchers’ findings have killed a common myth held about Twinkies: that they stay fresh and edible for decades, or even forever.

 

“We just thought that some foods were invincible,” Kasson said.

Contrary to popular belief, the shelf life of a Twinkie is really only about 25 days (and no, they would not survive nuclear war). So after eight years, Purrington’s Twinkies had gotten pretty gross.

However, some other old Twinkies have not gotten as moldy as Purrington’s did. For instance, one Twinkie has survived relatively intact for 44 years at the George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine, though it’s now a bit dry and dusty.

“Maybe the basement where Colin had these stored had the right conditions for fungal colonisation,” Kasson said.

Still, the new research suggests that even when fungi colonise Twinkies’ outsides, they don’t necessarily eat through their insides. For example, the Twinkie with the brown spot in the image above turned out to have a relatively untouched, fluffy white core.

Kasson said that’s likely because the fluff part is so sugary that it wasn’t hospitable to the type of fungi that ate the Twinkie’s slightly less sweet golden shell.

‘We are advocating for more inclusion of mycology’

Fungi are neither plants nor animals. The organisms exist all over the planet, and they break materials down in processes like fermentation and decomposition. Countless spores float through the air, where they enter humans’ airways and settle on food.

But fungi are underappreciated, Kasson said. Bread, beer, and cheese would not exist without them, and nature walks wouldn’t be possible, either.

 

“If you walked through a forest without fungi, you couldn’t, because you’d be wading through a mile-high pile of wood,” he said.

With their Twinkie and Peeps experiments, Kasson and Lovett hope to raise the profile of mycology, the study of fungi, in the worlds of science education and communication.

“Fungi are grossly underrepresented in biology curriculum. We are advocating for more inclusion of mycology,” Kasson said.

His wish is being granted, at least in one sense: Since he began publicizing the Twinkie experiment, Kasson said, he’s gotten “five or six” emails from people trying to mail him boxes of Twinkies they have kept stockpiled in their homes. His team has also been offered some 40-year-old Peeps.

“It’s funny to receive these emails,” he said, adding that instead of being disappointed that their Twinkies won’t live forever, the writers seem to have recast their reasons for stockpiling them as aiding in a scientific quest.

“‘I understand these are so important now,'” he said, paraphrasing the emails. “‘I kept them for a reason, and here is the reason.'”

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