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Scientists Develop Nasal Spray That Can Disable Coronavirus

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Most efforts to combat the coronavirus have focused on public health measures and the race to develop a vaccine. However, a team from Columbia University, Cornell University, and others has developed something new: a nasal spray that attacks the virus directly. In a newly released study, the concoction was effective at deactivating the novel coronavirus before it could infect cells. 

Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 (the causative agent of COVID-19) needs to enter a cell to reproduce. The virus injects its RNA genome and hijacks cellular machinery to make copies of itself, eventually killing the cell and spreading new virus particles to infect other cells. Gaining access to a cell requires a “key” that fits into a protein lock on the cell surface. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, we call that the spike protein, and that’s where the new nasal spray blocker attacks. 

The spike protein “unzips” when it meets up with a cell, exposing two chains of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). The spray contains a lipoprotein, which has a complementary strand of amino acids linked with a cholesterol particle. The lipoprotein inserts itself into the spike protein, sticking to one of the chains that would otherwise bind to a receptor and allow the virus to infect the cell. With that lipoprotein in the way, the virus is inactivated. 

This work is still in the very early days, and there have been no human trials. The study is based on testing with a handful of ferrets, several of which received the real lipoprotein spray and several who were given a placebo. The animals, which were used because they are susceptible to many human respiratory infections, were then deliberately exposed to the coronavirus. The medicated animals didn’t contract COVID-19, but the controls did. 

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Credit: NIH

The study, which is so far only available on the preprint bioRxiv server, shows that the lipoprotein spray completely stopped viral infection in the experimental animals. The team believes the spray will linger around the cells of the nose and lungs for approximately 24 hours. 

It will take additional work to confirm the mixture is safe before any human trials can begin, but this could be worth the time. Unlike similar attempts to block SARS-CoV-2 that rely on antibodies and other complex proteins, a lipoprotein doesn’t have any special storage requirements. It can be shipped in dry powdered form and stored at room temperature. This could make it ideal for slowing the spread of COVID-19 in poor countries with limited access to medical care.

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Engineers Develop Material That Cannot Be Cut

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Even the best locks and doors are little more than an inconvenience to a motivated person with the proper tools. However, engineers from Durham University and the Fraunhofer Institute have created the first synthetic material that can block even the most determined intruders. Researchers claim the material, known as Proteus, cannot be cut. In fact, it’s so tough it destroys any tool that attempts to slice into it

Natural materials like diamond and sapphire are strong because of the dense lattice of atomic bonds, but they’re inflexible. With the right tools (also made of diamond), you can cut and fracture a diamond. But Proteus takes its inspiration from a much different natural source: seashells. 

Proteus is a combination of ceramic spheres suspended inside a flexible cellular aluminum structure, which makes it only 15 percent as dense as steel. The shells of sea creatures often have a similar composition with layers of calcium carbonate suspended in a soft organic structure. The same way a shell can blunt teeth or claws, Proteus blunts tools. 

Proteus is not designed to be invulnerable — tools will damage it, but it damages the tools more. The researchers were unable to pierce Proteus with drills, angle grinders, and similar devices. You can see the material eat away at a grinder in the video below until it’s just a stub. Proteus is even resistant to high-power water jets — as the material deforms, the curved ceramic surfaces weaken the stream of water to prevent additional damage. 

The key to taking out tools is the ceramic spheres. The outer shell is designed to give way, but the ceramic spheres inside vibrate as tools attempt to wear them down. This vibration grinds away at the cutting edges until they’re no longer able to make headway. Particles that break free from the spheres also harden in the aluminum “foam” and further slow progress. Lead author Stefan Szyniszewski says it’s like trying to cut through “jelly filled with nuggets.”

The team sees Proteus as an ideal option for protective gear and construction materials. It could provide a barrier against tools and accidental damage without the mass of traditional (usually metal) materials. It might also show up in locks and safes that resist sawing, drilling, and other forms of cutting; the perfect home for the more paranoid among us to keep valuable items.

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Trudeau cohosts UN summit to develop global pandemic recovery plan

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will cohost a major United Nations conference Thusday aimed at developing a co-ordinated global response to mitigate the devastating social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unless countries come together now to co-ordinate a recovery plan, the UN estimates the pandemic could slash nearly $ 8.5 trillion US from the world economy over the next two years, forcing 34.3 million people into extreme poverty this year and potentially 130 million more over the course of the decade.

Trudeau is cohosting the four-hour virtual conference with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness. You can watch it here.

More than 50 heads of state and government are to participate, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, along with representatives of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the private sector.

It was not certain late Wednesday, however, whether U.S. President Donald Trump, who has argued that wise leaders put the interests of their own countries first, would take part.

In a release about the event, the UN says all countries face economic strain because of the pandemic, particularly developing countries that were already in “debt distress” before the crisis and can’t afford to cushion the blow for their citizens or to undertake fiscal stimulus measures.

‘Unprecedented human crisis’

“We are in an unprecedented human crisis because of a microscopic virus,” Guterres said in the release. “We need to respond with unity and solidarity and key aspect of solidarity is financial support.”

Trudeau said that “the best way to help our people and economies rebound is to work together as a global community.”

“We want to support collective and individual actions to enable a recovery that leads to more inclusive, sustainable and resilient economies, where no one is left behind.”

Earlier this week, when he announced his role in the conference, Trudeau argued that ensuring poorer countries survive the crisis is not just the right thing to do, it’s in Canada’s own self-interest.

“Canadian jobs and businesses depend on stable and productive economies in other countries, so it matters to us how everyone weathers this storm,” he said Tuesday.

‘Urgent areas of action’

The conference is to address “six urgent areas of action” to mobilize the financing needed for a global recovery.

Those six areas include:

  • Expanding liquidity in the global economy and maintaining financial stability.
  • Addressing debt vulnerability for developing countries “to save lives and livelihoods for billions of people around the world.”
  • Involving private sector creditors in recovery plans.
  • Enhancing external financing for inclusive growth and job creation.
  • Preventing illicit off-shore financial holdings and money laundering that siphon off trillions of dollars needed for rebuilding economies.
  • Aligning recovery policies with sustainable development goals.

The conference aims to create a discussion group in each of the six areas, with the goal of providing concrete proposals by mid-July.

“There is no time to lose,” the UN release said. “Solutions cannot wait and decisive action is required.”

The conference comes just as Canada is competing for one of two non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council next month against Norway and Ireland.

The UN vote is set for next month, and Canada is running on a platform of trying to help rebuild the post-pandemic world.

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Microsoft Built One of the Most Powerful Supercomputers in the World to Develop Human-Like AI

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Microsoft and OpenAI announced a partnership last year to develop new artificial intelligence technologies, and Microsoft just revealed the first product of this deal: a massively powerful supercomputer. The system is one of the top five most powerful computers in the world, and it’s exclusively for training AI models. The companies hope this supercomputer will be able to create more human-like intelligences. We just hope those intelligences will not exterminate humanity. 

Microsoft didn’t say where exactly its new Azure-hosted supercomputer ranks on the TOP500 list; just that it’s in the top five. Based on the last list update in November 2019, Microsoft’s system is capable of at least 38,745 teraflops per second, which is the peak speed of the number five ranked University of Texas Frontera supercomputer. Although, it could be as high as 100,000 teraflops without moving up the list — there’s a big gap between numbers four and five. 

While we don’t have measurements of its raw computing power, Microsoft was happy to talk about all the hardware inside its new supercomputer. There are 285,000 CPU cores, which sounds like a lot. However, that’s less than any of the supercomputers currently in the top five. Microsoft’s AI computer also sports 10,000 GPUs and 400 gigabits of data bandwidth for each GPU server. 

You might know OpenAI from its work on GPT-2, the fake news bot that the company initially deemed too dangerous to release. OpenAI used a technique called self-supervised learning to create GPT-2, and it will be able to do more of that with the new supercomputer. In self-supervised learning (sometimes called unsupervised learning), computers create models by assimilating large amounts of unlabeled data, and humans can make adjustments to the model to nudge it in the right direction. This has the potential to create much more nuanced and effective AI, but it takes a lot of processing power. 

We can only guess at what OpenAI will be able to develop with one of the world’s fastest supercomputers at its disposal. Microsoft and OpenAI believe that a powerful computer with reinforced learning techniques can learn to do anything a human can do — it’s just a matter of time and scale. In a human brain, there are trillions of synapses carrying electrical impulses that create conscious thought. In AI, the equivalent is a parameter. The latest OpenAI model has about 17 billion parameters, and the companies think parameters will reach into the trillions very soon.

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Canadians to help develop, test potential COVID-19 vaccine by Chinese company

The National Research Council of Canada said Tuesday it will work with a Chinese company to try to develop its potential vaccine for COVID-19 more quickly.

The Chinese company, CanSino Biologics, is already conducting human clinical trials for its vaccine.

Federal governments the world over have said vaccines are urgently needed to allow mass gatherings to resume. But that’s only if clinical trials in thousands of human volunteers show safety and efficacy before shots go into the arms of vast swaths of the general public.

As of April, five vaccine candidates have moved into clinical development in early stage human trials, including CanSino‘s, called Ad5-nCoV.

The collaboration announced on Tuesday will allow Canada’s publicly funded research council to try to scale up the technology needed to produce enough of the candidate vaccine to protect Canadians.

Matthew Herder, director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University’s law school in Halifax, evaluated contracts for the Canadian Ebola vaccine. That vaccine followed a similar path from the lab bench to mass production. Herder welcomed the NRC announcement and awaits the details.

“I think it showcases the power of the public sector … to play a key role in the development of vaccines,” he said.

Herder wants to ensure Canadians will have access to all of the safety and efficacy data, both from trials conducted in China as well as here.

There could also be strings attached on pricing, how much manufacturing can be done in Canada to meet both domestic and international needs, and equity of access, he said.

The NRC plans to use a cell line its scientists developed during Ebola vaccine research. The federal government’s previously announced $ 44 million for upgrades to the NRC’s facility in Montreal also aims to allow for domestic production if the vaccine candidate pans out as hoped.

A Phase 1 trial for the Ebola vaccine took place at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax and the coronavirus vaccine will also be tested in human volunteers there.

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How COVID-19 symptoms develop, and how long they last

How COVID-19 progresses from incubation to recovery has implications for everything from how long people may spread it before showing symptoms, to how long people can be expected to occupy resources such as ICU beds and ventilators in hospitals. 

Here’s a closer look at what has been learned about how symptoms develop from international studies and interviews with front-line doctors.

Note that the averages represent typical cases, and there tends to be a wide range at all stages of the disease.

Incubation period

The period in which a person is infected but shows no symptoms appears to average around five to six days, although it can vary from one to 14 days, according to the World Health Organization and Chinese data.

Because people without symptoms aren’t usually tested, positive tests typically represent infections that happened on average five days and up to two weeks earlier. Studies also suggest people with no symptoms or mild symptoms are responsible for most of the spread.

Mild to moderate symptoms

Even those who go on to experience more severe symptoms typically begin with mild symptoms, most often fever and a dry cough, although they can also include more unusual symptoms such as loss of taste and smell.

Symptoms will remain mild in about 80 per cent of cases, the WHO says, until recovery in about 14 days. Typically, the cough lasts a week longer than the fever, a Chinese study found. Patients with mild or moderate symptoms are told to recover at home.

A key, more severe symptom that sometimes leads to hospitalization is shortness of breath or dyspnea, which shows up on average five to six days after symptoms began, Chinese researchers reported in medical journals JAMA and The Lancet.

For more details, read these personal accounts of what it’s like to have a milder case of COVID-19 from Kym Murphy of Saint John, N.B., David Anzarouth of Toronto and Todd Rowan of Saskatoon.

(CBC News)


Studies in China and the U.S suggest that most patients who are hospitalized are admitted, on average, about a week after symptoms begin.

In Canada, patients appear to be sickest at about that time, said Dr. Bram Rochwerg, site lead at the Juravinski Hospital intensive care unit in Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University.

However, other studies show wide variations in when patients are hospitalized — the average time from symptom onset varied from 1.5 days in one Chinese study to 11 days in another

The rate at which people are hospitalized and admitted to ICU and how long they spend there can vary from country to country.

Rochwerg said that timing depends partly on criteria for hospitalization. Some hospitals in China admitted most patients who showed up, while many hospitals in the U.S. and Canada have been more restrictive, sending patients home unless their symptoms are severe.

Two Chinese studies found that patients who are hospitalized in general wards typically stayed for an average of 10 or 12 days.

Those who died in general wards tended to do so in about the same amount of time, the same studies found.

WATCH | COVID-19 patient ‘would beg’ Canadians to listen to top doctors:

B.C. resident Erin Leigh, 38, is recovering from the novel coronavirus in hospital. She told CBC News she had never experienced an illness like COVID-19. 7:00

ICU admission and stay

A key symptom that often leads to ICU admission is acute respiratory distress syndrome or ARDS. That is lung inflammation and fluid build-up in the lungs that stops air from getting in and causes blood oxygen levels to drop. Acute respiratory distress syndrome typically requires life support such as mechanical ventilation that must be administered in the ICU.

The onset of ARDS has been reported to average eight or 11 days after symptoms begin (about one to three days after hospital admission) in Chinese studies in JAMA and The Lancet. ICU admission typically follows within two days.

Rochwerg said at his hospital in Hamilton it’s not unusual for patients with ARDS to be admitted straight from the emergency room into the ICU.

ARDS is part of an exaggerated immune response called a “cytokine storm,” that can also lead to complications such as acute kidney damage. 

This chart, based on a study of hospitalized patients in China, shows the progression of symptoms and major interventions over the course of the disease for those who survived the illness and those who did not. (Fei Zhou/The Lancet/Elsevier)

Very sick patients died on average four or five days after being admitted to ICU, Chinese studies found. In Italy, patients averaged seven days in the ICU before death.

Those who eventually recovered spent longer in the ICU, averaging eight, nine and 14 days in studies from China, Italy and the U.S. respectively. There’s a wide variation.

Dr. Rob Fowler, chief of Sunnybrook Hospital’s trauma and critical-care program in Toronto, told CBC News earlier in April that dozens of COVID-19 patients have come through his ICU and required care lasting for “many, many days to many, many weeks.”

Rochwerg noted that while the virus is the trigger, it’s actually the body’s own response that generates severe complications, such as ARDS.

“That’s the reason they stay critically ill for five days, a week, two weeks,” he said.

That’s much longer than the three days spent in ICU by average critically ill patients without COVID-19. This is why experts say COVID-19 patients tend to accumulate in ICUs and the pandemic poses such a challenge for health systems.

Paramedics transfer a patient from an ambulance into the LaSalle Hospital in Montreal on April 25, as COVID-19 cases rise in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Post-ICU recovery

Most studies didn’t describe how long patients spent recovering in hospital after leaving the ICU. However, Dr. Kenneth Lyn-Kew, an associate professor of pulmonology and critical care medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, told Scientific American that it can take two days to two weeks.

Rochwerg said patients typically discharged from the ICU spend at least as much time as they spent in the ICU recovering in general hospital wards, if not more. “But everyone is different.” 

Some, he said, may even require extensive rehab or long-term care afterward.

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‘A race against the disease’: Canadian researchers part of global effort to develop COVID-19 vaccine

In the quiet of the University of Saskatchewan’s shuttered campus, there is one constant beacon of light and hope. Dr. Volker Gerdts and his team of researchers are working in shifts around the clock to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus — and feeling the pressure to move even faster.

“There is a real sense of urgency,” Dr. Gerdts says.

“We have a highly motivated team, and everybody is willing to step up and do as much as they can. And so this is really, you know, a race against the disease.”

Gerdts is the director and chief executive officer of the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac). The lab in Saskatoon is one of the most advanced infectious disease research facilities in the world and has been evaluating COVID-19 vaccine models for several weeks.

A recent $ 28-million funding boost from the federal and provincial government to enhance its COVID-19 research capacity to test antivirals, drugs, and therapeutics has been helping fast-track that research even more.

And on April 23, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $ 1.1 billion national strategy for medical research to fight COVID-19, including:

  • $ 115 million for research into vaccines and treatments being developed in hospitals and universities.
  • $ 662 million for clinical trials in Canada.
  • $ 350 million to expand national testing and modelling for COVID-19.
  • An immunity task force focused on blood-based tests used to determine if someone has been exposed to the virus.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $ 1.1 billion strategy to fund COVID-19 medical research and a task force to study immunity. 3:53

VIDO-InterVac is already at the forefront of an extraordinary global effort to halt the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus. It’s one of a handful of labs in the world with a potential vaccine at the animal testing phase.

The new federal funding includes $ 23 million to support pre-clinical testing and clinical trials of a potential COVID-19 vaccine, essential steps to ensuring that vaccines are effective and safe for human use.

“What was my reaction? Ecstatic,” Gerdts says. “Good to see the commitment from the Government to fund a Canadian vaccine for Canadians.”

Next month could be a turning point for VIDO-InterVac, when ferrets — chosen because their respiratory system is similar to that of humans — are exposed to the novel coronavirus to see if the lab’s vaccine candidate works. VIDO-InterVac is also testing other researchers’ vaccines on hamsters.

Gerdts says the research is moving at an accelerated rate, and everyone is looking for a breakthrough before the pandemic’s next potential wave of infections.

“The concern that we all have at the moment is whether there is another phase to this or not. And so having a vaccine for the next phase is absolutely critical. It will allow us to improve what we call herd immunity, to get more people vaccinated — more people with an immune response in the population, and the better we all are protected in the future.”

There are at least 70 research teams around the world, including in Canada, racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in a year, something that has never been done before. 1:58

International network

Gerdts’ team is part of the World Health Organization’s pandemic vaccine network, made up of expert groups of nearly 200 scientists and researchers from around the world.

They’re working in tandem and exchanging notes in real time on medical servers and through weekly phone calls. There’s even a vaccine tracker built by the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine that monitors the 60-plus COVID vaccines in development and their progress.

It’s a remarkable coordinated effort that is breaking down scientific borders and academic bragging rights.

“The most important thing in all of this is not to be first,” says virologist Paul Duprex from the University of Pittsburgh, who is part of the WHO vaccine braintrust.

Duprex says scientists usually compete to publish their findings first, for the credit that comes with it. The new virus has changed that, and there will be plenty of time to publish later.

“Let’s just cut the crap and move forward and work together and be collegial. This is a worldwide problem, and this is a worldwide issue that we should solve together,” he says.

Virologist Paul Duprex from the University of Pittsburgh is part of the WHO team working on a COVID-19 vaccine. He says the collaborative approach to this project is allowing research to move forward much faster than usual. (Centre for Vaccine Research, University of Pittsburgh)

Duprex adds that the WHO collaboration is speeding up the process to find a successful vaccine among the dozens in development.

“I’m really glad that we’ve got lots and lots of different options, because you know what’s going to happen. Those vaccines are going to faIl at different stages in the testing process,” says Duprex. “So therefore, if we have backups upon backups and backups, that allows us to get something across the finish line.”

Infectious disease researcher Allison McGeer says this new, faster pace of global research means a vaccine could be developed more quickly and that could save lives.

“It’s critically important to do it faster,” says McGeer, who is with the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, part of Sinai Health in Toronto.

McGeer says that doesn’t mean shortcutting safety trials, but rather streamlining research processes to get a safe and effective vaccine into people’s arms faster.

“That allows a certain amount of creativity about how to do that. Whereas normally people would say, ‘well, you know, I’m just not sure about that and I want to be absolutely sure about it.’ Now there’s a good reason for doing it differently and you can make processes for developing vaccines faster in general, which we all agree would be a good thing.”

The search for a COVID 19 vaccine is already well underway and the University of Toronto joined the race thanks to a $ 10 million dollar donation. Ali Chiasson spoke to the research lead for this new lab that will be running 24/7. 2:43

A Canadian team

At VIDO-InterVac, Gerdts says if his team’s potential vaccine passes the animal test next month, human trials will follow in the fall and pave the way for a possible vaccine in a year.

The new government funding is also building manufacturing capacity in Canada, including at VIDO-Intervac, which hopes to be in a position to produce up to 20 million doses of new vaccine during a pandemic.

And while all the work behind finding a vaccine is part of a global effort, Gerdts says it’s a uniquely Canadian one, too.

“We’re a Canadian team making a vaccine for Canadians, and so it’s our highest priority to make sure that this vaccine will be available for Canadians. And we have received funding from the federal government and the provincial government to do this kind of research, so it’s important that we make sure that Canadians will have access to our vaccine.”

The team from the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan that is working on a COVID-19 vaccine. (Debra Marshall Photography)

And while this pandemic is still in its early stages, Gerdts is already looking ahead to the next one.

He says good science can simulate the evolution of a pathogen in the lab, to help predict the next deadly virus and give the world time to prepare. The lessons of this pandemic, Dr. Gerdts says, are already too harsh.

“We’re still talking about a year before we have a vaccine ready. People are dying right now, and the cost to the global economy is already in the trillions. We need to have vaccines ready for whatever the next pathogen might be. And this is where we have to push the envelope.”

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Researchers Develop Tiny Depth Sensor Inspired by Spider Eyes

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Your smartphone might have a few different depth-sensing technologies for features like face unlock and portrait mode photos. The exact method of measuring the distance to a subject varies, but they might all one day end up being replaced by a new type of sensor based on nature. A team of Harvard researchers has designed the new 3D sensor using the same technique as a jumping spider.

Most depth-sensing systems in use today rely on stereo vision (multiple sensors a set distance apart) or projected light (IR illumination). A jumping spider has eight eyes, but it doesn’t use stereo vision like humans do to estimate distance. They don’t even have the brainpower to process vision as we do. Instead, each eye uses a multilayered retina to process images with different degrees of blur based on distance. As a result, jumping spiders can accurately determine the distance to their prey with incredible accuracy across a wide field of view. 

The Harvard team used this as a model for its new “metalens” sensor, which can calculate distance without any traditional optical elements. It doesn’t have layers like a spider eye, but it does split light to generate two differently de-focused images on a photosensor. This is known as “depth from defocus.” 

Of course, the key to the jumping spider’s hunting prowess is the way its nervous system interprets the blurred images as a depth map. The team developed an AI-powered version of that, too. Data from the metalens feeds into a custom algorithm that compares the split images. It can then generate a real-time depth map that tells you how far away your target is. Like the vision processing of the jumping spider, this process is highly efficient. You don’t need any bulky sensors or powerful CPUs to generate the distance map. The metalens sensor used in the experiment is only three millimeters across. 

The researchers see the potential for metalens depth sensing in self-driving cars and robots. Rather than having a few cameras spread around a vehicle and complex algorithms to generate depth maps, a larger number of tiny metalenses spread around could quickly and easily tell the computer how far away everything is. The technology could also come to phones in the future, replacing the bulky multi-sensor 3D sensor platforms like Apple Face ID and Google’s Face Match.

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Tropical storm Barry threatens Louisiana, likely to develop into hurricane

Mandatory evacuations were ordered southeast of New Orleans on Thursday as tropical storm Barry formed in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the city and a surrounding stretch of the Gulf with a possible hurricane with relatively weak winds but torrential rains that could send water spilling over levees.

Barry could become the first hurricane of the season by Friday, coming ashore along the Louisiana-Mississippi-Texas coastline and pouring more water into the already swollen Mississippi River. On Wednesday, the weather disturbance dumped as much as 20 centimetres in just three hours over parts of metro New Orleans, triggering flash flooding.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm’s maximum sustained winds by Thursday afternoon were 65 km/h, and forecasters said it’s likely to become a Category 1 hurricane before making landfall Friday or early Saturday. Winds could reach a speed of 120 km/h when the hurricane comes ashore.

As the storm was tracked 145 kilometres south of the Mississippi River, a hurricane warning was issued for parts of the Louisiana coast, from Intracoastal City to Grand Isle. A tropical storm warning remained in effect for other areas, including the New Orleans metro area.

Matt Harrington boards up a shoe store near the French Quarter in New Orleans on Thursday as tropical storm Barry approaches. (Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images)

The biggest danger in the days to come is not destructive winds but ceaseless rain, the hurricane centre warned. “The slow movement of this system will result in a long duration heavy rainfall threat along the central Gulf Coast and inland through the lower Mississippi Valley through the weekend and potentially into next week.”

The storm is expected to bring more than half a metre of rain in potentially ruinous downpours that could go on for hours as the storm passes through the metropolitan area of nearly 1.3 million people and pushes slowly inland. The storm’s surge at the mouth of the Mississippi could also mean a river that’s been running high for months will rise even higher.

New Orleans got an early taste Wednesday of what may be in store. News outlets said a tornado may have been responsible for wind damage to one home, while floodwaters invaded some downtown hotels and businesses as streets became small rivers that accommodated kayakers. The floods paralyzed rush-hour traffic and stalled cars around the city.

“I must have got to work about a quarter to seven,” said Donald Smith, who saw his restaurant on Basin Street flood for the third time this year. “By 7:15, water was everywhere.”

It brought memories of a 2017 flash flood that exposed major problems — and led to major personnel changes — at the Sewerage and Water Board, which oversees street drainage. City officials said the pumping system that drains streets was at full capacity. But the immense amount of rain in three hours would overwhelm any system, said Sewerage and Water Board director Ghassan Korban.

Emergency declared, cruise ship diverted

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency and said National Guard troops and high-water vehicles will be positioned all over the state.

“The entire coast of Louisiana is at play in this storm,” he warned, issuing a series of tweets with advice for residents.

New Orleans officials asked people to keep at least three days of supplies on hand and to keep their neighborhood storm drains clear so water can move quickly.

A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans said the agency was not expecting widespread overtopping of the levees, but there are concerns for areas south of the city. The weather service expects the river to rise to six metres by Saturday morning at a key gauge in the New Orleans area, which is protected by levees six to 7.6 metres high.

People in the Broadmoor neighbourhood in New Orleans cope with the aftermath of Wednesday’s severe weather. (Nick Reimann/The Advocate via The Associated Press)

Plaquemines Parish made sandbags available to people in areas not under evacuations orders, as did several other communities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Army Corps of Engineers was working with local officials down river to identify any low-lying areas and reinforce them, he said. He cautioned the situation may change as more information arrives.

“We’re confident the levees themselves are in good shape. The big focus is height,” spokesperson Ricky Boyett said.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a statewide emergency in light of the gathering storm. (Max Becherer/The Advocate via The Associated Press)

Carnival Cruise Line said it rerouted a cruise ship headed to New Orleans because of the potential tropical storm brewing in the Gulf. The Miami-based company said the more than 3,700-passenger Carnival Valor was sent to Mobile, Ala., in the interest of safety.

Carnival said arriving passengers will be taken from Mobile to New Orleans on complimentary buses.

The ship was supposed to depart Thursday from New Orleans on its next four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. Instead, passengers will be taken to Mobile by bus from New Orleans.

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23andMe, GlaxoSmithKline Will Use Your DNA to Develop New Drugs

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Genetic testing firm 23andMe has been using customer data in its research program for years, but now it’s putting that data in the hands of a partner. CEO Anne Wojcicki announced today that 23andMe is working with drug maker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to develop new drugs and treatments with help from all that genetic data the company has on file.

The deal is not a surprise and was probably inevitable. GSK has invested around $ 300 million in 23andMe, which went through a rough patch several years ago when the FDA forced it to revamp all its testing to comply with federal guidelines. 23andMe now shows a more limited set of disease factors for which there is strong evidence, whereas before it was rather cavalier about drawing conclusions based on your DNA.

Even though it doesn’t offer information on as many traits in customer reports, 23andMe still has a database of five million genomes. A significant barrier to research is often getting enough people to donate samples, but 23andMe has already taken care of that part. Not only that — people paid 23andMe for the privilege. The company has published more than 100 scientific papers based on its internal research. 

The first major collaboration between GSK and 23andMe will involve studying the LRRK2 gene. Some mutated forms of this gene may have a connection to Parkinson’s Disease. GSK is working on drugs that might affect LRRK2 activity, and genetic data from millions of people will help researchers determine how the different variants of LRRK2 operate. 23andMe says all genetic data is anonymized to protect your individual privacy. 

23andMe customers have been contributing their data to research for years, but actually partnering with a drug company changes the calculation a bit. A drug company could potentially create new products from your genetic data and then price those drugs so high that you can’t afford them. Donating genetic data for non-profit research is one thing, but letting commercial entities use it is another. Even if the results could benefit a lot of people, it doesn’t seem entirely fair for a company to create valuable new patentable products from your genes. 

23andMe stresses that its customers can opt-out of making their data available for research at any time. 23andMe has two separate research consent flags: one for the company’s internal research and another for sharing data with the company’s partners. Presumably, you’ll need to opt-out of that second one to avoid inclusion on the GSK partnership. However, there’s no way to verify that your data doesn’t remain in the hands of 23andMe partners if you opt-out later.

Now read: PCMag’s Best DNA Testing Kits of 2018

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