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Stunning drone footage offer’s bird’s eye view of annual ice marathon across world’s deepest lake

Every winter, dozens of Russians and international visitors lace up their special ice cleats and embark on a remarkable 42.2-kilometre run across Siberia’s Lake Baikal.   

Lake Baikal, located in southeastern Siberia about 4,300 kilometres east of Moscow, is famous for its pristine water, which freezes clear and creates stunning blue ice formations. Baikal is between 20 million and 25 million years old and holds more water than all of North America’s Great Lakes combined.

At more than 1,600 metres deep, including under the marathon route, it is easily the deepest lake in the world.

The Baikal Ice Marathon, organized by local businessman Alexei Nikiforov, has taken place every year for the past 17 years. Even with Russia still gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, Nikiforov says he was determined not to cancel the event. 

This year, 70 runners took part. While much of the route across the lake was over clear ice, blowing snow meant runners had to trudge through knee-deep drifts for the last 10 kilometres to reach the finish line. The winner was former Russian pro-football star Alexei Smertin, 45, who clocked in at three hours and 25 minutes. 

Our CBC Moscow crew visited the lake for this year’s race, which took place Feb. 28.

WATCH | Why runners couldn’t stay away from the Baikal Ice Marathon this year:

Lake Baikal is one of Russia’s natural wonders, and in the middle of a fierce Siberian winter, it’s the site of one of the most extreme sporting events on earth — a marathon on the frozen surface of the world’s deepest lake. 5:36

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CBC | World News

Study offers ‘promising’ evidence that at least 1 COVID-19 vaccine may curb virus transmission

Real-world findings are starting to back expectations for the level of protection provided by several leading coronavirus vaccines, but there’s still a burning question among scientists: Could the shots actually reduce virus transmission as well?

New research out of Israel offers early clues that at least one vaccine — the mRNA-based option from Pfizer-BioNTech, which is also being used here in Canada — may lead to lower viral loads, suggesting it might be harder for someone to spread the virus if they get infected post-vaccination.

In a study released publicly on Monday as an unpublished, non-peer-reviewed preprint, a team of researchers from the Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and Maccabi Healthcare Services found the viral load was reduced four-fold for infections that occur 12 to 28 days after a first dose of the vaccine.

“These reduced viral loads hint to lower infectiousness, further contributing to vaccine impact on virus spread,” the researchers wrote.

Virologist Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor in the department of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba, said it’s been a waiting game to figure out whether the protection from illness offered by mRNA vaccines might also curb transmission — a key tool for winding down the pandemic.

“So the data from this, I think, is important,” he said. “It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it starts to tell us that there actually might be some added benefit to these vaccines beyond just reducing severe disease.”

Toronto-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of Ontario’s vaccine task force, agreed these early findings — which still require peer-review — aren’t a scientific “home run,” but do offer hope in the fight against COVID-19.

“This would point in the direction that people who have been vaccinated, who are still infected, may be less likely to transmit starting at about 12 days after their vaccine,” he said.

‘Significantly reduced’ viral loads

Israel is among the world leaders for COVID-19 vaccination rates, with Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccinating more than 650,000 people by Jan. 25, the paper noted, giving the researchers a large pool of data compared to what exists so far in many other countries. 

The team analyzed COVID-19 test results from roughly 2,900 people between the ages of 16 and 89, comparing the cycle threshold values of post-vaccination infections after a first dose with those of positive tests from unvaccinated patients.

So, what are cycle threshold values, and how does that potentially tie to viral loads and virus transmission?

Standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for COVID-19 identify the viral infection by amplifying the virus’s RNA until it hits a level where it can be detected by the test. Multiple rounds of amplification may be required — and the cycle threshold value refers to the number of rounds needed to spot the virus.

Toronto-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of Ontario’s vaccine task force, agrees these early findings — which still require peer-review — offer some hope in the fight against COVID-19. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“If you can detect the virus with very few cycles, there’s probably a lot of virus there,” Bogoch explained. “If you need to keep looking and looking and looking and looking for it, it might be there — it’s just a lot harder to find evidence of the virus genetic material.”

A higher cycle threshold, then, usually means there’s less virus genetic material present, which usually translates to people being less contagious, he said.

Based on an analysis comparing post-vaccination test results up to Day 11 to the unvaccinated control group, the Israeli researchers found “no significant difference” in the distribution of cycle threshold values for several viral genes.

That changed by 12 days after vaccination, with the team finding a “significant” increase in cycle thresholds up to 28 days later.

A team of researchers from the Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and Maccabi Healthcare Services found the viral load was reduced four-fold for infections happening 12 to 28 days after a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine. The findings have yet to be peer-reviewed and published in a medical journal. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

The result suggests infections occurring 12 days or longer following just one vaccine dose have “significantly reduced viral loads, potentially affecting viral shedding and contagiousness as well as severity of the disease,” the team concluded.

It’s a finding that appears to mimic the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in its clinical trials, which offered some early protection starting 12 days after the first dose and fully kicks in a week after the second shot, with a reported efficacy of around 95 per cent.

More research needed, experts say

The observational study was not a randomized controlled trial — meaning researchers couldn’t conclude a direct cause-and-effect relationship — and has not yet been published in a scientific journal. The research also has notable limitations, its authors acknowledged. 

For one, the group of vaccinated individuals may differ in key ways from the demographically matched control group, such as their general health. The study also didn’t account for variants of the virus that may be associated with different viral loads, the team wrote.

Indeed, those variants are already proving to be roadblocks in the fight against COVID-19, with concerns ranging from higher transmissibility to reduced vaccine efficacy, including concern in South Africa and beyond after a small and yet-to-be-published study suggested the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine offered minimal protection against mild infection from the country’s now-dominant B1351 variant. 

With those concerns in mind, experts who spoke with CBC News about the Israeli study stressed that more research is needed to back up the results on a broader scale, and among diverse populations, before being used to fuel policy changes or current approaches to vaccination efforts.

“The data needs to be reviewed by experts and confirmed that it stands up to the quality that we would want to make a conclusion,” said vaccinologist Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax who works with Canadian vaccine developer VIDO-InterVac in Saskatoon.

WATCH | The impact of variants on the race to vaccinate: 

South Africa has halted its rollout of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after a study showed it offered minimal protection against mild infection from a variant spreading there. While experts say it’s cause for concern, they say vaccines can be reconfigured to protect against mutations. 2:01

Even so, Kelvin said the data appeared to be treated with the necessary caution, and offers “promising evidence,” while Kindrachuk remains optimistic as well that the findings could prove a useful starting point.

“While we still have to have people using masks, and while we still have to have people distanced, the vaccines may actually also be able to reduce transmission,” he said. 

“So, those trends that we’re hoping to see, in regards to trying to curb community transmission for SARS-CoV-2, may be accelerated with a vaccine — and that will hopefully help us get out of this a little bit sooner.”

The Current21:46Vaccine concerns in South Africa

South Africa is facing another hurdle in its fight against COVID-19 after a new study suggested the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is largely ineffective against the dominant variant spreading in that country. Dr. Rinesh Chetty, who works on the front lines of the pandemic in Durban, South Africa, weighs in on the findings. And Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University and the Kingston Health Sciences Centre, tells us what it means for Canada’s vaccination efforts. 21:46

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CBC | Health News

Iceland’s ‘COVID-19 passport’ offers preview of debate over post-vaccine travel

Iceland recently became the first country in Europe to issue and recognize COVID-19 vaccination certificates, which it hopes will allow vaccinated individuals to travel freely within its borders and abroad. 

Since early in the pandemic, the island nation has required a five-day quarantine for international arrivals. Now, those with documentation showing they have received a full course of COVID-19 vaccines will be able to skip quarantine.

The idea has some currency — already, Sweden and Denmark are reportedly developing their own digital certificates for post-vaccine travel.

Whether Iceland’s certificates are actually recognized will be up to other countries. But there are some parallels between Iceland’s experience and the future faced by some lucky Canadians.

Iceland expects to vaccinate a majority of adults by mid-2021, months ahead of its neighbours. Residents of Nunavut, Yukon and the N.W.T. are expecting the same.

A rain cloud hovers over Reykjavík. Icelandic authorities have been less cautious than their European neighbours, allowing quarantine-free travel to people who are vaccinated against or have recovered from COVID-19. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

That means a greatly reduced risk that the territories’ limited health systems will be overtaxed by COVID-19 cases — and a greater challenge justifying their quarantines, which are making it harder to attract skilled workers and gutting the vital tourism sector.

Could vaccine certificates be part of travel inside Canada? While the answer isn’t totally clear yet, there are reasons to think Iceland’s experiment would meet a chilly reception here.

Iceland less cautious

Iceland has generally been less cautious than the rest of the world when it comes to COVID-19. It opted for a shorter quarantine period than most, and it issued similar certificates for those who had recovered from COVID-19 on the assumption (which has been questioned) that people could not contract the disease twice.

The introduction of vaccination certificates has been no less controversial, partly because health authorities stress there is still little evidence available vaccines prevent a person from carrying the coronavirus and infecting others. 

For Iceland’s certificates to matter, they will need to get buy-in from their 25 neighbours in Europe’s free-travel zone. That’s not going to be easy.

EU leaders have as yet been unable to come to a common position on the certificates, despite interest from tourism-hungry nations like Italy, Spain and Greece

There are real equality concerns if we’re going to start doling out benefits and demerits based on who is vaccinated.– Cara Zwibel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Those countries have the support of industry, like the International Air Transport Association, the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the European Travel Commission.

“It’s a top priority that travel becomes hassle-free again,” said Pascal Prinz, the chair of the commission’s Canada chapter. “[Vaccination passports] would be a complimentary tool.”

Unresolved legal questions

But some of Iceland’s neighbours have been turned off by some unresolved legal questions.

While international health regulations allow states to request proof of vaccination against certain diseases, such as yellow fever, COVID-19 is not currently among them. Expanding that list would require a recommendation from the World Health Organization, experts say.

Some countries, like Germany and France, have also raised concerns that the certificates may be discriminatory. Even the U.K., which funded eight companies’ efforts to design a digital COVID-19 passport, now says it has no plan to use them for international travel.

Canadian groups raise similar objections. Cara Zwibel, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Fundamental Freedoms project, says certificates could discriminate against pregnant mothers and children, who are still discouraged from getting COVID-19 vaccines in some places, or against certain religious groups or other conscientious objectors.

We are not there yet as a country.– Mike Westwick, spokesperson for the N.W.T. chief public health officer

“There are real equality concerns if we’re going to start doling out benefits and demerits based on who is vaccinated,” she said.

The Public Health Agency of Canada didn’t respond to questions about Iceland’s passports in time for publication. But in the North, where residents can expect to be immunized months ahead of most other places, health authorities still caution that barrier-free travel, even within Canada, is unlikely anytime soon.

Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the N.W.T.’s chief public health officer, says health authorities would need to be convinced that the vaccine prevents transmission of COVID-19 — and right now, they aren’t.

Tracking system lacking

The lack of any common database to track travellers and their vaccination status is another barrier, he wrote.

“There needs to be a lot of thinking on how to structure any tracking system,” he wrote in an email. “We are not there yet as a country.”

That means for now, officials in all three territories said proof of vaccination would not mean easier travel for anyone.

The N.W.T.’s 14-day quarantine remains in place even for those who have received a full dose of vaccines. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services, immunization cards can’t be used “as proof for travel or other purposes.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, speaks with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, centre, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a round table meeting at a European Union summit in Brussels in July. EU leaders have been as yet unable to come to a common position on vaccination certificates. (John Thys/pool/The Associated Press)

Similarly, Nunavut’s health authorities said in a statement it’s “too early to make any decisions or changes” to travel or quarantine rules.

But whatever the objections, the debate over COVID-19 passports is not going away. Denmark, Sweden and Israel may soon join Iceland in rolling out their own vaccination passport systems.

Even the European Commission, which called discussion of travel certificates “premature” in a recent communique, says as vaccination campaigns accelerate, the “mutual recognition of vaccination [will] become of utmost importance.”

Here in Canada, polling shows widespread support for tough new restrictions, even as vaccination campaigns ramp up. But that hasn’t stopped vaccinated Canadians living abroad balking at rules preventing their quarantine-free return.

Ultimately, it’s still too soon to say whether it’s even safe for the vaccinated to be travelling across borders, and it will take more time still to figure out just how to manage it. So like so many other pandemic policies, it’s a case of hurry up and wait.

A passenger wearing a protective face mask walks at Fiumicino Airport in Rome. Civil liberties advocates say allowing travel for vaccinated individuals raises equality concerns. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

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CBC | World News

Life in Tokyo offers no hint of doubt that Olympics will happen

Less than six months to the start of the postponed Summer Olympics, Tokyo finds itself in its second state of emergency in the past 10 months.

Life, though, remains remarkably normal for most residents.

Businesses and schools are open, athletic clubs are operating, trains are running and restaurants are conducting business daily (though they are requested to close at 8 p.m.). This emergency is far less strict than the first, which ran from April 7 to May 25 last year. The current emergency is slated to end on Feb. 7, though it might be extended until the end of the month. 

The contradiction between appearance and reality were visible recently on an afternoon in Yokohama, where diners at a restaurant could look out the window and see the roller-coaster and carousel at a local amusement park operating on a sunny afternoon.

Since the second emergency, which included the prefectures of Tokyo, Kanagawa Saitama and Chiba, began on Jan. 8, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the greater metropolitan Tokyo area has dipped below 1,000 per day. They were twice that at the beginning of the year.

Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has been on the job for just a few months, is trying to balance criticism from those who say his administration is not doing enough to prevent new infections during the pandemic, while also trying to keep the Tokyo Olympics on track for their scheduled opening on July 23. 

This week, the International Olympic Committee released its “playbooks” for how the Tokyo Olympics might operate, with guidelines on testing and vaccinations.

WATCH | Olympic Playbooks explained:

With less than six months to go to the Tokyo Olympics, organizers have said the Games will go on no matter what. Now, they’ve released some preliminary guidelines explaining how that will happen. 1:37

Pandemic fatigue is increasing with each passing month. Suicides among young women increased in Japan in 2020, with experts saying that being cut off from spending time with their friends was a big contributor to the rise. 

At the outset of this second state of emergency, national broadcaster NHK was running continuous graphics about it in an attempt to influence people from leaving home unnecessarily. Terrestrial television still retains significant influence in Japan, but after so many months of dealing with the pandemic, it is unclear how many are actually heeding the suggestion. 

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been insistent that the Olympics will open as scheduled on July 23. (Associated Press)

The story about the possible cancellation of the Olympics by the Times of London in January rattled the nerves of athletes and officials outside of Japan, but had little impact within the country. Suga’s cabinet and Tokyo Olympics organizers both quickly dismissed the possibility and said plans were moving full steam ahead for the Games, despite public opinion polls showing a large majority want them postponed or cancelled.

But it seems there is just too much money on the line for that to happen. The Japanese government is estimated to have spent $ 23 billion US of taxpayer money preparing for the Games, and the International Olympic Committee, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and TV rights holders have huge financial stakes in the Games going forward.

That being said, as the big extravaganza draws nearer, the likelihood that full venues will be the norm is hard to envision. The reality is that reduced capacity at stadiums and arenas is more likely. In a worst-case scenario, the Olympics could be staged with no spectators, essentially becoming a TV-only event.

The Japanese government is not expected to begin vaccinating the general public for COVID-19 until May, which is just two months before the Olympic flame is set to be lit. It also seems likely that many of the athletes, coaches, trainers and technical people associated with the Games will be vaccinated prior to arriving in Japan, though the IOC has said it will not make it mandatory. But with variants of the virus now appearing, the question of foreign spectators wanting to come and/or being allowed to remains up in the air. As with everything else, it is wait and see.

Roller-coasters and other attractions in the suburban Tokyo area of Yokohama are in operation despite the area being in a state of emergency. (AFP via Getty Images)

Veteran sports writer and Toronto native Jim Armstrong, who has worked in Japan for more than 30 years, believes the prospects of fans attending the Games is pretty grim.

“I would say it is almost zero,” Armstrong said. “If they have the Olympics, I would say it’s almost certain it will be without fans. At least from overseas.”

Organizers admit everything is on the table at this point regarding fans.

“Naturally, we are looking into many different scenarios, so no spectators is one of the options,” Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said last week following a video call with IOC president Thomas Bach. “We don’t want to hold the Games without spectators, but in terms of simulations we are covering all the options.”

Of greater concern in the short term is the effect the second emergency is having on training for the Games. The Tokyo Olympics is scheduled to host 11,000 athletes competing in 33 different sports. Foreign athletes are not being allowed into the country now and when they will be again is unclear.

Training for those outside Japan has become a psychological battle as the rumours swirl about the fate of the Olympics. Trying to stay motivated and in condition in what has to be the toughest situation possible, short of war, must be a monumental task.

“All these speculations are hurting the athletes in their preparations,” Bach was quoted as saying by AP after an IOC executive board meeting last week. “We want not to destroy any Olympic dream of any athlete. For all these reasons we are not losing our time and energy on speculations.”

Meanwhile, Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, reiterated that all of the bodies representing the 33 different sports are firm in their desire to hold the Tokyo Games following a meeting last week.

“All of them,” Ricci Bitti said. “It’s unanimous. They all want the Games.”

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CBC | Sports News

Trudeau offers sombre Christmas message but says 500,000 vaccine doses are coming early in the new year

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged today that Christmas won’t be the same this year, with wide swaths of the country under COVID-related lockdowns, he said there’s reason for optimism in 2021 now that hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses are expected to arrive early in the new year.

Speaking to reporters outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Trudeau said the government got word today that Pfizer will be shipping 125,000 vaccine doses per week in January 2021 for a total of 500,000 shots — primarily destined for the arms of front line health care workers and long-term care home residents. Pfizer has committed already to delivering 249,000 doses to Canada in December.

All told, roughly 375,000 Canadians are expected to be vaccinated with the two-dose Pfizer shot by the end of January.

Canada is also anticipating the delivery this month of 168,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, enough for about 84,000 people. The Moderna product is still waiting on Health Canada’s regulatory approval.

“This is the largest immunization campaign our country has ever seen, and I know we have the right plan and the expertise we need,” Trudeau said. “But remember, a vaccine in a week or in a month won’t help you if you get COVID-19 today.”

WATCH: Prime Minister Trudeau offers update on vaccine delivery

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters outside Rideau Cottage on Friday. 1:57

Trudeau urged Canadians to continue to follow public health guidelines over the holidays. While the vaccine news is promising, he said, Canadians should resist complacency.

“Our fight against this virus is not over, even as we’re preparing to say goodbye — and good riddance — to 2020. It may be the holiday season, but we have to be more careful than ever,” Trudeau said.

Asked about the prospect of getting even more Pfizer doses, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said today she’s in constant communication with the company to discuss the possibility of “accelerated timelines” and to “ensure Canada has the earliest possible access to Pfizer doses.”

Canada is still on track to take delivery of 4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the first three months of 2021, she said.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a current Pfizer board member, said this week that because the U.S. passed on ordering 100 million more doses of the vaccine, the company’s Kalamazoo, Mich., plant could send that product to other countries in the second quarter of 2021.

Watch: Trudeau questioned about vaccine deliveries, impact on Christmas.:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with the CBC’s Tom Parry on Friday. 2:19

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said today’s announcement that Canada will receive a specific number of Pfizer doses in January may give the provinces leeway to accelerate their vaccination campaigns.

While all provinces have started delivering shots, most have stockpiled the second dose of the two-dose regime to ensure they have enough supply on hand.

If a steady supply of vaccines is expected, Tam said, some provinces may opt to just vaccinate as many people as possible without keeping a reserve.

“It’s great to hear this schedule,” Tam said. “If you know there’s 125,000 coming per week in January, that makes planning for that second dose much easier in terms of not necessarily having to hold back the initial ones … so I think those details are to be worked out on the ground.”

Pfizer has stipulated that the second shot should be administered 21 days after the first to ensure the 94 per cent effectiveness rate documented in the clinical trials

U.S. vaccination campaign pulling ahead of Canada

The U.S. is expected to vaccinate many more people than Canada in the coming weeks.

Gen. Gustave Perna is the military general leading Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. mission to develop and distribute a vaccine. He said Pfizer already has shipped 2.9 million doses to the United States, with millions more to follow by month’s end.

Some U.S. governors, however, are reporting that their allocations of the vaccine are less than what they expected.

The U.S. also has secured 100 million doses of the promising Moderna product for the first three months of 2021 alone. Canada expects to receive about 2 million Moderna doses between January and March.

Operation Warp Speed largely bankrolled the vaccine’s development, the clinical trial process and the large-scale manufacturing operations, spending $ 4.1 billion so far to support Moderna.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser to the U.S. vaccine operation, has said every American who wants a vaccine will get one by June.

The Public Health Agency of Canada told CBC News Tuesday that it expects to have enough vaccine doses on hand to vaccinate every Canadian by the end of September, 2021.

Asked what he would do to close the Canada-U.S. vaccine gap, Trudeau said the federal government has secured one of the broadest portfolios of promising vaccine candidates in the world.

“The Americans have a health care system that will have challenges and will have successes. We have our own process. We’re focused on our own process to make sure that as many Canadians as possible get vaccinated, as quickly as possible, with vaccines that are safe and effective and approved by Health Canada,” he said.

Watch: Trudeau is asked why many Canadians aren’t listening to pandemic messaging.:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters at Rideau Cottage on Friday. 1:58

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CBC | Health News

Sony Pulls Cyberpunk 2077 and Offers Refunds; CDPR Misled Investors in October

The rapidly evolving Cyberpunk 2077 situation took another two twists this week. First, Sony — aka “The Company That Gives No Refunds” — has announced it will be handing out refunds where Cyberpunk 2077 is concerned. Furthermore, the game is being stripped from the PlayStation store:

This is a huge shift from Sony’s typical policies, but evidence has surfaced showing just how far off the reservation CD Projekt Red went, possibly shedding some light on why Sony is willing to take this step. The company didn’t just pull the game for PlayStation 4 owners — it pulled the game, period, for everyone.

Earlier this week, the president and co-founder of CD Projekt Red, Adam Kiciński, admitted that his company “ignored the signals” that more time was needed for Xbox / PS4 development. Michal Nowakowski also stated that the company “didn’t spend enough time looking” at PS4 and Xbox One performance. This sounds bad enough, but when you start digging into the specifics of the claims the company made over the past year, the situation gets much worse. First, we’ll discuss some remarks from two different developers in two different interviews in 2019.

2019 Developer Statements

In 2019, Eurogamer spoke to lead quest designer Pawel Sasko, who said:

One of the things we learned with The Witcher 3 was, you should not delay working on the console versions, ever. So at all times we have a version running for everything. And of course, the high-end version we’re showing running it is completely different to the consoles, the current-gen is starting to get old. So there’s some things which won’t look as crisp. But the important thing to us is it will be fluid, it will play on your machine. There are limitations for any given hardware, that’s a natural thing. But we’ll do everything we can to squeeze as much as we can.

He clearly wasn’t just speaking about quest design here, but about the entire game. In 2019, UI coordinator Alvin Liu also told WCCFTech:

We’re targeting consoles as first-class platforms and it looks amazing there. So obviously, if you spent, you know, $ 2,000 building your PC rig, it’s going to look better on that. But the graphics are quite amazing for what you’re going to get from Cyberpunk 2077 on consoles and low-end PCs.

Let’s compare these statements to what was said at the October 2020 meeting where CD Projekt Red announced it would launch the game three weeks later than anticipated, on December 10, 2020. We’ll also check whether the claims CDPR executives made in October proved true based on what we know in December.

The October 2020 Meeting

Here’s a member of CD Projekt Red’s board, Michal Nowakowski, speaking to investors in October 2020. This was a scheduled call to explain why CDPR was going to going to delay the game three weeks. According to him, CDPR is “finalizing the process” on Xbox One and PS4. He specifically states that the only things left to be fixed on the consoles are “technical things at the very final stage.”

When pushed to explain what constituted a technical issue, CDPR’s co-CEO Adam Kiciński elaborated:

I think we should have had the game playable at earlier stages. With such a big game, too many things may have been put together at a late stage. We should have had more playable builds earlier…we can organize the technical side by putting together playable versions earlier than before.

Kiciński’s comment about how they should have had the game playable much earlier indicates CD Projekt Red left this until far too late, despite the statements of multiple development team members in 2019. This would also explain why the base console versions of the game are so stuffed with bugs — the developers were literally working on the game up until the very last second. It takes further testing after each round of changes to make certain the developer didn’t introduce more problems than they fixed.

The reason games have to be play-tested as a cohesive whole is that there’s no way to predict how various game systems will interact and function until you test them. Cutscenes can typically sustain higher detail levels than in-game play because the developer has complete control of what the CPU and GPU are doing in any given moment. Walking around in the regular game, the engine has to handle AI, physics, storage I/O, and rendering calculations simultaneously, while also keeping the game responsive no matter what the player does.

The large quality gap between the PC and console versions is exactly what you’d expect if the developers of a game found out at the last minute that they had a critical problem and no time to actually fix it. There are reports that the last-gen consoles can dip as low as 540p in Cyberpunk 2077, and that kind of resolution drop is a last-ditch, brute-force attempt to keep frame rates up by slashing the amount of information drawn on-screen.

Lies My Witcher Told Me

The executives on that October call did everything they could to tamp down on the idea that anything other than normal optimization was happening. Asked if the game would be unduly buggy for any platform upon release, Michal said: “[I]t’s basically optimization and all the challenges related to that. There’s no other ‘hidden story’ here.”

Later, he reiterated: “I wouldn’t say there is a ‘problem’ because there’s nothing wrong with Xbox or PS4 versions – there is optimization to be handled, also because of how we were approaching things from the get-go in terms of development; so – there is no problem with Xbox or PlayStation 4, to be honest.” (Emphases added).

When the questioner pointed out that they were specifically asking for information about a rumor that there had been problems optimizing the game for Xbox One, Nowakowski again stepped in to squish it, saying: “This was a total hoax; a fake rumor… there’s just regular work to be done on both platforms.”

Three times, the man was asked to elaborate or explain rumors of a poor product. Each time, he denied there was any truth to them. We now know better, and his October comments about how they have to optimize the consoles now because they failed to do it properly from the get-go contradicts what the developers of Cyberpunk 2077 were telling the press  in 2019.

For the record, Michal Nowakowski is the same person who published an apology with instructions on how to get a refund for Cyberpunk 2077 on Monday, only to turn around and say that there were ‘certain misconceptions‘ about CD Projekt Red’s willingness to assist with the refund process hours later.

He has also admitted that CD Projekt Red is responsible for the condition of the game at launch, and that Microsoft and Sony were told various issues would be fixed before release:

In terms of the certification process and the third parties — this is definitely on our side. I can only assume that they trusted that we’re going to fix things up on release, and that obviously did not come together exactly as we had planned.

Why Did CDPR Withhold Information About CP2077 on Consoles?

The October 2020 call also appears to hold clues as to why CDPR didn’t want anyone to know about the last-gen console versions. When asked about preorder numbers, Kiciński noted: “We’re happy with preorders and we’re looking forward to the final stage. The majority of preorders always occurs at the very final stage.” (Emphasis added).

Forty-one percent of the company’s preorders were on console. That breaks down to 3.2M players, and while some gamers have the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro, the XBO and PS4 both decisively outsold their higher-powered cousins. Most of the console gamers playing this title are going to be playing it on 2013-era hardware.

Had footage of the console version leaked during that critical final stage, preorder numbers might not have hit CDPR’s targets, and the coverage would have badly tarnished the launch. And if CD Projekt Red had sampled the PS4 / Xbox version, you can bet that footage would have leaked. The game was too abysmal for it not to.

Welcome to Knight City*

We can’t say for certain that the devs who gave 2019 interviews were lying, but three things are clear: First, the company’s leadership lied about the state of the game to investors, repeatedly claiming that there were no unusual bugs, no particular problems, and that only a final coat of finish was needed on the base console version of the title before it debuted. None of this was true, and CDPR knew it in October. There was no chance a game that looks and runs as poorly as Cyberpunk 2077 does on PS4/Xbox could ever have been finished in the six weeks from October to early December.

Second, by CD Projekt Red’s own admission, it did not begin testing or optimizing the console versions until far too late in the cycle to fix them. Nowakowski claims the company didn’t properly handle their development “from the get-go.” This cuts directly against the statements of developers in 2019 and throws the veracity of their comments into question. Maybe the company chose to emphasize high-end PC ray tracing instead of console support, late in development. There’d be nothing wrong with that, provided the company had canceled the game for PS4 and Xbox One. It didn’t.

Third, the idea that PS4 and Xbox players shouldn’t have expected a viable game experience is repeatedly undercut by Kiciński and Nowakowski, especially Nowakowski. When investors repeatedly ask if the last-gen version of the game is viable, CDPR says yes. When they ask if the last-gen versions are particularly buggy, Nowakowski both denies it and states there is no “hidden story.” When further pressed on whether or not the Xbox One version has been difficult to optimize, Nowakowski calls the idea fake news.

It obviously wasn’t.

If you would like a refund from Sony, you should request one. Any Xbox customer who was denied a refund may wish to recontact the company and request one again, using this announcement as additional leverage, assuming Microsoft hasn’t announced their own refund program by the time you read this.

ExtremeTech recommends that all Xbox One, One X, PlayStation 4, and PS4 Pro customers request refunds and revisit the question of whether to buy Cyberpunk 2077 several months from now, when it goes on sale and after various bugs have been fixed. There have never been more amazing games to choose from than there are today, and many of them are made by companies who won’t lie about the state of their game to trick you into buying it.

* Warner Bros published — and then was forced to recall — Arkham Knight over the abysmal quality of the game’s PC release. Amusingly, Warner Bros is also handling distribution for Cyberpunk 2077. 

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Cyberpunked 2077: CDPR ‘Apologizes’ for Releasing Broken Game, Offers Refunds

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CD Projekt Red, a developer whose stock has sagged 40 percent since it launched the long-awaited, much-hyped Cyberpunk 2077, has finally acknowledged that it launched an unacceptable, execrable product as far as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are concerned.

To quickly recap: Prior to the launch of CP2077, CDPR refused to give out game codes for anything but the PC version. On launch day, gamers found out why. The game is horribly blurred on last-gen consoles. Its TAA implementation doesn’t appear to work effectively at the 720p (or less) resolution that last-gen consoles maintain, and the game looks far worse than other open-world titles that have debuted for last-gen consoles.

The company has now released a statement (shown above), in which it claims it “should have paid more attention to making the game play better on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One,” but neglects to mention that its own surveys showed a full 41 percent of the player base was going to pick the game up for console.

Here’s another tweet that’s aged exceptionally well:

Let’s do some math: 8 million pre-orders, 41 percent of them on console. That’s 3.2M sales, and since we’re talking preorders, those sales are to gamers who expect to play on Xbox One / PS4 hardware.

Cyberpunk 2077 Is Not a Next-Gen Game

It’s important to note here that CP2077 is not, and was never intended as, a next-gen game to showcase the performance of the PS5 and Xbox Series X. While ray tracing might be a natural, obvious fit for the neon-drenched streets of Night City, the next-generation enhancements that are supposed to be baked into Cyberpunk 2077 won’t arrive until next year. This game began development in 2012, and the Xbox One and PS4 were the mainstream consoles for its development. CDPR certainly indicated it would enhance the game for next-gen consoles, but it never declared that CP2077 was going to be a next-gen title. If it was, the next-generation enhancements would already be baked in, and both Microsoft and Sony would be prominently pointing to it as a launch game, as opposed to acknowledging that true next-gen games are yet to arrive.

Xbox Series S owners appear to get a hybrid mode between the terrible Xbox One S version and the full Xbox Series X implementation. Eurogamer writes: “Resolution is clearly much, much lower – it can run beneath 1080p. However, the resolution bounds also increase beyond PS5’s best, reaching around 1296p. More to the point, it retains most — if not all — of the quality mode advantages, meaning that you get the higher vehicle count and crowd density, plus features like ambient occlusion. It’s still a somewhat blurry and grainy presentation overall though.”

It’s good that the Xbox Series S gets a hybrid mode, here. Microsoft’s declaration that the Xbox Series S would receive the base Xbox One version of any previous-generation game rather than a reduced-detail variant of the Xbox Series X version, never made sense. It may be that CP2077 will turn out to be an exception rather than the rule, as far as Xbox support, but we’re still glad to see that the XSS got something better than warmed-over awful.

While CDPR hopes that you don’t request a refund, ExtremeTech recommends a different policy: All PS4 / Xbox One console players should request refunds. By the time the game is actually patched up for you to play it sometime in Feb, the price will likely have dropped or the hype will have worn off and you can make a decision as to whether you’d rather have this title or something else in the first place. You can buy a game from a developer that respects you enough not to deliberately obfuscate the abominable state of their game to avoid the terror of justly-deserved bad reviews, or you can reward their behavior. Given that the developer already prominently promised not to crunch its developers, only to turn around and treat them to months of crunch, I’d say CDPR has already forfeited its chance to request any trust from anyone. It lies to its developers. It lies to its customers. I’d treat this promise with exactly the level of credibility the company deserves: none whatsoever.

This kind of garbage, “Who cares if one platform gets an utterly terrible experience?” approach was inexcusable when Warner Bros forced Arkham Knight out the door, and it’s just as wrong when it happens to console players. If you can’t be arsed to fix your game for a platform, delay the launch for that platform, or actually demonstrate some credibility and don’t launch the product at all.

Offering a refund is great and all, but CDPR knew exactly what they were doing and did it on purpose. This is not a case of “We discovered a flaw at the last second and want to make it up to you.” This is “We got caught doing something we fully intended to do, and are hoping our minimal apology will keep you from punishing us for it.”

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As parts of Canada return to lockdown, experts say rapid testing offers a way forward

With some regions now in the grips of a second pandemic shutdown, some scientists are saying the deployment of rapid tests is the best way to support sectors of the economy that have been crushed by public health measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Between March and September, only a single rapid, point-of-care test had been approved by Canadian regulators, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorizations to many more.

Following pressure from public health experts and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Health Canada has since approved four more rapid testing devices. Millions of tests have been ordered by the federal government for use in walk-in clinics and doctors’ offices.

But with a vaccine still months away, some scientists say rapid testing devices need to be used outside of health care settings at places many people are now reluctant to visit — airports, hotels, restaurants, casinos, cinemas and performing arts centres — and at essential workplaces like warehouses and food processing plants.

Dr. Steven Newmaster is a professor at the University of Guelph and an expert in DNA identification systems. He has been advising the Canadian company Songbird, which secured authorization from Health Canada to sell the Hyris bCube rapid molecular testing device late last month.

The bCube uses the “gold standard” in COVID-19 testing, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process, to determine whether a person has the virus.

A patient is given either a nasal or oral pharyngeal swab, the sample is plugged into the cube-shaped testing box and then the result is sent to a cloud-based system where users can check results.

But unlike the lab-based PCR tests, which are widely used in Canada right now, the bCube is portable and can deliver definitive results within 90 minutes. The test is 95 per cent accurate, based on clinical trial data supplied to Health Canada.

WATCH: How accurate are rapid COVID-19 tests?

Canada has approved and purchased two different kinds of rapid COVID-19 tests. While they may not be as accurate as the tests that are currently in use, experts say they can play an important role in stopping the spread of the virus. 8:33

Newmaster said widespread rapid testing is a viable alternative to more lockdowns since the tests can easily identify infected people, allowing them to be isolated quickly to prevent further spread.

“I think rapid testing is incredibly important. It’s a game-changer. It fills a gap in society to get us back to work, to get us back travelling, to get us back to school,” he told CBC News.

“Point-of-care, rapid testing is one way to be able to deal with spread, monitor the spread and alleviate a lot of stress because people can move about and know where places are safe. We need this infrastructure in place.”

Newmaster said shutdowns are a blunt instrument that have wreaked havoc on our economy — millions are still out of work, despite rosier jobs numbers posted last Friday — and eight months into this pandemic, Canada needs to be much more targeted in its approach.

“I come from a group of molecular biologists that want to democratize genetics. We’re bringing it to society and industry — small types of instruments that you can hold in your hand,” he said.

“We need to put these tests out into society. It’s cheap and fast and allows us to reduce the risk.”

Some U.S. companies, like Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts, have been aggressively pursuing rapid testing options to convince guests to come back.

People walk along a pedestrian bridge near the Wynn Las Vegas hotel-casino. Wynn Resorts said Thursday that it has recorded 548 positive tests for COVID-19 among its 12,000 employees since May, and three workers have died. (John Locher/AP Photo)

With the Vegas strip seeing massive declines in visitors, the casino company is building its own on-site PCR test processing centre so that it can test thousands of employees and casino patrons each day — a program designed to make the property a COVID-free safe-zone.

That sort of approach could help the ailing tourism industry here in Canada, which employed more than 1.7 million people before the pandemic.

Newmaster said such mass testing could also be the solution to the 14-day quarantines imposed on returning travellers — a directive that has all but ended international business travel, devastating the airline industry.

“It’s quite silly, really. If I can test myself and I don’t have the virus, I’m healthy, I feel great, why do I have quarantine for two weeks? I’m no threat to anyone,” he said.

Airlines eye rapid tests

Air Canada has procured 25,000 rapid tests so that it can begin testing its employees — and it could buy many more to put passengers at ease.

“We believe testing will be key to protecting employees and customers until such time as a COVID-19 vaccine is available,” said Dr. Jim Chung, Air Canada’s chief medical officer.

“Rapid testing is a means to enable governments to relax current blanket travel restrictions and quarantines in a measured way while still safeguarding the health and safety of the public.”

While some critics maintain the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House has given rapid testing a bad name — the White House uses the ID NOW test from Abbott Laboratories — Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, said he’s drawn a different conclusion about the usefulness of these tests after the executive branch infections.

“The White House managed to go from March all the way to October without having any cases that really spread widely — despite their complete failure to wear masks or social distance — and I attribute that largely to their rigorous testing protocol,” he said in an interview.

Without testing staff and visitors, the largely mask-free White House would have been a “super-spreader” much earlier in this pandemic, he said.

President Donald Trump opens a box containing a 5-minute test for COVID-19 from Abbott Laboratories as Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, March 30, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

“The fact that they’ve gone so long without major outbreaks tells us that frequent testing can be very powerful in reducing risk but it doesn’t get it anywhere close to zero, so we have to maintain all other public health practices,” he said.

“If all you’re doing is testing, you’re essentially playing a game of roulette. Eventually, your odds are going to run out.”

Mina said he expects rapid tests will be widely available in the U.S. by spring 2021, which could be a much needed shot in the arm for industries where social distancing just isn’t feasible.

“They will become ubiquitous. Many, many people will have access to them,” he said. “You brush your teeth and then you take a test.

“They can also be used as a barrier to entry. If someone tests positive, they can’t go to a restaurant or a school. If they’re negative, they can, but they still take all the same public health precautions.”

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Amid unusual circumstances, Lafreniere goes 1st as NHL draft offers little surprise

There was little surprise at the very top of the NHL’s pandemic-delayed draft Tuesday.

The New York Rangers chose star winger Alexis Lafreniere, the presumptive No. 1 pick since January, with the first selection.

But following a just-completed season like no other — one suspended in March, restarted in August and completed late last month inside a tightly-controlled bubble without fans thanks to COVID-19 — there were bound to be twists with teams and NHL hopefuls linking up remotely instead of being under one roof at Montreal’s Bell Centre.

First there was some timely draft history, then an appearance by a Canadian celebrity, and finally, an emotional selection made by the widow of a hockey icon.

To start things off, however, the night belonged to Lafreniere, a star winger from the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He registered 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games before the 2019-20 season was cancelled because of the pandemic.

“It was an unreal feeling,” Lafreniere, sporting his new team’s hat and jersey, said on a video conference call from the family home in St-Eustache, Que., after having his name called first. “The New York Rangers are a great organization.”

WATCH | Rangers make Lafreniere top pick:

Alexis Lafrenière from Saint-Eustache, Que., is chosen by the New York Rangers as the first overall pick of the 2020 NHL draft. 0:27

Just the second back-to-back recipient of the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year award, following in the footsteps of fellow Rimouski captain Sidney Crosby in 2004 and 2005, Lafreniere was NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater and long-viewed as the consensus choice at No. 1.

The draft, which was originally scheduled for June 26 and 27, continues Wednesday with rounds two through seven before NHL free agency opens 48 hours later.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time so it was something really special,” added Lafreniere, the first Canadian to go No. 1 since the Edmonton Oilers selected Connor McDavid in 2015. “We’re all really excited.”

Before the Lafreniere pick, commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league and players are now focused on starting next season on Jan. 1 after previously aiming to get things going Dec. 1.

The Los Angeles Kings had the second selection and chose six-foot-four centre Quinton Byfield of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves. Byfield became the highest Black player picked in NHL draft history after Evander Kane (2009) and Seth Jones (2013) each went fourth overall.

“That definitely means a lot to me,” Byfield said. “Being in the record books for anything is super special, but that especially.”

WATCH | Byfield makes history at second overall:

Quinton Byfield from Newmarket, Ont., is selected 2nd overall in the 2020 NHL draft by the Los Angeles Kings. 0:35

The Ottawa Senators used the No. 3 selection, which they acquired from San Jose as part of the Erik Karlsson trade two years ago, to grab shifty German winger Tim Stuetzle, with University of Ottawa graduate and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek announcing the pick in a pre-taped appearance.

“I didn’t know like 100 per cent what was going on with [the No. 2 and 3] picks,” Stuetzle said. “It’s just a big honour to play for the capital of Canada.”

General manager Pierre Dorion said Trebek’s appearance was the idea of team owner Eugene Melnyk, adding the gameshow icon recorded versions for Lafreniere, Byfield and Stuetzle.

Trebek’s inclusion even got a thumbs up from Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas.

“One of the highlights for me in all my time watching drafts,” Dubas said.

WATCH | Alex Trebek announces Senators’ 1st pick:

Alex Trebek, the host of ‘Jeopardy!’ and University of Ottawa graduate, announces that the Senators selected Tim Stuetzle as the 3rd overall pick of the 2020 NHL draft. 0:58

The top-ranked European skater, Stuetzle spent this season with Adler Mannheim in his country’s top professional league, where he was named rookie of the year. He’s also the third German-trained player to be drafted in the top-6, matching 2020 Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl’s selection at No. 3 by Edmonton six years ago.

“I want to win Cups in Ottawa, and I want to play in the NHL as fast as I can,” added Stuetzle, who admitted with a smile he doesn’t watch “Jeopardy!”

The Detroit Red Wings, who dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the first phase of the NHL’s draft lottery in June, got Swedish winger Lucas Raymond with their pick.

Ottawa was back on the clock with its own selection at No. 5 and chose blue-liner Jake Sanderson from the U.S. under-18 program to become the first team since 2000 to make two picks in the top-5.

The Senators, who have largely made headlines for all the wrong reasons since getting within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup final, hope securing Stuetzle and Sanderson will accelerate a rebuild that saw a roster once led by Karlsson — the team’s captain and a two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman — torn down to its studs.

“It’s one of the biggest nights in this franchise’s history,” Dorion said.

The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson took in proceedings with his family from a suite at the University of North Dakota’s home arena where he started his first semester this fall.

“It’s a little bit different draft this year,” Sanderson said. “But I think it’s kind of special in its own way.”

The Winnipeg Jets had Crystal Hawerchuk, wife of the late Dale Hawerchuk, make their selection of centre Cole Perfetti from the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit at No. 10.

Dale Hawerchuk, who became the face of the original Jets en route to the Hall of Fame, died in August at age 57 after a battle with cancer.

“Just the raw emotion that everyone feels and then the love that we feel for Dale and his family,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said when reflecting on the moment. “Just the way the stars aligned in our 10th year when we had the opportunity for the 10th pick, we had the idea of who better to make it than the greatest No. 10 in the Winnipeg Jets history?”

“It just felt so special.”

The Oilers took centre Dylan Holloway at No. 14, the Leafs selected Russian winger Rodion Amirov at No. 15 and the Montreal Canadiens snagged defenceman Kaiden Guhle at No. 16. Earlier in the day, Montreal traded forward Max Domi and a third-round pick to Columbus for winger Josh Anderson.

The Calgary Flames traded down twice from No. 19 to No. 22 and then finally to No. 24 where they took centre Connor Zary.

The Senators selected centre Ridly Greig at No. 28, which originally belonged to the New York Islanders. The Vancouver Canucks, meanwhile, don’t have a selection until Wednesday’s third round.

Unlike their NFL or NBA counterparts, NHL teams are usually seated at tables on the floor of one of the league’s 31 arenas for its draft, but the 2020 edition saw general managers and much of their scouting staffs spread across North America.

Cheveldayoff said it was nice to be able to talk out in the open and not have to try and hide his draft list, but there were downsides.

“There’s nothing like being able to meet the player right away, give him the jersey, have him put it on and just feel their excitement,” he said.

The prospects set to take their first steps into the NHL, meanwhile, all watched proceedings away from the usual bright lights. First-round hopefuls were each sent gear from the league’s 31 teams so they’d have some swag once their names were called.

Lafreniere and his counterparts didn’t get the normal thrill of climbing on stage in front of friends and family, but the night will be memorable nonetheless for every player picked.

“It’s different, and we didn’t expect that a couple of months ago,” Lafreniere said. “Growing up, you’re dreaming of being drafted.

“And for me today, it’s amazing to go first.”

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Biden offers condolences, urges COVID-19 vigilance after Trumps test positive

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden says U.S. President Donald Trump testing positive for the coronavirus is a “bracing reminder” of the seriousness of the virus. He also says he’s received two tests, and both came back negative.

Speaking at an event in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Friday, Biden said he received a test in Delaware and one from “the former White House doctor” who came up to Delaware to administer the test, “and everything’s clear.”

The president said early Friday that he and his wife, Melania Trump, had tested positive for coronavirus. Biden was tested after spending nearly 90 minutes onstage with the president during their debate earlier this week.

Biden said he wished the president and the first lady a full recovery and that “this is not a matter of politics.” Biden said it was a “reminder to all of us that we have to take this virus seriously. It is not going away automatically.”

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