Tech firms deploy Bluetooth chips for coronavirus contact tracing in office

By Paresh Dave

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – Technology companies are developing their own contact tracing systems to help prevent coronavirus outbreaks in their offices as countries begin to ease lockdown measures and a return to the workplace is in the offing.

Silicon Valley company Juniper Networks Inc plans to equip its about 10,000 employees with work identification badge holders that have a Bluetooth chip that will help to record a worker’s movements and interactions in the office, company vice president Jeff Aaron said in an interview.

The system employs Wi-Fi routers and access points from Juniper Network’s unit Mist that will communicate with the Bluetooth chips on the badges. The data collected will help determine which employees need to be tested and isolate after a colleague tests positive for the new coronavirus.

All U.S. states have eased virus lockdowns, but work-from-home remains the norm in California’s tech industry. California has reported more than 86,000 coronavirus cases and 3,500 deaths, the lowest tallies in the United States relative to the state’s large population.

Mist, which is a small but fast-growing Wi-Fi equipment maker, is selling its new system to other businesses through its annual subscription of $150 per access point, and about 25 customers are testing it, Aaron said.

He said businesses that are typically reluctant to spend on replacing older technology have indicated that significant funding is available for contact tracing in the workplace.

“They are saying: If this is a reason for me to rip out my old Wi-Fi and put in a Wi-Fi plus BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) solution and support contact tracing use cases, I can definitely get budget for that,” he said.

Aaron said customers could skip the Bluetooth component in its system, but still see when spaces such as conference rooms become overcrowded by tracking the number of Wi-Fi-connected devices.

Several software companies have announced tools during the pandemic to automate workplace contact tracing and help customers avoid disruptions.

Among others touting workplace tracking tools, Slovakia-based Symbiosy said its own software, along with sensors from technology partner Quuppa, helped identify about 40 people to test after an employee became infected last month.

“Manually, we would not even have been able to get that precision,” said Tomas Melisko, head of real estate company HB Reavis’ Symbiosy unit. “And we would need to have sent twice that many people for testing” if solely analyzing building access logs.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Coronavirus pandemic a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’, warns U.S.

By David Stanway and Josh Smith

SHANGHAI/SEOUL (Reuters) – Asia reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, including a U.S. soldier stationed in South Korea, as the United States warned of an inevitable pandemic and outbreaks in Italy and Iran spread to other countries.

World stocks tumbled for the fifth day on fears of prolonged disruption to global supply chains, while safe-haven gold rose back toward seven-year highs and U.S. bond yields held near record lows.

Stock markets globally have wiped out $3.3 trillion of value in the past four trading sessions, as measured by the MSCI all-country index.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to prepare, saying that while the immediate risk there was low the global situation suggested a pandemic was likely.

“It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when and how many people will be infected,” the CDC’s principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, said on Tuesday.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, however, advised against referring to a pandemic.

“We should not be too eager to declare a pandemic without a careful and clear-minded analysis of the facts,” Tedros said in remarks to Geneva-based diplomats.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems. It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”

 

‘DON’T WAIT’

The United States has reported 57 cases of the virus. U.S. President Donald Trump, back in Washington after a visit to India, said on Twitter that he would meet U.S. officials for a briefing on the coronavirus on Wednesday.

Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva that countries’ preparations should not wait.

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready,” he said. “This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super-fast to prevent a pandemic.”

Aylward said China’s “extraordinary mobilization” showed how an aggressive public health policy could curb its spread.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after authorities isolated Hubei province and imposed other containment measures.

China’s National Health Commission reported another 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

The WHO said only 10 new cases were reported in China on Tuesday outside Hubei.

South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones including a U.S. soldier, as authorities readied an ambitious plan to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the center of the outbreak.

Of the new cases, 134 were from Daegu city, where the virus is believed to have been passed among members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The U.S. military said a 23-year-old soldier based in Camp Carroll, about 20 km (12 miles) from Daegu, had been infected and was in self-quarantine at home.

OLYMPIC WORRIES

 

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan’s professional baseball teams would play matches without spectators until March 15 due to virus concerns, Kyodo news agency reported.

Japan has nearly 170 virus cases, besides the 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined of its coast this month. Six people have died in Japan, including four from the ship.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 11 in Italy and 19 in Iran, the most outside China, according to a Reuters tally.

Iran’s deputy health minister – seen mopping his brow at a televised news conference – was among its 139 coronavirus infections. Cases linked to Iran have been reported across the fregion.

Kuwait said six new coronavirus cases, all linked to travel to Iran, took its tally to 18, while Bahrain said its infections had risen to 26 after three new ones on a flight from Iran.

The United Arab Emirates, which has reported 13 coronavirus cases, is prepared for “worst case scenarios” as it spreads in the Middle East, a government official said.

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited the country, have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one in Spain’s Canary Islands, were also locked down after cases emerged linked to Italy. Spain also reported its first three cases on the mainland.

France, with 17 cases, reported its second death.

 

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Susan Heavy in Washington, Diane Bartz in Chicago, Gavin Jones, Francesca Piscioneri and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul; Paresi Hafezi and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Geneva; Writing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)

WHO decries ‘collective failure’ as measles kills 140,000

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Measles infected nearly 10 million people in 2018 and killed 140,000, mostly children, as devastating outbreaks of the viral disease hit every region of the world, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

In figures described by its director general as “an outrage”, the WHO said most of last year’s measles deaths were in children under five years old who had not been vaccinated.

“The fact that any child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles is frankly an outrage and a collective failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable children,” said the WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus.

The picture for 2019 is even worse, the WHO said, with provisional data up to November showing a three-fold increase in case numbers compared with the same period in 2018.

The United States has already reported its highest number of measles cases in 25 years in 2019, while four countries in Europe – Albania, the Czech Republic, Greece and Britain – lost their WHO “measles-free” status in 2018 after suffering large outbreaks.

An outbreak in the South Pacific nation of Samoa has infected more than 4,200 people and killed more than 60, mostly babies and children, in a battle complicated by a vocal anti-vaccination movement.

In 2018, measles hit hardest in Liberia, Ukraine, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Somalia, the WHO said, with these five nations accounting for nearly half of all cases worldwide.

Globally, measles vaccination rates have stagnated for almost a decade. The WHO and the UNICEF children’s fund say that in 2018, around 86% of children got a first dose of measles vaccine through routine vaccination plans, and fewer than 70% got the second dose recommended to fully protect them.

STAGGERING

Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at Britain’s London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the numbers were “staggering”.

“Some countries are scrambling to vaccinate in the face of serious outbreaks – far too late for many,” she said.

Measles is one of the most contagious known diseases, more so than Ebola, tuberculosis or flu. It can linger in the air or on surfaces for several hours after an infected person has been and gone, putting anyone not vaccinated at risk.

Among wealthier nations, vaccination rates have been hurt by some parents shunning them for what they say are religious or philosophical reasons. Mistrust of authority and debunked myths about links to autism also weaken vaccine confidence and lead some parents to delay protecting their children.

Research published in October showed that measles infection not only carries a risk of death or severe complications including pneumonia, brain damage, blindness and deafness, but can also damage the victim’s immune memory for months or years – leaving those who survive measles vulnerable to other dangerous diseases such as flu or severe diarrhea.

The WHO data showed there were an estimated 9,769,400 cases of measles and 142,300 related deaths globally in 2018. This compares to 7,585,900 cases and 124,000 deaths in 2017.

Charlie Weller, head of vaccines at the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the numbers were a tragedy. “If we are to protect lives, we must understand and address the reasons why measles vaccine uptake is lower,” she said.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Gareth Jones and Hugh Lawson)

U.S. measles cases in 2019 highest since 1992

FILE PHOTO: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo/File Photo

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – The United States recorded 971 cases of measles in the first five months of 2019, surpassing the total for any year since 1992, which was before the disease was declared eradicated in the country, federal officials said on Thursday.

The United States declared measles eradicated from the country in 2000, but officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Thursday that the country risks losing its measles elimination status.

There were a total of 2,126 U.S. cases of measles in 1992, the CDC said in a statement.

The disease has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated.

Public health officials blame the resurgence on the spread of misinformation about vaccines. A vocal fringe of parents opposes vaccines, believing, contrary to scientific studies, that ingredients in them can cause autism.

“Measles is preventable and the way to end this outbreak is to ensure that all children and adults who can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement.

“Again, I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism,” Redfield said.

When measles was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000, it meant the virus was no longer continually present year-round although outbreaks have still happened via travelers coming from countries where measles is common.

Communities in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and Rockland County, an area of New York state about 30 miles (50 km) north of Manhattan, are dealing with measles outbreaks that have lasted nearly eight months.

Other measles cases have occurred in Oklahoma and Washington state.

Decades ago, before widespread use of the measles vaccine, about 3 million to 4 million people a year became sick with the disease in the United States with 400 to 500 deaths a year.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Richard Chang and Diane Craft)

As Ebola threatens mega-cities, vaccine stockpile needs grow

FILE PHOTO: Healthcare workers carry the coffin of a baby believed to have died of Ebola, in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, Dec 20 (Reuters) – Doubts are growing about whether the world’s emergency stockpile of 300,000 Ebola vaccine doses is enough to control future epidemics as the deadly disease moves out of rural forest areas and into urban mega-cities.

Outbreak response experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) and at the vaccines alliance GAVI are already talking to the leading Ebola vaccine manufacturer, Merck, to reassess just how much larger global stocks need to be.

“We’re actively engaged with the World Health Organization and with groups like GAVI, the U.S. government and others to try to understand what will be an appropriate sized stockpile in the future,” Merck’s head of vaccines clinical research, Beth-Ann Coller, said in a telephone interview.

Supply of the Merck shot, which is currently being used to fight a large and spreading outbreak of Ebola in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is not a problem right now, according to the WHO’s deputy director-general of emergency preparedness and response, Peter Salama.

But the nature of Ebola outbreaks is changing, he told Reuters. As the virus finds its way out of rural villages into populous urban settings, plans for how to contain it in future must change too.

“What I’m concerned about is the medium- to long-term stockpile. The figure of 300,000 was very much based on previous Ebola outbreaks where you never really had huge numbers of cases because they were in isolated, rural, populations. But now, we increasingly see Ebola in mega-cities and towns.”

“We need to view it now as an urban disease as well as a rural one – and therefore one requiring a different order of magnitude of preparations, including vaccines,” he said.

Merck’s experimental Ebola vaccine, known as rVSV-ZEBOV, is the furthest ahead in development. Another potential vaccine being developed by Johnson & Johnson could also eventually become part of the stockpile, global health officials say.

Congo’s two Ebola outbreaks this year illustrate the shifting nature of the threat.

The first was relatively contained, infecting up to 54 people and killing 33 of them in an area of DRC’s Equateur Province that is remote and sparsely populated.

Several of the eight outbreaks before this one in Congo – including one in 2014 and another in 2017 both also in Equateur – were also quickly contained and limited in size.

But this year’s second outbreak in Congo – and the country’s tenth since the virus was first identified there in 1976 – is concentrated not in rural villages but in urban areas of the North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

It has already infected more than 450 people, killed more than 270, and last month spread to Butembo, a densely populated city of about one million.

This kind of prospect means global health emergency responders must “review our assumptions around Ebola”, Salama said. “If it were to take off in Butembo, or Goma, or, even worse, Kinshasa, we’d be talking about a totally different issue in terms of … vaccine supplies required.”

Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI vaccines alliance which has an agreement with Merck to ensure a current stockpile of 300,000 rVSV-ZEBOV doses, told Reuters that around 40,000 doses had been used so far in the Congo outbreak.

The emergency response is based on “ring vaccination” which aims to control an outbreak by identifying and offering the vaccine to contacts of anyone likely to be infected. This method uses relatively small numbers of vaccine doses and forms a human buffer of immunity to try to prevent spread of the disease.

For now, in Congo, Berkley said, there is no immediate need to boost the stockpile. But looking towards future inevitable outbreaks, the numbers would likely need to change.

“The challenge we would have – and this has been under discussion – is if we started to do community-based vaccination in urban and semi-urban areas. That’s when the numbers would start to get quite big quite quickly,” he told Reuters.

Merck’s shot has proven safe and effective in trials in West Africa but has yet to be approved for a license by U.S. and European regulators, so is being used in the Congo outbreak under special emergency rules for experimental products.

When it gets approval, which Coller hopes would be in 2019, it will be made at a newly built manufacturing plant in Germany.

Coller said Merck is not yet clear how many doses a year, or a month, the German facility could churn out once it is in production, but she stressed the company would “work collaboratively with the public health agencies to do our best to support their needs”.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Yemen’s cholera epidemic likely to intensify in coming months: WHO

FILE PHOTO: A nurse walks by women being treated at a cholera treatment center in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen October 8, 2017. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

RIYADH (Reuters) – The World Health Organization warned on Monday that a cholera epidemic in Yemen that killed more than 2,000 people could flare up again in the rainy season.

WHO Deputy Director General for Emergency Preparedness and Response Peter Salama said the number of cholera infections had been in decline in Yemen over the past 20 weeks after it hit the 1 million mark of suspected cases.

“However, the real problem is we’re entering another phase of rainy seasons,” Salama told Reuters on the sidelines of an international aid conference in Riyadh.

“Usually cholera cases increase corresponding to those rainy seasons. So we expect one surge in April, and another potential surge in August.”

A proxy war between Iran-aligned Houthis and the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by a Saudi-led alliance, has killed more than 10,000 people since 2015, displaced more than 2 million and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, including the health system.

Yemen relies heavily on food imports and is on the brink of famine. The United Nations says more than 22 million of Yemen’s 25 million population need humanitarian assistance, including 11.3 million who are in acute need.

Salama said the country had also had an outbreak of diphtheria, a vaccine-preventable disease that usually affects children and which has largely been eliminated in developed countries.

Both cholera and diphtheria outbreaks are a product of the damage to the health system in the country, he said, adding that less than half of Yemen’s health facilities are fully functioning.

“We’re very concerned we’re going to go from a failing health system to a failed one that’s going to spawn more infectious diseases and more suffering,” Salama said.

However, Salama said that despite more than 2,000 deaths from cholera, the fatality rate has been low, at around 0.2 to 0.3 percent.

The WHO has approval from the government for vaccination campaigns and is working on ensuring all parties to the conflict implement the plan, he added.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Alison Williams)

Chipotle E. Coli outbreaks appear to be over, CDC says

Two E. Coli outbreaks linked to Chipotle restaurants appear to be over, officials said Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it still doesn’t know what specific ingredient was behind the outbreaks, though it hasn’t received word of any illnesses since Dec. 1.

The CDC said 60 people in 14 states fell ill last October and November, and 22 were hospitalized. The organization interviewed 59 of those people, and 52 of them said they had eaten at Chipotle.

The CDC collected food from several Chipotle restaurants, though none of its tests showed signs of the bacteria. The organization said a food source is only identified in 46 percent of outbreaks, and it can be hard to determine the exact item responsible for the illnesses in cases where restaurants cook several ingredients together and serve them in different menu items.

According to the CDC, the first E. Coli outbreak affected 55 people in Washington, Oregon, California, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York Ohio and Pennsylvania. The second outbreak, which featured a different strain of the bacteria, sickened five people in Kansas, Oklahoma and North Dakota. None of the 60 people died or developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure that sometimes occurs following E. Coli infections.

Chipotle has said it has since implemented new food safety protocols, and announced earlier this month that it will close all of its restaurants for four hours on Feb. 8 for a food safety meeting.

The outbreaks were just a part of the recent struggles for Chipotle.

The restaurant also told investors earlier this month that it was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with an “isolated norovirus incident” in August at a California restaurant. The same message indicated a norovirus outbreak in December at a Boston restaurant “worsened the adverse financial and operating impacts” Chipotle experienced from the E. Coli outbreaks.

Norovirus and E. Coli are both foodborne illnesses that can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps, according to the CDC.

Chipotle’s stock was trading at $750.42 on Oct. 13, near an all-time high, but tumbled to $404.26 on Jan. 12 amid the E. Coli and norovirus concerns. That was a 54 percent drop.

The stock has rebounded slightly and was trading at $472.64 on Monday afternoon.