23 Jan 2022

Tonga struggles with ash, psychological trauma after eruption and tsunami

A satellite image shows Mango islands
A satellite image shows Mango islands after Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano eruption, in Tonga, January 20, 2022. Satellite Image @2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS
Families have prevented children from playing outside as Tonga struggles to deal with the ash and  psychological effects of last week's volcanic eruption and tsunami, aid workers and local residents said. Telephone service interrupted. 

The Red Cross said it was providing 173 households on the main island of Tonga not only with tents, food, water and toilets  but also comforts. "Right now everyone is still having issues," said Drew Havea,  vice president of the Tonga Red Cross. 

Because of the ashes, "families make sure their kids aren't playing outside, that everyone is inside," he said. 

Although some residents of the hardest-hit Ha'apai outlying islands  had been evacuated to the main island of Tongatapu, others refused to go, Havea said. The psychological effects of waves breaking through and destroying villages will affect their lives for some time, he said. “All the kids grew up, they were taught in their geography class that this is the ring of fire we  all live in. 

Now I think we're pretty worried and we're starting to think, 'How active are these places?he told Reuters. The eruption of HungaTongaHungaHa'apai volcano, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean and was heard about 2,300 km (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand.

The eruption was so powerful that space satellites captured not only huge clouds of ash but also an atmospheric shockwave that radiated out from the volcano at close to the speed of sound.
"I thought the world was ending," recalled John Tukuafu, owner of  beach resort Vakaloa, who had to rush to save his wife from the tsunami. 

The resort was in Kanokupolu, one of the worst-hit areas of Tongatapu. and uprooted trees and debris now lie in the area where the complex was located. it has taken a week for many people to recover from the "throbbing and terrifying" sound of the eruption, he said.
 
"It was too loud to hear, but I could feel it. Until the big bang," She told Reuters by phone on SundayResidents were wishing for tropical rain to wash off the "awful and itchy" volcanic dust, said Fonua. Leaves on trees had turned brown and were falling off.

Fonua said she was in her seafront office talking on the phone to her son in New Zealand when the tsunami struckWhen the line went dead, he feared she had been swept away. 
The anxiety of many Tongan families overseas was prolonged in the days it took for limited international call capacity to be restored.

Cut off from the world, Tongans got on with immediate rescue efforts, Fonua said.
Older Tongans with a tradition of self-reliance remarked that young people had been forced to stop looking at their smart phones and had leapt into action, she said.

With power restored after a week, the Matangi Tonga website posted its first story on Saturday since the eruption and tsunami, describing the "pumice rain", as volcanic debris fell from the sky, and waves that engulfed cars.

Still, her office cannot send email and Tonga needs more satellite capacity, Fonua said.
The international navy ships and flights arriving had brought much needed supplies and communication equipment, she said.

23 Jan 2022

People with this certain gene version less likely to develop severe COVID-19

omicron

The new results show that people with a specific version of a gene are less likely to develop severe COVID-19. Earlier research had identified a specific group of genes, called the OAS1/2/3 gene cluster, as being involved in the risk for severe COVID-19. 

One version of a gene in that cluster –passed down from Neanderthals, appeared to protect against serious disease, reducing  risk by about 23%. Previous research was mostly done on people of European ancestory. Researchers are now seeing the same association of this genetic variant with less severe COVID-19 in people of African ancestory, according to a report published in Nature Genetics.

 "The fact that people of African descent had the same protection allowed us to identify the only variant in  DNA that actually protects against COVID19 infection. co-author dr. Jennifer Huffman  said in a statement.

 OAS genes are involved in a cascade of effects that help cells fight viruses, the researchers said. Understanding these genes and their impact on COVID19 risks could aid in the development of future drugs, they added.

Fewer Delta breakthroughs with Moderna vs Pfizer/BioNTech

When the delta variant  coronavirus was widespread in the United States, recipients of two doses of Moderna's mRNA vaccine (MRNA.O) were less likely to have breakthrough infection  and  were slightly less likely to be hospitalized  than recipients of two doses of  mRNA vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, found a large study. 

The researchers analyzed the medical records of more than 637,000 vaccine recipients who had not previously been infected with the virus and had not received a booster shot.

 As reported in JAMA on Thursday, advanced infections increased steadily each month from July through November 2021, with higher rates in the Pfizer/BioNTech group. 

In November, there were 2.8 cases per thousand people vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech injections compared to 1.6 cases per thousand recipients of the Moderna vaccines.

23 Jan 2022

Scientists scrutinise characteristics of new Omicron sub-variant

 

Image Credit:CIPhotos via Getty Images

Studies are underway to find out the precise characteristics of the latest Covid-19 variant ‘BA.2’. It already accounts for the majority of most recent cases in a number of countries, including India, Denmark and Sweden. But, for French Health Minister Olivier Véran, this sub-variant’s arrival in France is not “a game changer”.

BA.2, nicknamed “Omicron’s little brother”, made its first appearance in France a few weeks ago. Mentioned for the first time by Véran during a press conference on January 20, this new Covid-19 derivative is being scrutinised by scientists.

  • Where does BA.2 come from?  

BA.2 was first identified in India and South Africa in late December 2021. It is a sub-variant, believed to have emerged from a mutation of Omicron (officially known as BA.1). Omicron itself was born from a mutation of Delta. Other sub-lineages have already been referenced, such as BA.3 or BB.2, but they have attracted less attention from epidemiologists because of the dramatic increase in cases of people who have contracted BA.2.

BA.2 has more than 20 mutations, about half of them in the spike protein. This is the famous protein that interacts with human cells and is the key to the virus entering the body.

  • Is this sub-variant as dangerous as Omicron?  

The World Health Organization (WHO), which had classified Omicron as a “variant of concern”, does not at this stage distinguish between it and its BA.2 sub-lineage. For his part, Véran said that “as far as we know at the moment, it corresponds more or less to the characteristics we know about Omicron”. It is not “a game changer” at this stage, added Véran in an attempt to reassure.

BA.2 is being closely studied by the scientific community, but there is as yet no precise data on its resistance to vaccines or the severity of the cases of Covid-19 it causes. Scientists are beginning to speak out on the subject, while remaining cautious.

Virologist Tom Peacock of Imperial College London tweeted that “very early observations from India and Denmark suggest there is no dramatic difference in severity compared to BA.1. This data should become more solid (one way or another) in the coming weeks.”

Peacock added that “there is likely to be minimal differences in vaccine effectiveness against BA.1 and BA.2. Personally, I’m not sure BA.2 is going to have a substantial impact on the current Omicron wave of the pandemic.

“Several countries are near, or even past the peak of BA.1 waves. I would be very surprised if BA.2 caused a second wave at this point. Even with slightly higher transmissibility this absolutely is not a Delta-Omicron change and instead is likely to be slower and more subtle,” he predicted.

For epidemiologist Antoine Flahault, director of the University of Geneva’s Institute of Global Health, infection monitoring should make it possible to test the resistance of BA.2, in particular if people infected with the classic Omicron are again contaminated with the sub-variant. However, it is necessary to have the means to detect contamination with BA.2 in the population, which seems delicate at this stage and which does not seem to be self-evident.

  • Why is BA.2 so difficult to trace?  

BA.2 poses certain challenges to scientists, as it is not easy to track. A variation in PCR test protocols and the fact that the type of kit varies from one laboratory to another makes it difficult to reliably identify BA.2, according to Florence Débarre, a biologist at the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Paris, interviewed by Libération. “In the UK, the way the tests are carried out does not allow us to distinguish between BA.2 and Delta,” explains Débarre.

There is a more accurate but less commonly used tool for tracking variants: genetic sequencing of the virus. This allows the exact presence of this sub-variant to be identified. But in France, for example, only some of the laboratory tests are randomly subjected to this more in-depth and expensive form of analysis. Sequencing also has the drawback of being slow, which means it is not suitable for monitoring a rapidly spreading variant.

  • Where is BA.2 most dominant? 

The sub-variant has been detected in at least 43 countries on all continents. It is believed to have become the most common variant in a number of countries, including India, Denmark and Sweden. In Denmark, the number of daily cases of Covid-19 has started to rise again, just when the Danes thought they had already reached the peak.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) identified more than 400 cases in Britain in the first 10 days of January.

“The Danish authorities have no explanation for this phenomenon, but it is being closely monitored,” said France’s public health agency, which is following the latest developments in Denmark. This “suggests that BA.2 is even more transmissible”, agreed Débarre. In Europe, BA.2 has also been sequenced in the UK, Germany, Belgium, Italy and France, while North America, Asia and Australia have recorded cases, too.

  • Is BA.2 evolving as fast in France?

To date, the sub-variant has been detected “at very low levels” in France, says France’s public health agency. “We have an international situation where the Omicron variant is circulating a lot, so it is normal that we observe sub-variants over time,” the agency said on January 21.


23 Jan 2022

WhatsApp plans transfer of data between Android, iOS devices

whatsapp

 

WhatsApp chat could now be transferred between Android and iOS devices after the Meta-owned messaging app  plans to roll out a new update. 

This was revealed by the found source code  of WhatsApp 22.74 Beta for iOS. However, the migration process would not be easy and would require both devices to have the app installed and would likely involve a wired or  private WiFi connection. In comparison, other messaging apps store and sync user data with Google Drive, iCloud or their own cloud service.

 WhatsApp recently added new features to its desktop and Android apps. The Android app will get new pencil and drawing  tools in a future update, while WhatsApp Desktop will get new chat bubble colors. The desktop app  also gets a new dark blue color that is only visible in dark theme mode.

The instant messaging app is also testing a new emoji message reaction info tab and new  message reaction notification settings. WhatsApp feature tracker WABetaInfo said that WhatsApp is introducing new drawing tools to its Android app. 

You get two pens, including one thinner and one thicker than the existing pen. The app is also working on a blur  tool that may be added  in the future. 

The new features appeared in the WhatsApp Beta for Android 2.22.5 update, but they are disabled by default. 

These features are still under development and may be made available to WhatsApp beta testers soon.

22 Jan 2022

Bitcoin Extends Slide, Has Fallen More Than 50% From Record High


 Bitcoin, the largest digital asset, extended its decline Saturday, and has now shed more than 50% from its record high in November.

Bitcoin’s decline since hitting the record has wiped out more than $600 billion in market value, and over $1 trillion has been lost from the aggregate crypto market. While there have been much larger percentage drawdowns for both Bitcoin and the aggregate market, this marks the second-largest ever decline in dollar terms for both, according to Bespoke Investment Group.

With the Fed’s intentions rocking both cryptocurrencies and stocks, a dominant theme has emerged in the digital-asset space: cryptos have twisted and turned in nearly exactly the same way as equities have.

Bitcoin fell as low as $34,042 Saturday, a drop of 7.2%.

22 Jan 2022

Bitcoin Extends Slide, Has Fallen More Than 50% From Record High


 Bitcoin, the largest digital asset, extended its decline Saturday, and has now shed more than 50% from its record high in November.

Bitcoin’s decline since hitting the record has wiped out more than $600 billion in market value, and over $1 trillion has been lost from the aggregate crypto market. While there have been much larger percentage drawdowns for both Bitcoin and the aggregate market, this marks the second-largest ever decline in dollar terms for both, according to Bespoke Investment Group.

With the Fed’s intentions rocking both cryptocurrencies and stocks, a dominant theme has emerged in the digital-asset space: cryptos have twisted and turned in nearly exactly the same way as equities have.

Bitcoin fell as low as $34,042 Saturday, a drop of 7.2%.

20 Jan 2022

Russian c.bank proposes banning cryptocurrencies, crypto mining

crypto currency
Representations of virtual cryptocurrencies are seen in this illustration taken November 28, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Russia's central bank on Thursday proposed banning the use and mining of cryptocurrencies on Russian territory, citing threats to financial stability, citizens' wellbeing and its monetary policy sovereignty.

The move is the latest in a global cryptocurrency crackdown as governments from Asia to the United States worry that privately operated highly volatile digital currencies could undermine their control of financial and monetary systems.

Russia has argued for years against cryptocurrencies, saying they could be used in money laundering or to finance terrorism. It eventually gave them legal status in 2020 but banned their use as a means of payment.

In December, the price of bitcoin fell after Reuters reported, citing sources, that Russia's regulator was in favour of a complete ban on cryptocurrencies.

In a report published on Thursday, the central bank said speculative demand primarily determined cryptocurrencies' rapid growth and that they carried characteristics of a financial pyramid, warning that bubbles in the market could form, threatening financial stability and citizens.

The bank proposed preventing financial institutions from carrying out any operations with cryptocurrencies and said mechanisms should be developed to block transactions aimed at buying or selling cryptocurrencies for fiat, or traditional currencies. The proposed ban includes crypto exchanges.

Russians are active cryptocurrency users, the central bank said, with an annual transaction volume of about $5 billion.

CRYPTO MINING

Russia is the world's third-largest player in bitcoin mining, behind the United States and Kazakhstan, though the latter may see a miner exodus over fears of tightening regulation following unrest earlier this month. read more

The central bank said crypto mining created problems for energy consumption. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are "mined" by powerful computers that compete against others hooked up to a global network to solve complex mathematical puzzles. The process guzzles electricity and is often powered by fossil fuels.

"The best solution is to introduce a ban on cryptocurrency mining in Russia," the bank said.

In August, Russia accounted for 11.2% of the global "hashrate" - crypto jargon for the amount of computing power being used by computers connected to the bitcoin network.

20 Jan 2022

EXCLUSIVE TikTok owner ByteDance’s revenue growth slowed to 70% in 2021 – sources

tiktok
Tik Tok logos are seen on smartphones in front of a displayed ByteDance logo in this illustration taken November 27, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

TikTok owner ByteDance saw its  revenue grow  70% year on year to about $58 billion in 2021,  slower growth than a year earlier as China tightens its regulation of big tech companies.

According to two people familiar with the matter the numbers were revealed to a small group of employees at an internal meeting of the social media giant this week .

In 2020, the Beijing-based company's total revenue grew by over 100% to $34.3 billion, Reuters has reported. ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chinese tech companies from Tencent to Alibaba have reported slowing growth amid a sweeping crackdown by the country's regulators, who have rolled out new rules for how they operate and interact with their users. 

According to a recent report by market research firm Interactive Marketing Lab Zhongguancun, 

ByteDance held its second position in China's online advertising market last year with a 21% market share.

The number one position was still held by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group (9988.HK), and third place went to gaming giant Tencent Holdings (0700.HK), according to the report.


The overall growth of online ad sales in China declined to 9.3% in 2021 from 13.8% a year earlier, the report says.


Tech news website The Information last November reported that ByteDance's 2021 revenue was on track to rise about 60% to 400 billion yuan ($63.07 billion).


ByteDance is one of the world's biggest private tech companies with recent trades in the private-equity secondary market valuing it at about $300 billion, Reuters has reported.


Following Beijing's antitrust efforts, ByteDance has recently been downsizing its powerful investment arm. read more

In November, ByteDance reorganised itself into six business units in its biggest organizational change since ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming said in May he would step down as CEO. 

Besides TikTok, ByteDance's other apps include its Chinese equivalent Douyin, news aggregator Jinri Toutiao and video-streaming platform Xigua.

In 2021, users spent approximately $2.3 billion in TikTok and the iOS version of Douyin, a 77% jump year-over-year, according to app tracker Sensor Tower.


 

20 Jan 2022

Microsoft-Activision deal gives merger speculators a new darling

microsoft
Microsoft logo is seen on a smartphone placed on displayed Activision Blizzard logo in this illustration taken January 18, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Hedge funds, which make profits by speculating on precarious takeovers, got a treat this week when Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) agreed to buy "call of duty" maker Activision Blizzard (ATVI.O) for US$68.7 billion dollars in cash. The transaction requires antitrust laws. 

Approved in the United States and other major jurisdictions, including the European Union and China. It comes at a time when President Joe Biden's administration is taking a closer look at large mergers, blaming some of them for raising prices to consumers that are fueling inflation.

Activision's shares ended trading at $82.15 on Wednesday, well below the $95 per share deal price, reflecting concerns that regulators may shoot down a combination that would create the third biggest gaming company, after Tencent and Sony Group Corp (6758.T).


This infers a 57% chance of the deal closing, based on Activision's closing share price of $65.39 before the deal was announced.


The wide spread gives investors willing to bet on whether the deal will be completed the opportunity to score double-digit returns. At a time when so-called merger arbitrage strategies have trailed the broader stock market's returns, it is an attractive but also risky proposition.


Last year, merger arbitrage funds returned nearly 10% according to Hedge Fund Research data, beating returns posted in 2020, 2019 and 2018, but trailing the broader S&P 500 stock market's 27% gain in 2021.


For some investors, Aon's (AON.N) scuttled $30 billion acquisition of Willis Towers Watson (WTY.F) as the U.S. Justice Department sued to block the deal hurt returns.


Now they are looking to come back, hoping that this deal will also force competitors into making deals of their own.

"The positive outlook for event-driven and merger-arbitrage oriented firms in 2022 has been accelerated with the Microsoft-Activision deal," said Hedge Fund Research Inc President Ken Heinz.


Microsoft and Activision gave themselves until June 2023 to complete the transaction, giving hedge funds months to handicap how regulators will react to Microsoft bundling its Xbox platform with Activision's popular games, such as World of Warcraft and Diablo.


Investors may get hints on the Biden administration's stance soon as the Federal Trade Commission is expected to weigh in on defense contractor Lockheed Martin's (LMT.N) planned $4.4 billion acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne (AJRD.N) and the Justice Department will decide on healthcare insurer UnitedHealth's (UNH.N)$13 billion bid for healthcare analytics and technology vendor Change Healthcare (CHNG.O).

Coverage finds such as Millennium, Tiesemann consultant and pentwater capital spend a piece of their fusion bets, and many have occupied Microsoft and Activision for some time.Mutual funds The Merger Fund run by Westchester Capital Management and The Arbitrage Funds run by Water Island Capital offer similar strategies.

20 Jan 2022

AUSTRIA ADDS A LOTTERY TO COVID VACCINE MANDATE


A doctor vaccinates a person with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Vienna, Austria April 26, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Austria's conservative government said  Thursday it was launching a national lottery to encourage holdouts to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, hours before parliament passed legislation that would introduce a national vaccination mandate. 

About 72% of the Austrian population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe. "What's up for grabs in the Vaccine Fleet?" Vouchers!”

 This is what Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer said at a press conference  of the social democratic opposition leader Pamela Rendi Wagner, with whom the measure was being negotiated.

Nehammer said he wanted there to be a financial reward for getting vaccinated, adding: “We have learned from the past and we have seen that a vaccination lottery is the best possible way to set up such a system.”


Members of the public, whether already vaccinated or not, would be entitled to one ticket for each shot they have had – three in total for those who have had their booster shot.


Every 10th ticket would win a 500 euro ($568) gift voucher, Nehammer said, adding it would cost up to 1 billion euros. He later added on Twitter that the vouchers could be used in “retail, tourism, hospitality, services, culture and sport”.


Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler said the aim was to support Austrian businesses and avoid online retailers as much as possible.