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Will Europe’s Politicians Ever Get their Coveted Universal Vaccination?

Several countries have introduced mandatory “health passes” and made Covid-19 vaccination compulsory since last summer. The vaccination mandates represent a massive infringement of human rights and their medical justification has dwindled over time….

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Several countries have introduced mandatory “health passes” and made Covid-19 vaccination compulsory since last summer. The vaccination mandates represent a massive infringement of human rights and their medical justification has dwindled over time. Yet, governments are doubling down on their resolution to vaccinate everybody. But, will people accept this abuse and should they let governments decide on individual health matters?

What Do Vaccination Statistics Show?

France was among the first countries to announce the introduction of a health pass and mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers in mid-July 2021, despite previous assurances that vaccination would remain a free choice. The health pass proving that the holder was vaccinated, has recovered from the illness or had a recent negative test is necessary to enter cafés, restaurants, shopping malls, cultural places or to board a train or a plane. Life must be very dull for the French lacking a health pass, but this is the price to pay when the government set itself the target to vaccinate everyone. After the health pass announcement, the daily number of first dose vaccinations more than doubled, but fell precipitously to less than 0.1% of the population by early September (Graph 1).

Graph 1: Daily first-dose vaccinations in France

Source: Our World in Data

The cumulative first dose vaccination rate jumped above 70% by early September, but grew only slowly afterwards (Graph 2). With about 80% of the people vaccinated, France is now among the top vaccinated countries in Europe.  But, the full vaccination target remained out of reach. In response, the government introduced in the Parliament even tougher legislation against the unvaccinated, by removing the negative test from the health pass. In addition, President Macron sparked public outrage by vowing to “piss off” the unvaccinated, qualifying them as irresponsible people who cannot be considered French citizens. Again, this failed to close the gap.

Graph 2: Cumulative first-dose vaccinations in France

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Source: Our World in Data

Italy went a step further and made the health pass obligatory for all workers as of 15 October and announced mandatory vaccination for all people age 50 and above in January 2022. Non-compliant workers face steep fines between EUR 600 and 1,500, while the sanction for employers ranges from EUR 400 to 1000. Vaccination outcomes have nonetheless disappointed officials worse than in France. The daily first dose vaccination rate had actually dropped to almost zero until the beginning of November and remained subdued thereafter (Graph 3). The cumulative share of first dose vaccinations in total population grew only little from an already high 75% to 80% by January 2022 (Graph 4). 

Graph 3: Daily first-dose vaccinations in Italy

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Source: Our World in Data

Graph 4: Cumulative first-dose vaccinations in Italy

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Source: Our World in Data

After introducing a lockdown for the unvaccinated in mid-November 2021, Austria was the first Western democracy to impose mandatory vaccination for all residents age 14 and over, as of February 2022 (later postponed to April 2022). It has also announced fines of up to EUR 3,600 for those who do not comply with the vaccine mandate. But, after a short-lived doubling of daily vaccination rates, the latter fell back close to zero by January 2022 (Graph 5). The cumulative number of first dose vaccinations grew from about 65% of total population in October 2021 to around 73% in January 2022.

Graph 5: Daily number of first-dose vaccinations in Austria

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Source: Our World in Data

In September 2021, President Biden announced sweeping mandates requiring all workers in companies with more than one hundred employees be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly and obligatory vaccination for workers in the health sector funded by Medicare or Medicaid. He also made vaccination compulsory for all federal government’s employees and contractors. Despite these strict mandates, the daily number of first-dose vaccinations has trended downwards ever since the introduction of the worker mandate. The total share of the population which received a first jab increased from about 65% in September to 75% in early-January 2022. Again, we see mandates have indeed managed to "convince" more Americans to receive the jab, but universal vaccination remains elusive. 

Graph 6: Daily number of first-dose vaccinations in the US

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Source: Our World in Data

Meanwhile, following a “zero covid” strategy like China, Australia put all its major cities under draconian lockdowns last Summer. After this “shock therapy”, the share of the population having received a first shot surged from less than 25% in early-July to 70% in October 2021 (Graph 7). When the Delta variant arrived, the Australian government relaxed its “zero covid” strategy, most likely satisfied with the record breaking vaccination campaign.

Graph 7: Cumulative number of vaccinations in Australia

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Source: Our World in Data

All these regimes will no doubt continue to push for more and more vaccination, including the jab for increasingly young segments of the population. But "peak vaccination" has clearly already passed. Moreover, it is looking increasingly unlikely that these governments will be able to convince similar numbers of citizens to show up for endless booster shots—the preferred regime strategy for addressing ineffective vaccines. 

Are Vaccination Mandates Justified?

Initially, governments introducing health passes claimed that Covid-19 vaccination was not mandatory, although the passes were drastically restricting human rights, individual freedoms and the well-being of the unvaccinated. Later on, several governments in countries like the US, Austria, Italy, Germany, Czechia, Greece and Canada (Quebec) stopped beating around the bush and introduced mandatory vaccination for parts or the entire population. The aggressive political push towards vaccination is not only legally and morally unjust, but also increasingly at odds with medical reality. As Ryan McMaken points out, Covid-19 vaccines do not prevent getting sick and do not stop the spread of the virus either. It is therefore obvious that President Biden’s claim that Covid-19 is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is just a smoke-screen to hide the inefficiency of the vaccines and of other public health policies. This is particularly true when data shows that despite widespread vaccination, Covid-19 deaths went up in 2021 vs 2020 in both the US and the EU and New York City, for example, faced a surge in Covid-19 cases like other US states, although it had the strictest vaccine mandates in the country.

With the arrival of the Omicron variant, the medical case for compulsory vaccination became even thinner. While the number of Covid-19 cases has increased substantially, hospitalizations and deaths remained relatively low because of the mildness of symptoms. Many experts, including Denmark’s Covid tsar and WHO officials consider the rapid spread of Omicron as a sign that the pandemic is about to end due to a weakened virus that builds up natural immunity.  Yet, politicians seem to ignore scientific evidence when it does not suit them and used the Omicron wave as a pretext to accelerate the booster vaccination campaign, although the latter’s efficiency remains uncertain. They also showed no intent to ease up on compulsory vaccination after the authorization of several antiviral pills for Covid-19. The home-based treatments reduce the hospitalization risk by almost 90% and could be a game changer in the pandemic, but the US government only ordered about 10 million of them.  

The flawed and deceitful Covid-19 public health strategies have relied almost entirely on mass vaccination to the detriment of early treatments to prevent hospitalizations. Policymakers also ignored the issue of increasing the number of ICU hospital beds—a strategy that would have cost just a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on vaccination campaigns. Recently, the EU drug regulator, the European Medicines Agency put into question the feasibility of frequent Covid-19 booster shots, which could adversely affect the immune response. The financial smoking gun still points at Big Pharma being the real beneficiary of the Covid-19 panic and mass vaccinations aggressively promoted in near lockstep all over the World.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that many people mistrust and resist vaccination mandates, despite having to endure tremendous hardships. The graphs above show that vaccination rates went up in countries which imposed health passes, but they remained below the expectations of public officials. The share of the unvaccinated in total population is still large at about 20-25% and the number of people declining the shot is likely to grow as mass vaccination has been extended to children and additional boosters. In Europe, resistance to compulsory vaccination was primarily driven by huge protests involving tens of thousands of participants. Facing strong opposition, the new Czech government has recently scrapped mandatory vaccination for health workers, police, soldiers and some other professions, as well as those aged over 60. In the US, several Republican-led states, private companies and religious groups filed legal challenges against the vaccination mandates.  Many large companies suspended vaccination requirements following court injunctions against federal mandates and labor shortages. Eventually, the US Supreme Court blocked President Biden’s vaccine mandate on large businesses, but upheld the vaccine requirement for healthcare workers. Vaccine sceptic healthcare workers were already getting fired or walking away from their jobs, exacerbating labor shortages. There were also calls for civil disobedience in Australia which had suffered under extreme lockdowns and Belgium where theatres refused to close down in December and eventually won the legal right to stay open.  

Only Resistance Can Stop Oppressive Government Actions

The examples above illustrate very well that opposition to the vaccination mandates has not been in vain. When governments abuse their prerogatives, it is the right of the people to resist severe encroachments on their liberties and human rights. If today people tolerate that governments scapegoat and punish the unvaccinated for political purposes, it will most likely pave the way for further abuses on the whole society in the future. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated have a common interest to preserve individual freedom and it makes no sense for the former to buy into the official scapegoating propaganda (as revealed by polls in Germany, Europe or Canada). If President Macron’s twisted electoral strategy to annoy the minority of unvaccinated pays off, he would most likely feel emboldened to come up with more abusive measures later on.   

In his masterpiece Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, the 16th century political philosopher Étienne de la Boétie advocated the right of subjects to resist unjust rulers. He wisely noted that all rule rests on the consent of the people and concluded that it is not necessary to overturn a tyrant by violence because he is automatically defeated if people refuse to accept their own enslavement. La Boétie’s early call for civil disobedience and mass non-violent resistance against tyranny, is timeless:  

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.

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International

How Crowded Are Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Ships Right Now?

Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

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Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

When Freedom of the Seas sailed from Miami on July 2, 2021, it marked Royal Caribbean International's (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report return to North American sailing after being shut down since March 2020. 

That sailing has less than 1,000 people on it, mostly loyal cruisers eager to get back to sea no matter what the rules were (as well as a fair amount of company executives.

That ship can hold 4,375 passengers at full capacity, according to Ship Technology and on that July sailing, it felt empty and crew seemed to outnumber passengers. 

At night, in the British Pub, the crowd was essentially me, two other journalists, and the occasional person who wandered by. 

That made it, perhaps, too easy to get a drink, and while it was a wonderful experience, that sailing only felt normal when everyone onboard took to the upper decks to cheer sail away and celebrate the Fourth of July,

I sailed on Freedom on that July sailing, then again in September, October, November, December, and then again in May.

I sailed Odyssey of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas in between January and May. 

The crowds got progressively bigger through the fall, but even the December sailing (a three-day weekend, which in pre-pandemic times would be at or near capacity) still had a limited capacity.

Royal Caribbean steadily increased the number of people on its ships, with some slight pauses in that as new covid variants popped up and Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report has followed roughly the same model.   

Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cruise Lines Capacity Is Coming Back

How crowded will my cruise be? 

This has been a question seemingly every experienced cruiser has asked. In the summer and fall, that answer was "not at all," and later "not as much as usual," but the numbers of passengers onboard has slowly moved back to normal, even reaching it on some sailings.

Cruise lines generally don't offer a lot of comment on why they might be limiting capacity when technically they no longer have. 

Crew concerns, including not being able to onboard new crew members to allow for full sailings due to slow visa processing times and keeping rooms open fr potential covid quarantines have kept some ships below their full complement of passengers.

Demand, of course, factors in as well. Royal Caribbean CFO Naftali Holtz commented on where his company stands now during its first-quarter earnings call.

"I'd like to comment on capacity and load factor expectations over the upcoming period. We plan to restart operations on all remaining ships by the end of June. 

"We plan to operate about 10.3 million APCDs [available passenger cruise days] during the second quarter, and we expect load factors of approximately 75% to 80%," he said. 

"Our load factor expectations reflect the higher occupancy we are seeing in the Caribbean and lower expectations for repositioning voyages and early season Europe sailings."

It's clear that demand is a factor when it comes to why certain sailings are sailing with fewer passengers than others. 

Carnival has had to limit the cabins it has been selling on its United Kingdom-based Cunard line due to staffing issues.

“As you may have seen in the news, the wider impact of Covid-19 is affecting hospitality and is disrupting airlines and as such this is impacting the number of crew members we are able to get to our ships,” said the company in a statement.

“We naturally want to ensure that all guests across the fleet experience the high standards of service on board that they would expect from Cunard and which we are committed to delivering,” the company added. 

“We are therefore limiting the number of guests sailing as we build crew numbers back up."

Normal Cruise Crowds Are Coming

Once staffing issues return to normal — something that is slowly happening — the biggest concern may be whether the economy slows demand. 

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects his company to get close to normal over the summer during the cruise line's first-quarter earnings call.

"We're well on our way back to full cruise operations, with three-quarters of our capacity having resumed guest operations and a plan to return the balance of the fleet for the summer season. And while the conversation around covid-19 is greatly reduced, we still have to and are successfully actively managing," he said.

And while neither Carnival's nor Royal Caribbean's CEO said it directly, passengers sailing this summer will likely experience passenger counts in line with tradition. 

That does not mean some sailings won't have limited capacities, or sell poorly, but many will not as long as demand remains within historical norms.

 

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Spread & Containment

Lab, crab and robotic rehab

I was in Berkeley a couple of months back, helping TechCrunch get its proverbial ducks in a row before our first big climate event (coming in a few weeks,…

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I got previews of a number of projects I hope to share with you in the newsletter soon, but one that really caught my eye was FogROS, which was just announced as part of the latest ROS (robot operating system) rollout. Beyond a punny name that is simultaneously a reference to the cloud element (fog/cloud — not to mention the fact that the new department has killer views of San Francisco and frequent visitor, Karl) and problematic French cuisine, there’s some really compelling potential here.

I’ve been thinking about the potential impact of cloud-based processing quite a bit the last several years, independent of my writing about robots. Specifically, a number of companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have been betting big on cloud gaming. What do you do when you’ve seemingly pushed a piece of hardware to its limit? If you’ve got low enough latency, you can harness remote servers to do the heavy lifting. It’s something that’s been tried for at least a decade, to varying effect.

Image Credits: ROS

Latency is, of course, a major factor in gaming, where being off by a millisecond can dramatically impact the experience. I’m not fully convinced that experience is where it ought to be quite yet, but it does seem the tech has graduated to a point where off-board processing makes practical sense for robotics. You can currently play a console game on a smartphone with one of those services, so surely we can produce smaller, lighter-weight and lower-cost robots that rely on a remote server to complete resource-intensive tasks like SLAM processing.

The initial application will focus on AWS, with plans to reach additional services like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Watch this space. There are many reasons to be excited. Honestly, there’s a lot to be excited about in robotics generally right now. This was one of the more fun weeks in recent memory.

V Bionic's exoskeleton glove shown without its covering.

Image Credits: V Bionic

Let’s start with the ExoHeal robotic rehabilitation gloves. The device, created by Saudi Arabian V Bionic, nabbed this year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup. The early-stage team is part of a proud tradition of healthcare exoskeletons. In this case, it’s an attempt to rehab the hand following muscle and tendon injuries. Team leader Zain Samdani told TechCrunch:

Flexor linkage-driven movement gives us the flexibility to individually actuate different parts of each finger (phalanges) whilst keeping the device portable. We’re currently developing our production-ready prototype that utilizes a modular design to fit the hand sizes of different patients.

Image Credits: Walmart

This is the third week in a row Walmart gets a mention here. First it was funding for GreyOrange, which it partnered with in Canada. Last week we noted a big expansion of the retail giant’s deal with warehouse automation firm, Symbotic. Now it’s another big expansion of an existing deal — this time dealing with the company’s delivery ambitions.

Like Walmart’s work with robotics, drone delivery success has been…spotty, at best. Still, it’s apparently ready to put its money where its mouth is on this one, with a deal that brings DroneUp delivery to 34 sites across six U.S. states. Quoting myself here:

The retailer announced an investment in the 6-year-old startup late last year, following trial deliveries of COVID-19 testing kits. Early trials were conducted in Bentonville, Arkansas. This year, Arizona, Florida, Texas and DroneUp’s native Virginia are being added to the list. Once online, customers will be able to choose from tens of thousands of products, from Tylenol to hot dog buns, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Freigegeben für die Berichterstattung über das Unternehemn Wingcopter bis zum 25.01.2026. Mit Bitte um Urhebervermerk v.l.: Jonathan Hesselbarth, Tom Plümmer und Ansgar Kadura von Wingcopter GmbH. Image Credits: © Jonas Wresch / KfW

There are still more question marks around this stuff than anything, and I’ve long contended that drone delivery makes the most sense in remote and otherwise hard to reach areas. That’s why something like this Wingcopter deal is interesting. Over the next five years, the company plans to bring 12,000 of its fixed-wing UAVs to 49 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. It will cover spots that have traditionally struggled with infrastructural issues that have made it difficult to deliver food and medical supplies through more traditional means.

“With the looming food crisis on the African continent triggered by the war in Ukraine, we see great potential and strong social impact that drone-delivery networks can bring to people in all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by getting food to where it is needed most,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. “Especially in remote areas with weak infrastructure and those areas that are additionally affected by droughts and other plagues, Wingcopter’s delivery drones will build an air bridge and provide food from the sky on a winch to exactly where it is needed.”

Legitimately exciting stuff, that.

Image Credits: Dyson

In more cautiously optimistic news, Dyson dropped some interesting news this week, announcing that it has been (and will continue) pumping a lot of money into robotic research. Part of the rollout includes refitting an aircraft hangar at Hullavington Airfield, a former RAF station in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England that the company purchased back in 2016.

Some numbers from the company:

Dyson is halfway through the largest engineering recruitment drive in its history. Two thousand people have joined the tech company this year, of which 50% are engineers, scientists, and coders. Dyson is supercharging its robotics ambitions, recruiting 250 robotics engineers across disciplines including computer vision, machine learning, sensors and mechatronics, and expects to hire 700 more in the robotics field over the next five years. The master plan: to create the UK’s largest, most advanced, robotics center at Hullavington Airfield and to bring the technology into our homes by the end of the decade.

The primary project highlighted is a robot arm with a number of attachments, including a vacuum and a human-like robot hand, which are designed to perform various household tasks. Dyson has some experience building robots, primarily through its vacuums, which rely on things like computer vision to autonomously navigate. Still, I say “cautiously optimistic,” because I’ve seen plenty of non-robotics companies showcase the technology as more of a vanity project. But I’m more than happy to have Dyson change my mind.

Image Credits: Hyundai

Hyundai, of course, has been quite aggressive in its own robotics dreams, including its 2020 acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The carmaker this week announced that part of its massive new $10 billion investment plans will include robotics, with a focus of actually bringing some of its far-out concepts to market.

Another week, another big round for logistics/fulfillment robotics, as Polish firm Nomagic raised $22 million to expand its offerings. The company’s primary offering is a pick and place arm that can move and sort small goods. Khosla Ventures and Almaz Capital led the round, which also featured European Investment Bank, Hoxton Ventures, Capnamic Ventures, DN Capital and Manta Ray.

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on counter tops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

We finally got around to reviewing Amazon’s limited-edition home robot, Astro, and Haje’s feelings were…mixed:

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

A tiny robot crab scuttles across the frame. Image Credits: Northwestern University

And finally, a tiny robot crab from Northwestern University. The little guy can be controlled remotely using lasers and is small enough to sit on the side of a penny. “Our technology enables a variety of controlled motion modalities and can walk with an average speed of half its body length per second,” says lead researcher, Yonggang Huang. “This is very challenging to achieve at such small scales for terrestrial robots.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Scuttle, don’t walk to subscribe to Actuator.

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Spread & Containment

Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections responsible for spreading of COVID-19 less than symptomatic infections

Based on studies published through July 2021, most SARS-CoV-2 infections were not persistently asymptomatic, and asymptomatic infections were less infectious…

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Based on studies published through July 2021, most SARS-CoV-2 infections were not persistently asymptomatic, and asymptomatic infections were less infectious than symptomatic infections. These are the conclusions of an update of a systematic review and meta-analysis publishing May 26th in the open access journal PLOS Medicine by Diana Buitrago-Garcia of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues.

Credit: Monstera, Pexels (CC0, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Based on studies published through July 2021, most SARS-CoV-2 infections were not persistently asymptomatic, and asymptomatic infections were less infectious than symptomatic infections. These are the conclusions of an update of a systematic review and meta-analysis publishing May 26th in the open access journal PLOS Medicine by Diana Buitrago-Garcia of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues.

Debate about the level and risks of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections continues, with much ongoing research. Studies that assess people at just one time point can overestimate the proportion of true asymptomatic infections because those who go on to later develop symptoms are incorrectly classified as asymptomatic rather than presymptomatic. However, other studies can underestimate asymptomatic infections with research designs that are more likely to include symptomatic participants.

The new paper was an update of a living (as in, regularly updated) systematic review first published in April 2020, which includes additional, more recent studies through July 2021. 130 studies were included, with data on 28,426 people with SARS-CoV-2 across 42 countries, including 11,923 people defined as having asymptomatic infection. Because of extreme variability between included studies, the meta-analysis did not calculate a single estimate for asymptomatic infection rate, but it did estimate the inter-quartile range to be that 14–50% of infections were asymptomatic. Additionally, the researchers found that the secondary attack rate—a measure of the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 — was about two-thirds lower from people without symptoms than from those with symptoms (risk ratio 0.32, 95%CI 0.16–0.64).

“If both the proportion and transmissibility of asymptomatic infection are relatively low, people with asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection should account for a smaller proportion of overall transmission than presymptomatic individuals,” the authors say, while also pointing out that “when SARS-CoV-2 community transmission levels are high, physical distancing measures and mask-wearing need to be sustained to prevent transmission from close contact with people with asymptomatic and presymptomatic infection.”

Coauthor Nicola Low adds, “The true proportion of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection is still not known, and it would be misleading to rely on a single number because the 130 studies that we reviewed were so different. People with truly asymptomatic infection are, however, less infectious than those with symptomatic infection.”

#####

In your coverage, please use this URL to provide access to the freely available paper in PLOS Medicine:

http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003987  

Citation: Buitrago-Garcia D, Ipekci AM, Heron L, Imeri H, Araujo-Chaveron L, Arevalo-Rodriguez I, et al. (2022) Occurrence and transmission potential of asymptomatic and presymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections: Update of a living systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Med 19(5): e1003987. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003987

Author Countries: Switzerland, France, Spain, Argentina, United Kingdom, Sweden, United States, Colombia

Funding: This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation http://www.snf.ch/en (NL: 320030_176233); the European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en (NL: 101003688); the Swiss government excellence scholarship https://www.sbfi.admin.ch/sbfi/en/home/education/scholarships-and-grants/swiss-government-excellence-scholarships.html (DBG: 2019.0774) and the Swiss School of Public Health Global P3HS stipend https://ssphplus.ch/en/ (DBG). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


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