COVID-19 roundup: A coronavirus spy game

A subject receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine by Moderna for COVID-19 at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle in March 2020. AP/Ted S. Warren

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It’s day 128 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 109,081 as of publication time, up 254 since yesterday—a seven per cent increase from the seven-day prior average of 238 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

India has crossed one million coronavirus cases.

Cozy Bear’s COVID gambit: Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) as well as U.K. and U.S. intelligence agencies said Russian hackers have tried to compromise organizations conducting COVID-19 vaccine research in the three countries, “almost certainly” at Moscow’s behest. The attackers’ goal was likely to “steal information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing” of a treatment and “hinder response efforts,” according to CSE.

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The agencies tied the hack to APT29, which also goes by “the Dukes” and “Cozy Bear.” The U.S. Democratic National Committee previously accused the group of compromising its internal network for emails that WikiLeaks published in July 2016. The Dutch and Norwegian security services have also accused it of targeting government departments and political institutions in those countries. APT29 has previously been linked to Russian intelligence agencies. Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, reportedly rejected the Canadian-U.S.-U.K. claims.

In June, CSE’s Canadian Centre for Cyber Security warned that “foreign intelligence agencies will almost certainly continue to use their cyber capabilities to pursue intelligence related to COVID-19 medical research and intellectual property,” citing information on vaccine development, treatments, testing, and medical devices. It also revealed that a Canadian biopharmaceutical company had been compromised in April, likely for its IP. The agency wouldn’t say whether the attempts it reported on Thursday were successful.

Amid the news of these cyberattacks, the race for a vaccine continues. The Trump administration put US$1.6 billion into Novavax, a company that has never brought such a treatment to market. It followed the lead of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-backed Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The foundation itself and the Japanese government are negotiating a deal for units of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, for which the pharmaceutical giant hopes to launch late-stage human trials in September, earlier than originally forecast. SinoPharm, a Chinese company, is “pre-testing” its treatment candidate on employees. Over 100 scientists, including 15 Nobel laureates, are calling for healthy volunteers to be exposed to the coronavirus to see whether all these vaccines actually work. Oxford University, which is developing one of the leading candidates, will employ the approach.

In the markets: Global stocks fell after Chinese retail sales data declined for a fifth straight month, raising investors’ concerns that the country’s nascent economic recovery will falter. China’s benchmark CSI 300 fell five per cent, its worst one-day drop since February. The benchmark Stoxx Europe fell 0.5 per cent after the European Central Bank opted not to change its stimulus levels. 

In the U.S., 1.3 million people filed initial unemployment claims last week, a higher number than economists expected and the 17th straight week where claims exceeded one million. Investors pushed U.S. Treasury yields lower on the news, due to concerns the economy would take a long time to bounce back. Some investors are also concerned that surging coronavirus cases globally will dampen demand, after over 230,000 new cases were reported globally Wednesday, an all-time high. 

Canada added over one million jobs in June, according to payroll-services provider ADP. The dollar fell to 73.62 cents U.S. after OPEC and Russia said they’d increase oil production. Foreign investors bought $22.4 billion in securities in May, a drop from the $49-billion April purchase. 

“Today, we are symbolically saying goodbye to mothers, fathers, children, siblings, friends: we take their hands, caress their cheek, kiss their forehead and remember their glance in our hearts”: Three weeks after ending its nationwide state of emergency, Spain paused today to honour its 28,400 virus victims in a memorial service attended by World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Cross-country checkup: The federal government announced $19 billion in funding to help provincial, territorial and municipal governments with their economic recoveries. Ontario Premier Doug Ford again said the province’s COVID Alert app, which was meant to launch on July 2, is ready, but that the government is waiting for Ottawa to greenlight it. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, meanwhile, said developers are working to resolve several bugs identified with the app before launching it. The U.S. has extended its ban on non-essential travel between Canadian and Mexican borders until at least August 20. A serology survey of B.C. residents found that less than one per cent of the population has had COVID-19, ruling out the possibility of herd immunity fending off a second wave. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux is concerned about the $12 billion the Business Development Bank of Canada , Export Development Canada and other Crown corporations are projected to lose collectively this year. 

“Losses for these corporations are unusual…. Parliamentarians should have access to up-to-date projections of program size and estimates of expected gains or losses by enterprise Crown corporations,” Giroux wrote in a report to Parliament. The Crown corporations collectively earned $7.3 billion in the 2019–2020 fiscal year. 

  • Just 16 per cent of B.C. businesses are confident in their ability to survive or succeed under the province’s $1.5-billion recovery plan, according to a survey conducted by business industry groups. 
  • Saskatoon-based software firm Vendasta plans to hire 100 new staff, citing an increase in demand due to the pandemic. 
  • E-scooters are now available in Ottawa as part of a pilot project running until October. Bird Canada’s e-scooters are on the streets and the city is finalizing contracts with Lime and Roll. 
  • Netflix is calling for Canadian film and television pitch proposals. Applications close August 5. 
  • Montreal AI firm BuyBack Booth raised $5.2 million in a round led by Brightspark Capital. 
  • In the first two months of the recession, 1.5 million women lost their jobs, pushing their labour force participation down to the lowest level in three decades. Women are getting rehired at lower rates than men, as well, according to a report by RBC. 
  • Clarenville, N.L.-based ocean-technology firm SubC Control received a $262,500 grant from the provincial government to improve its underwater camera system.
  • About 41 per cent of Canadians said Facebook is “the most toxic site they use,” according to a survey conducted by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: CanadaHelps and Imagine Canada have partnered to launch the Charity Adaptation and Innovation Fund to help finance charities hard hit by COVID-19.

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* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling seven-day prior average.


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