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COVID-19 roundup: Still no answers on launch of Canada’s coronavirus app

A man uses his smart phone during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto in June 2020. The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette
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It’s day 126 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 108,377 as of publication time, up 222 since yesterday—a two per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 226 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

According to an NBC tally, one in five of the world’s new coronavirus cases in recent days came from just three U.S. states: Florida, Texas and California.

App flap: The release of Canada’s contact-tracing app is now 12 days overdue, with the federal government and Ontario, where the app will first be rolled out, providing few updates on the causes of the delay. The app, which will use a Bluetooth-based, decentralized system developed by Google and Apple, was created by the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) and the Ontario Digital Service, with help from Shopify and BlackBerry. A federal official told The Logic Tuesday that CDS was embarking on a “comprehensive review process and user testing” to ensure all glitches were addressed before launch. CDS has reportedly “already fixed several issues that have been identified,” the official said, adding that there was no confirmed launch date for the app.

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Cole Davidson, press secretary for Health Minister Patty Hajdu, told The Logic the government “[continues] to work with Apple, Google and our partners in jurisdictions across Canada” to ensure the app is accessible to “as many Canadians as possible.” 

On Tuesday Ontario officials deferred all questions to Ottawa. On Monday, however, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney accused Ottawa of preventing Google and Apple from working with individual provinces to improve their contact-tracing apps. Alberta’s app ABTraceTogether, which also uses Bluetooth but not the Google-Apple API, was released two months ago. A report released last week by the province’s privacy commissioner found the app poses security risks for Apple devices, which need to be unlocked for the app to work effectively. Kenney said he wanted to work with the company to fix the problem, but that Ottawa wouldn’t allow it. “They want cooperation on a single national platform, but there isn’t one,” Kenney said. “They are effectively reducing the functionality of an app which can help us in the midst of a public health crisis.” 

Google and Apple have previously said their contact-tracing technology will be restricted to one public health app per country, but sources say this is limiting provincial efforts to use the technology to curb the virus. “We’re at [the federal government’s] mercy right now, because they do the coordination with Google and Apple,” said a source close to the file who spoke on the condition they not be named because they are not authorized to comment publicly. “We’re all kind of sitting and waiting to see what the delay is. Why are provinces at the mercy of this one national strategy? It’s incredibly frustrating.” With reopening well underway in most of Canada—Ontario announced yesterday much of that province would this week enter Stage 3 of its reopening plan, which allows nearly all businesses to reopen—the source said the provinces are “getting nervous” about the delay.  

Christine Myatt, press secretary for the premier, told The Logic Google and Apple were working with Alberta to update the ABTraceTogether API “until the federal government intervened” with its plans for one national app. The announcement “has effectively frozen our ability to update our app,” Myatt said. “Our hope is that the federal app, which was supposed to be available by July 1, will be able to communicate with Alberta Trace Together so that we don’t lose the approximately 233,000 users who have already downloaded our app.”

Kenney isn’t the first premier to accuse Ottawa of interfering with provincial plans for a contact-tracing app. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said last month that the federal government had stifled his province’s efforts to create and implement its own app.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro told CBC News the province would support a national app, but wants the freedom to work with the companies to fix Alberta’s app. “If we’re going to be asked to help [the federal government] in the development of another app, that’s fine. But look, let’s allow Google and Apple to work with us to make sure the ABTraceTogether is fully functional,” he said. 

In the markets: All major North American indices closed up Tuesday after JPMorgan’s and Citigroup’s earnings beat analyst expectations. Both firms set aside billions to accommodate loan losses ahead of expected mass defaults. 

The stock market has slowly ticked up in recent weeks in hopes of a U.S. economic recovery, despite surging COVID-19 death and infection numbers. A top U.S. Federal Reserve official warned that economic recovery will take a long time, and said that what progress has been made so far is largely due to government intervention. The U.K. reported GDP growth of 1.8 per cent in May, well below the 5.5 per cent increase that analysts expected. Meanwhile, the Canadian dollar fell to 73.44 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. 

China’s benchmark index, the Shanghai Composite, closed down 0.8 per cent after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington rejects many Chinese maritime claims. OPEC predicted global growth would drop 3.7 per cent in 2020, below its estimate from last month, warning that a jump in coronavirus cases could jeopardize the oil market’s recovery. 

“Twenty years from now, you may have a kid of your own. What are you going to tell him about what it was like to be around in 2020?”: That’s the question Dr. Ken Haller, a pediatrics professor, recently asked a six-year-old boy. His response: “I’ll him it was real bad. And I’ll tell him that I really liked school.” His mom’s response: “I’ll tell him we were just tired all the time, but somehow we all got through it.”

Cross-country checkup: The border with the U.S. will remain closed to most travellers until at least late August, after the two countries agreed to extend a deal that was due to expire next Tuesday. Nunavut is considering reopening schools with no physical-distancing rules if it has no cases when class resumes in the fall. Canadian universities are seeing a surge in international-student enrollment amid restrictions in the U.S. Manitoba has extended its state of emergency for another 30 days, despite not reporting any cases for 13 straight days. Saskatchewan has identified five flights since June 11 operated by Air Canada and WestJet that travelled to the province carrying passengers with COVID-19. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Nearly half of businesses in the professional, scientific and technical services sector anticipate that at least 10 per cent of their staff will continue to work remotely once the pandemic is over. 

That’s well above the 22.5 per cent of businesses across all sectors, according to a poll conducted by Statistics Canada. Although more employers are expecting remote work, just 14.3 per cent said they were likely to make it mandatory. While 63.7 per cent of businesses said they’d been approved for some kind of government funding or external credit, the acceptance rate for different programs varied widely. The Canada Emergency Business Account, which provides $40,000 loans, had a 43.1 per cent acceptance rate, while the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), which covers 75 per cent of staff salaries, had a 22.6 per cent approval rate. Of the firms that did qualify for the CEWS, which was recently extended to December, 23.2 per cent said it allowed them to hire back their entire workforce. 

  • The Competition Bureau called for more disclosure around terms for rental appliances like water heaters, in an open letter sent to Lisa Thompson, Ontario’s minister of government and consumer services. 
  • The Ontario government will invest in “anchor” companies if needed, to help the province recover economically. 
  • Some of Canada’s largest mutual fund companies are objecting to proposed rules from the Ontario Securities Commission that would reduce the sales commission that firms can pay advisers. 
  • The Senate finance committee is recommending that the government reduce Canada Emergency Response Benefit payments as people’s incomes rise, instead of cutting them off once they return to work. 
  • The Canadian economy declined 11.6 per cent in April, according to StatCan. Retail sales dropped 32.8 per cent to $34.3 billion the same month. 
  • The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission rejected Ontario-based Cloudwifi’s request to change a previous ruling in its ongoing dispute with Bell about fibre access. 
  • Ottawa is investing nearly $11.2 million in three Ontario tech firms: AI company Lytica, data firm Solace and video-streaming software company You.i TV. 
  • The food-service industry is on track to lose $44.8 billion in revenue in 2020 compared with 2019, according to industry association Restaurants Canada. 
  • Toronto-based insurance-technology startup Foxquilt has raised $3.5 million in a round including Extreme Venture Partners. 

In the lab: Quebec-based Medicago has begun testing its potential coronavirus vaccine in an early-stage clinical trial with 180 volunteers. It is the first vaccine from Canada being tested in humans, but CEO Bruce Clark is urging cautious optimism: “Whatever vaccine we get in this first round—unless it’s a miracle—it’s not going to be perfect.” Nova Scotia lab IMV has been approved by Health Canada for an 84-person clinical trial of its vaccine candidate. Meanwhile, Moderna will begin its final-stage trial, with 30,000 participants across 87 locations. Doctors in France have reported what they believe to be the first proven case of COVID-19 being passed from a pregnant woman to her baby in the womb. 

3M is partnering with MIT researchers to develop a low-cost COVID-19 diagnostic test that can be mass produced and can deliver results in 15 minutes. Stevanato Group, an Italy-based medical glassmaker, and other manufacturers estimate worldwide demand for glass vials will rise by one to two billion over the next two years, with each capable of holding multiple vaccine doses. The U.S. has a lead, with 70 to 80 per cent of medical glass being manufactured in the country. The World Health Organization is looking to secure “subsidized” vaccine supplies for hard-hit Latin American countries. 

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Amazon is launching 20 health clinics in five cities for its warehouse workers and their families. The clinics will be staffed by Crossover Health, a startup that builds and runs on-site medical clinics for large employers. 
  • Microsoft has invested in London-based edtech startup Kano, looking to rival Google in the growing sector.
  • Verizon has retrained some 20,000 employees for new jobs during the pandemic as an alternative to laying off workers whose jobs were affected by COVID-19. 
  • Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways has secured a US$1.5-billion lifeline through loans and investments to keep the airline from going bankrupt amid a dropoff in travel since the start of the pandemic. 

Around the world: South Korea unveiled a US$133-billion plan to create 1.9 million jobs to help the economy recover from the pandemic. Thailand has suspended all inbound flights. India’s tech hub Bengaluru will enter a new week-long lockdown to curb a surge in cases; it is among a dozen Indian states to shut down their economies again. Hard-hit Belgium has reported zero deaths for the first time since March. France is making face masks mandatory in all indoor public spaces. Egypt is providing reusable cotton face masks at 50 cents each along with bread, rice and sugar in its state subsidy program. A new study has found around 5.4 million Americans lost their health insurance during the pandemic.

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Fowl play: One week after testing positive for COVID-19, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has been bitten by a rhea, a large emu-like bird, while trying to feed it during an isolated garden stroll.

* 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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