COVID-19 roundup: ‘We’re working closely with Apple and Google’

A person uses a contact-tracing app on his mobile phone in May 2020 in New Delhi, India. AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

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It’s day 73 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 82,413 as of publication time, up 1,089 since yesterday—almost flat from the seven-day prior average of new cases. On their respective 73rd day, U.S. daily new cases were up 14 per cent from the seven-day prior average; the U.K. was down five per cent in daily new cases from the seven-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down 40 per cent.*

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned of a second wave in the U.S.—and a possible second round of lockdowns—in the fall. “This simple respiratory viral pathogen has really brought my nation to its knees, and the reality is, it’s no one particular person’s fault,” he said. “This nation has been unprepared for that for decades.”

A time to trace: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday said the federal government is in discussions with Apple and Google on their COVID-19 infection tracing technology. On Wednesday, the tech giants released APIs for a Bluetooth-based system that logs with whom smartphone users have been in close proximity, and link to apps designated or launched by public health authorities. “We are working with a number of different partners on potential apps for contact tracing,” said Trudeau, adding that the government is waiting for a June update from Apple and Google, after which the government “will be able to recommend strongly to Canadians a particular app that will help us manage the spread of COVID-19.”

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Alberta is the only province so far to roll out its own system, ABTraceTogether, based on a similar system from Singapore. But the app initially didn’t work on locked iOS devices or in the background, limiting the number of contacts it recorded. Other firms are lobbying the federal government on contact tracing. Both Convergence CT and Change-Wireless are looking to “obtain, supply and operate a National Digital Contact Tracing App and Analytics Platform which would be used to facilitate decision making by tracking the Covid-19 virus,” according to their registrations. Toronto-based Cinchy is lobbying the Ontario government for a similar contract. Montreal’s Mila Institute has built its own app, which Mila scientific director Yoshua Bengio is pitching to the public. 

Testifying before a parliamentary committee on Thursday evening, Colin McKay, Google’s head of public policy for Canada, said the company is “in constant conversation” with the federal and provincial governments about using the system. Apple declined to provide details of any discussions with the federal government. 

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said, “It is possible that this kind of smartphone app might be a useful tool in our toolbox,” but said it may be more useful in high-density cities. He cited challenges such as tracing contacts when multiple people are in close proximity, as well as physical barriers. “We aren’t ready to recommend a single application,” Njoo said, appearing to contradict Trudeau’s earlier comment “There might be a slew of apps that we end up recommending, but we’re still discussing this with our territorial and provincial counterparts.” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the federal government will not use Canada’s spy agency to track the spread of COVID-19, despite Trudeau saying “every option” was on the table in the fight against the pandemic. 

The federal government is also retasking civil servants to make as many as 23,600 extra contact-tracing calls to COVID-19 patients daily, starting with Ontario, Trudeau announced Friday. That includes 1,700 Statistics Canada interviewers, who’d otherwise be conducting the agency’s numerous surveys. 

In the markets: All major North American indices closed up slightly except for the Dow Jones, which dropped 0.04 per cent. Increased tension between the U.S. and China and falling crude prices dragged down energy stocks. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s proposed national security law for Hong Kong a “death knell” for the financial hub. Hong Kong stocks fell 5.6 per cent after China proposed the law. The Dow Jones, S&P 500 and Nasdaq still posted weekly gains due to earlier optimism about a coronavirus vaccine. However, a bevy of negative macroeconomic indicators were released Friday. Argentina is moving closer to sovereign debt default, while India’s central bank dropped a surprise rate cut to try and stimulate its economy. The European Central Bank said the continent’s economy may shrink by one-tenth this year, and it’s ready to offer more stimulus as soon as June. China scrapped its economic growth target for 2020, a sharp reversal from its pre-pandemic prediction of doubling its economy’s size from the decade prior and announcing the end of absolute poverty. The move sent Brent crude, the global index, down 2.6 per cent, as China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil. It’s not all bad news for oil, as the gap between a physical barrel of oil and futures prices has shrunk to under US$2 a barrel, compared with a US$10 gap in April. Analysts estimate that Canada’s Big Six banks will set aside $8.9 billion on sour loans in the second quarter and post a 44 per cent earnings decline. The Canadian dollar fell to 71.49 cents U.S. in late-afternoon trading. Banks in nine advanced economies will have difficulty generating profits until 2025, according to a new report from the International Monetary Fund. 

“Even during the civil war, there was money and no one starved. There were queues outside bakeries in tough times, but people were waiting to pay. Now it’s just welfare. Who would have thought?”: An unemployed bus driver in Lebanon reflected on the economic impact of COVID-19 on the local economy, saying he told his wife to forgo Eid gifts this year to buy “the few bits of food we can afford.”

Cross-country checkup: The federal NDP, Liberal and Conservative parties have applied for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy to help pay staff as donations dry up. Quebec is planning to have kids physically back in school when classes resume in the fall. The province is still deciding whether to send students back full time or alternating two or three days a week, allowing them to  spread out more in the classroom. New Brunswick is beginning phase three of its reopening strategy, allowing residents to expand their two-household bubbles to more friends and family (recommending a maximum of 10 people at indoor gatherings), and letting businesses like spas, salons and barber shops reopen, starting today. The federal government is considering extending deadlines for certain legal disputes that have been disrupted amid prolonged courthouse closures. Drug traffickers were caught trying to smuggle methamphetamine from Canada to Australia hidden among face masks and hand sanitizer in COVID-19 care packages. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Retail sales dropped a record one-quarter nationwide over the past two months with about 40 per cent of retailers closing their doors in March, according to data from Statistics Canada. March sales dropped 10 per cent to $47.1 billion, April was worse, with early estimates projecting an additional 16 per cent drop in sales. Clothing, gas stations and motor-vehicle and parts dealers were the hardest hit in Canada. However, online sales jumped 40.4 per cent in March year over year, and food and beverage stores saw a 23 per cent sales increase. 

  • CI Financial has acquired Vancouver-based robo-adviser WealthBar, increasing its stake from 75 per cent to full ownership, and rebranding the firm CI Direct Investing.
  • Vancouver-based medical-isotope startup Artms Products has raised $26.4 million in a round led by Deerfield Management. 
  • Large telecoms are asking to wait for an in-person hearing over how much they charge small firms for wholesale rates.
  • The average number of Interac transactions in Canada increased nine per cent year over year during the pandemic, while first-time e-transfer users jumped 43 per cent. 

No rush to reopen: The Logic’s latest subscriber survey found that 60 per cent of respondents view reopening the Canadian economy too soon as more damaging than not reopening soon enough. “The risk of a second wave is too great to rush this,” one subscriber said. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents were optimistic about Canada’s economic outlook post-COVID-19; 33 per cent were pessimistic. New this month: several subscribers said their companies have given up real estate or cancelled office leases since the pandemic began.

Crowdsourcing the crisis: The federal government has launched an online tool to help determine eligibility for COVID-19 benefits; the Canadian Digital Service, Ottawa’s in-house development shop, built the system. Atlantic Canada innovation hub Volta is launching a six-week program in June to help entrepreneurs navigate the pandemic; you can apply here.

In the lab: Oxford University and AstraZeneca researchers have tested their vaccine on 1,000 people in the first phase of their trial, and are now recruiting about 10,000 volunteers for the second stage. It’ll take between two to six months to get a sense of how well the vaccine works. Chinese scientists developing a similar vaccine with CanSino Biologics reported promising results from their own testing of 108 people, though more research is needed. Both the CanSino and Oxford vaccines are made in a similar way by using a harmless virus to carry genes for the coronavirus-coating protein into the human body. Here are the pros and cons of all the various vaccines being explored. 

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has seen his fortune grow by US$30 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic, making him the third-richest person in the world with a net worth of US$87.8 billion. He trails Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
  • IBM is planning its first round of job cuts under new CEO Arvind Krishna, following a 20 per cent drop in its stock value over the last three months. The firm hasn’t disclosed the number of layoffs. 
  • Amazon will hire almost 50,000 temporary workers in India to help meet the surge in online purchasing in the country. 
  • Japan-based car manufacturer Nissan is considering laying off 20,000 employees, mostly in Europe and emerging economies. 
  • Deloitte is being sued over security breaches that saw some U.S. residents’ personal information, including home addresses and social security numbers, shared with other users of web portals the firm launched for laid-off workers applying for federal benefits. 

Around the world: Prince Charles will be hosting a virtual meeting of world leaders on June 3 to discuss how to “reset” the global economy. Australia has cut the estimated cost of its unemployment relief scheme by A$60 billion due to a “reporting error” that saw 1,000 companies file application forms incorrectly. The Bank of Japan will provide US$280 billion to banks to offer small- and medium-sized businesses zero-interest, unsecured loans. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dropped the mandatory visa surcharge for migrant health-care workers. Germany will now fine meat plants violating labour regulations. Meanwhile, Portugal and Turkey are ready to welcome back tourists.

A puppy shortage: Due to unprecedented demand, waiting lists for new puppies in the U.K. have quadrupled; more are being brought in via commercial transport from Romania. 

* 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. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.


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