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South Korea to test AI-powered facial recognition to track COVID-19 cases

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South Korea will soon roll out a pilot project to use artificial intelligence, facial recognition and thousands of CCTV cameras to track the movement of people infected with the coronavirus, despite concerns about the invasion of privacy.

The nationally funded project in Bucheon, one of the country’s most densely populated cities on the outskirts of Seoul, is due to become operational in January, a city official told Reuters.

The system uses an AI algorithms and facial recognition technology to analyse footage gathered by more than 10,820 CCTV cameras and track an infected person’s movements, anyone they had close contact with, and whether they were wearing a mask, according to a 110-page business plan from the city submitted to the Ministry of Science and ICT (Information and Communications Technology), and provided to Reuters by a parliamentary lawmaker critical of the project.

Governments around the world have turned to new technologies and expanded legal powers to try to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections. China, Russia, India, Poland and Japan as well as several U.S. states are among the governments to have rolled out or at least experimented with facial recognition systems for tracking COVID-19 patients, according to a March report by Columbia Law School in New York.

The Bucheon official said the system should reduce the strain on overworked tracing teams in a city with a population of more than 800,000 people, and help use the teams more efficiently and accurately.

South Korea already has an aggressive, high-tech contact tracing system that harvests credit card records, cellphone location data and CCTV footage, among other personal information.

It still relies, however, on a large number of epidemiological investigators, who often have to work 24-hour shifts, frantically tracing and contacting potential coronavirus cases.

In bidding for national funding for the pilot project in late 2020, Bucheon mayor Jang Deog-cheon argued that such a system would make tracing faster.

“It sometimes takes hours to analyse a single CCTV footage. Using visual recognition technology will enable that analysis in an instant,” he said on Twitter.

The system is also designed to overcome the fact that tracing teams have to rely heavily on the testimony of COVID-19 patients, who aren’t always truthful about their activities and whereabouts, the plan said.

The Ministry of Science and ICT said it has no current plans to expand the project to the national level. It said the purpose of the system was to digitize some of the manual labour that contact tracers currently have to carry out.

The Bucheon system can simultaneously track up to ten people in five to ten minutes, cutting the time spent on manual work that takes around half an hour to one hour to trace one person, the plan said.

The pilot plans call for a team of about ten staff at one public health centre to use the AI-powered recognition system, the official said.

Bucheon received 1.6 billion won ($1.36 million) from the Ministry of Science and ICT and injected 500 million won of the city budget into the project to build the system, the Bucheon official said.

‘BIG BROTHER’

While there has been wide public support for existing invasive track and trace methods, human rights advocates and some South Korean lawmakers have expressed concerns that the government will retain and harness such data far beyond the needs of the pandemic.

“The government’s plan to become a Big Brother on the pretext of COVID is a neo-totalitarian idea,” Park Dae-chul, a lawmaker from the main opposition People Power Party, told Reuters.

“It is absolutely wrong to monitor and control the public via CCTV using taxpayers’ money and without the consent from the public,” said Park, who provided the city plan to Reuters.

The Bucheon official said there are no privacy concerns because the system places a mosaic over the faces of anyone who is not a subject.

“There is no privacy issue here as the system traces the confirmed patient based on the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act,” the official told Reuters. “Contact tracers stick to that rule so there is no risk of data spill or invasion of privacy.”

Rules say patients must give their consent for the facial recognition tracking to be used, but even if they don’t consent, the system can still track them using their silhouette and clothes, the official said.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said the use of such technology is lawful as long as it is used within the realm of the disease control and prevention law.

The plans for AI-powered facial recognition sweeps comes as the country experiments with other uses of the controversial technology, from detecting child abuse at day cares to providing police protection.

($1 = 1,175.3500 won)

 

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Josh Smith and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Omicron-specific vaccine likely to come too late to help in this wave: Sharma – Victoria News

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Health Canada’s chief medical adviser says variant-specific vaccines can be approved faster than the general ones first issued to combat COVID-19, but one targeting the Omicron strain still likely won’t be ready in time to help with the latest wave.

Dr. Supriya Sharma said what is really needed are vaccines that can possibly stop more than one variant at a time, including those yet to come.

Omicron became the dominant variant in Canada in just over two weeks, and the Public Health Agency of Canada said Friday it’s now believed to be responsible for more than 90 per cent of all COVID-19 cases.

Studies suggest two doses of the existing mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are not good at preventing infection from Omicron.

Multiple studies, however, suggest the vaccines are excellent at keeping symptoms mild, preventing hospitalizations, and shortening the stay and lowering the level of care for those who do get admitted to hospital. Fewer vaccinated Omicron patients, for example, need mechanical ventilation.

Both Pfizer and Moderna are working on new versions of their vaccines that specifically target the Omicron variant.

Moderna is hoping to get its product into trials early this year. Pfizer said it could have 100 million doses of theirs ready as early as March, and Canada has contracts for boosters from both companies that would include vaccines for variants too.

But Sharma said even with the expedited review process for vaccine variants, that’s “probably not” fast enough.

“By that time, based on what we’ve known about the Omicron wave, it might well and truly be through,” she said. “And then the question is always, ‘is there another variant that’s coming up?’”

The solution, she said, likely lies with vaccines that can target more than one variant at a time.

READ MORE: Omicron may seem unavoidable, but experts say ‘let it rip’ isn’t the solution

The COVID-19 vaccine technical committee of the World Health Organization said the same thing on Jan. 11, noting Omicron is the fifth variant of concern in two years and “is unlikely to be the last.”

Booster shots that heighten antibody development became the immediate response to Omicron for many governments, including Canada.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a British Columbia pediatrician and co-chair of the WHO’s clinical research committee on COVID-19, told The Canadian Press that boosters aren’t a long-term viable option.

“Boosting your way out of a pandemic is going to inevitably shoot you in the foot in the sense that you’re going to have a future variant that’s going to emerge that’s going to cause problems,” he said. “It’s going to evade your vaccines, and then you’re going to have to scramble.”

Omicron doesn’t evade the existing vaccines entirely but a future variant could, he said. The issue largely stems from the fact that the original vaccines train the body’s immune system to recognize what is called the spike protein found on the surface of a virus, and that spike protein is mutating significantly.

Think of the mutated spike protein as a bit of a disguise that makes it harder for the immune system to recognize the virus and mount a defence to kill it off.

Omicron has more than 50 mutations, and at least 36 are on the spike protein.

Multivalent vaccines that use the spike protein from more than one variant, or that target the genetic components of a virus rather than the spike protein, are possibly the ones that could offer protection for both this pandemic and the next novel coronavirus that emerges.

“It’s pan-coronavirus, where it’s looking at big broad neutralizing responses and you don’t have to update it every season and so on,” said Murthy. “That’s been the Holy Grail of flu vaccinology for the past number of decades. We haven’t achieved that yet, because flu is a bit tricky, but we think that it’s achievable for coronavirus, specifically.”

The United States Army has a version heading into Phase 2 trials that can attach multiple spike proteins. A vaccine with the specific spike proteins from all five COVID-19 variants of concern would likely be more successful, even against future variants, because they all share some of the same mutations and what one might miss another may catch.

Moderna is working on trials for multivalent vaccines using combinations of the spike proteins from the original virus and one of the variants, or two of the variants together. It’s not clear when they would be ready for use.

Sharma said even if the vaccines aren’t working as well against variants as they were against the original virus, to her “they’re still miraculous.”

“To have a vaccine that was developed that quickly, that still has, through multiple variants … with boosters, up to 70, 80 per cent effectiveness against serious disease, ailments, hospitalization and death,” she said. “That is miraculous for a new vaccine for a new virus.”

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


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Canada approves Pfizer’s oral COVID-19 antiviral treatment, seeks supplies

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Canada on Monday approved Pfizer Inc’s oral antiviral treatment for mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 in people aged 18 and older but said supply shortages would keep doses from being made available immediately.

Infections and hospitalizations due the Omicron variant have been rising in Canada, forcing provinces to put in restrictions and the federal government to support impacted businesses.

“(This) is particularly important, as access to easy to use treatments could help to reduce the severity of COVID-19 in adults who become newly infected at high risk of progressing to serious illness,” said chief public health officer Theresa Tam.

Pfizer’s two-drug antiviral regimen, Paxlovid, was nearly 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, according to data from the company’s clinical trial.

It is meant to be taken at home for five days beginning shortly after onset of symptoms.

Ottawa said last month it had signed a deal with Pfizer for a million treatment courses, pending approval. But getting those supplies could face hurdles.

“While there is currently limited global supply of Paxlovid, we are working to firm up a delivery schedule with the intent of bringing treatment courses to Canada as quickly as possible,” Tam told a briefing.

Ontario, the most populous of the 10 provinces, is seeing signs that Omicron cases may have peaked, said chief medical officer Kieran Moore.

“I’m starting to have much more hope … the number of cases is decelerating instead of accelerating in terms of hospitalizations and (people admitted to) intensive care units,” he told an Ottawa radio station.

Official data show that as of Jan 8, 87.8% of Canadians aged 12 and above had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.S. authorized the Pfizer treatment for people ages 12 and older last month.

Canada is still looking at whether to approve Merck & Co’s oral antiviral pill, molnupiravir, which had less impressive results than Paxlovid in its pivotal clinical trial.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Berkrot)

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January 16, 2022 coronavirus update for Oakville – Oakville News

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This is Oakville’s coronavirus update for Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022. As children head back to school tomorrow, the main takeaway from today’s COVID-19 update is the increase in the number of outbreaks in long-term care, retirement, and hospital facilities. OTMH is now dealing with two outbreaks as a new one was declared at 5 South, and the province has 231 hospitals recording ongoing outbreaks, an increase nice.

Hospital status

A new outbreak at OTMH was declared but not shown on the region’s update of Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. Halton does not provide new information on weekends or holidays. 

  • Oakville – 70 patients – plus 6
  • Halton – 126 patients – plus 10
  • Ontario – 3,595 patients – minus 362 (ICU 563 plus 19, Ventilators 327 plus 19)

Outbreaks

There are currently nine active outbreaks with 58 cases (LTC-41, retirement homes-13, hospitals-2) in Oakville. 

Ontario

Long-term care facilities status

  • 424 ongoing outbreaks -plus 9
  • 27,391 cases – plus 320
  • 39,06 resident deaths – plus 9

Retirement homes

  • 319 ongoing outbreaks – plus 16

Hospitals

  • 231 ongoing outbreaks – plus 16

Vaccination status

Halton 

  • 1st Dose (5+) – 90%
  • 2nd Dose (5+) – 83%
  • Boosters (18+) – 48%

Ontario administered 117,300 vaccinations

  • 1st Dose (5+) – 82%
  • 2nd Dose (5+) – 3%

Case status

The number of confirmed new cases in Oakville, Halton and Ontario is under-reported since the province restricted access to testing, limiting it to high-risk individuals, healthcare providers, and patients. 

Halton

  • 36,184 cases – plus 552 or 5,962.2 cases per million
  • 634.6 new weekly cases per 100,000, down 15.9 per cent from 2 weeks ago

Ontario

  • 948,086 total cases – plus 10,450 or 6,434.7 cases per million
  • 503.1 new weekly cases per 100,000, down 22.4 per cent from 2 weeks ago
  • 843,073 recoveries –  plus 15,317
  • 10,605 deaths – plus 40
  • 94,408 active cases – minus 4,907

**Vaccine booking: Halton continues to book first and second-dose vaccinations for all residents age five and older, plus third-dose boosters for all adults age 18 and up.

Parents must make booster doses and appointments for children in advance, but first and second doses for those 12 and up are available on a walk-in basis.

All vaccines approved for use in Canada effectively protect you against COVID-19 and all known variants of concern.

CLICK HERE to book a first, second or third vaccination appointment at a Halton Region vaccine clinic

The evidence is clear: vaccination is the best way to be protected. Local, provincial, national and international health units all affirm the same data that Canada’s approved vaccines effectively protect you from COVID-19 and significantly reduce your risks of getting sick, going to the hospital, and dying from the disease.

Pictured right is a graph from the Halton region showing how dramatically your risk of getting sick or being admitted to hospital is when vaccinated.

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