Economy & business/Silicon Valley & Technology
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Microsoft Disables Most of Cybercriminals’ Control Over Massive Computer Network

Microsoft Corp said Tuesday it had disabled more than 90% of the machines used by a gang of Russian-speaking cyber criminals to control a massive network of computers with a potential to disrupt the U.S. election. Aided by a series of U.S. court orders and relationships with technology providers in other countries, Microsoft said its weeklong campaign against the gang running the Trickbot network was heading off a possible source of disruption to the November 3 U.S. vote. “We’ve taken down most of their infrastructure,” corporate Vice President Tom Burt said in an interview. “Their ability to go and infect targets has been significantly reduced.” The criminals in charge of Trickbot have infected more than 1 million personal computers, including many inside local governments, according to cybersecurity professionals. They then make deals with other gangs to install ransomware and other malicious programs on the infected machines, security professionals say. Although there is no evidence that the gang has worked with foreign governments, Burt said he wanted to disrupt Trickbot before the election in case Russian agencies attempted to use it to interfere with voting or cast doubt on the results by manipulating data. Some security experts who had seen little impact from Microsoft’s initial efforts to combat Trickbot said this week that new control servers being brought online by the gang were getting cut off, making it harder for the group to install new programs on infected computers. “Disruption operations against Trickbot are currently global in nature and have had success against Trickbot infrastructure,” said Intel 471 Chief Executive Mark Arena. “Regardless, there still is a small number of working controllers based in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan that still are able to respond.” The Trickbot gang is now asking other malware groups to install its software, Arena and others said, and it is expected to rebuild its infrastructure in other ways. Burt said such efforts to adapt would at least distract the gang from bringing chaos to voting or other local government activity if it had been so inclined. 
 

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US First Lady Won’t Join President at Campaign Rally

U.S. first lady Melania Trump will not join President Donald Trump on the campaign trail Tuesday because of a lingering cough from COVID-19, according to her chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham. Grisham said Tuesday that Mrs. Trump’s health continues to improve daily after she and the president announced in early October that they had contracted the infectious disease. The first lady has decided not to accompany Trump to a campaign rally Tuesday night in Erie, Pennsylvania, “out of an abundance of caution,” Grisham said. Melania Trump, who announced last week that she had recovered from COVID-19, made her last public appearance during the September 29 debate between Trump and Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.  

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British Finance Chief Defends Government’s COVID-19 Strategy

Britain’s finance minister Tuesday defended the government’s localized three-tiered approach to fighting the spread of COVID-19 in the country, saying another national lockdown would carry too heavy a cost.Finance Chief Rishi Sunak, also known as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, spoke to the House of Commons Tuesday about the government’s approach and said the government did not rule out tougher restrictions. But when opposition party members called for a temporary two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown — as suggested last week by Britain’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), Sunak asked the members to “acknowledge the stark reality” of the economic impact of such a lockdown.
 
He said the circuit breaker lockdown would cause unnecessary pain and suffering on those in parts of the country where the virus prevalence is low. A localized approach is the best approach,” he said.
 
Opposition Labor Party Leader Keir Starmer last week called for the circuit breaker lockdown after SAGE made the recommendation. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has resisted that recommendation in favor of a three-tiered COVID-19 alert system.
 
Johnson’s plan includes areas classified as medium, high or very high virus risk. In the top tier, pubs must close, and people are barred from mixing with members of other households. So far, only the Liverpool and Lancashire regions of northwest England have been placed in Tier 3, the highest level.
 
Nearby Greater Manchester, with a population of almost 3 million, has been holding out for more support for workers and businesses affected by the restrictions.
 
Britain has Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 43,800 confirmed deaths.
 
Meanwhile, governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which control their own health policies, are taking strong steps.  Wales has the strictest plan, imposing a two-week “firebreak” lockdown starting Friday which will close all nonessential businesses and ban most trips outside the home.
 
In Scotland, pubs and other leisure facilities are closed, and sports and live events are banned in the largest cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, with slightly less stringent restrictions elsewhere.
 
Northern Ireland has closed schools for two weeks, banned most social gatherings and shut down many businesses, including bars and restaurants for a month.

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NASA Spacecraft to Skim Asteroid Surface, Bring Home Sample

A spacecraft from U.S. space agency NASA is set to touch an asteroid, break off a sample and bring it back to Earth for the first time during a history-making mission that culminates Tuesday.The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft — an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — is set to attempt a touch-and-go sample collection on the asteroid Bennu later Tuesday afternoon. Starting at just before 2 p.m. Eastern time, the spacecraft will begin its set of maneuvers to slowly descend to the Nightingale landing spot on the surface of the asteroid to collect the sample. The event is expected to take more than four hours.In a statement on its website, NASA says OSIRIS-REx is about the size of a large passenger van, has been orbit orbiting the asteroid since 2018 and is now more than 321 million kilometers from Earth. Scientists are interested in Bennu because they believe it contains material from the early solar system and may contain the molecular precursors to life and Earth’s oceans.The asteroid is about as tall as the Empire State Building and could potentially threaten Earth late in the next century, with a 1‐in‐2,700 chance of affecting our planet during one of its close approaches.The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will orbit the asteroid until next year, when it will begin its journey home to Earth. It is expected to land with the sample in 2023. 

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Honduras Ex-President Receives Experimental Russian COVID Vaccine

Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya is taking part in Phase 3 trials of a potential coronavirus vaccine.  Venezuelan state television showed Zelaya receiving a shot of Russia’s experimental Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Caracas on Monday.  Venezuela is the first Latin American country to participate in the testing process.FILE – A Russian medical worker administers a shot of Russia’s experimental Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Moscow, Russia, Sept. 15, 2020.Western experts raised questions over the Sputnik V vaccine’s readiness for mass trials, citing the fact that Russia had tested the vaccine on just a small sample group before launching widespread testing. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro discounted the criticism, expressing satisfaction Zelaya is taking part in the trials.  So far, Venezuela has confirmed more than 87,000 coronavirus cases and at least 736 deaths. 

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No Coronavirus Vaccine Before US Election

President Donald Trump’s predictions that a coronavirus vaccine would be ready before Election Day, Nov. 3, will not be met. On Friday, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced it would not seek emergency authorization to release its coronavirus vaccine until late November.  Two other vaccine frontrunners are on hold. A fourth is unlikely to have results until the end of the year. Trump has said repeatedly that a vaccine would be available to many before the election as part of the administration’s highly touted Operation Warp Speed, created to accelerate the development of a vaccine. Top scientists in and out of government have long said that timeline is unrealistic. Trump Contradicts CDC Director on Vaccine and MasksSeeking to draw a contrast with President Donald Trump’s approach to combating the pandemic, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden laid out plans for developing and distributing a vaccine if he wins in the November election Conceding the point earlier this month, Trump blamed politics, without explanation. “I think we should have it before the election,” Trump said in a video on Twitter shortly after his release from the hospital following COVID-19 treatment. “But frankly, the politics gets involved, and that’s OK, they wanna play their games. It’s gonna be right after the election.” A MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT! pic.twitter.com/uhLIcknAjT
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020Safety first In a statement Friday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said that the company may know by the end of October whether its vaccine works. But it will not reach its safety milestone until late November.  “Safety is, and will remain, our number one priority,” Bourla wrote. Pfizer’s vaccine is one of several taking a novel approach to immunization. Rather than injecting patients with a dead or weakened virus or a piece of the germ, the vaccine contains genetic instructions for a part of the coronavirus. The patient’s body takes up the instructions, known as mRNA, and produces the virus fragment. The immune system responds to the fragment, priming the body to fight off the real virus. Pfizer is collaborating with German biotech firm BioNTech, which came up with the genetic instructions being tested in the vaccine. Nearly 40,000 patients are taking part in the clinical trial so far.Before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will consider an emergency use authorization, the company needs to monitor at least half the patients for two months after their last dose to watch for side effects. “We estimate we will reach this milestone in the third week of November,” Bourla wrote.Another vaccine frontrunner that uses mRNA technology, from biotech company Moderna, also expects results in late November.On hold Meanwhile, two other vaccine trials have paused because of potential safety problems.AstraZeneca said it put its trial on hold temporarily after at least one participant came down with an “unexplained illness.” Media reports have described the illness as transverse myelitis, a form of spinal inflammation that can cause pain, weakness and paralysis in the limbs, as well as bladder and bowel problems. But the company has not confirmed the diagnosis.Pauses to check possible safety issues are not uncommon in vaccine trials, experts say, and there are several factors besides the vaccine that may have caused the current illness. The trial has resumed in the United Kingdom, Brazil, India and South Africa. It remains on hold in the United States, however.Another vaccine using a similar approach, from pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, also has hit a safety snag, though its problems, too, may be unrelated to the vaccine.The company reported an “unexplained illness” in one of its trial participants last week.”We’re also learning more about this participant’s illness, and it’s important to have all the facts before we share additional information,” the company said in a statement. Having received billions of dollars of government money, drug companies are taking the unprecedented step of scaling up vaccine manufacturing before results are in.There won’t be enough for everyone right away, however. Government agencies are drawing up plans for who should get vaccinated first. Health care workers, first responders and more vulnerable populations including the elderly are likely to be first in line. It may be the middle of next year before most Americans are vaccinated, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Robert Redfield told Congress last month.  

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Total COVID Cases Across Globe Surpass 40 Million

The world has now surpassed 40 million confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, as surges of cases in Europe and the United States have led to more restrictions on residents. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 40.2 million people have been infected with the virus as of Monday evening, and more than 1.1 million have died from COVID-19.   Ireland announced some of the strictest measures in Europe this fall to combat a surge in cases. The government told residents not to travel more than 5 kilometers from their home, closed nonessential retail businesses, and limited restaurants and pubs to takeout only.Part of Germany’s Bavaria region will go into a strict lockdown Tuesday. Officials in Berchtesgadener Land district announced Monday that residents will not be able to leave their homes without a valid reason for two weeks. Schools, restaurants and hotels will be closed to stop the spread of the virus.   FILE – A medical staff member performs a COVID-19 test at a coronavirus test center in Cologne, Germany, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP)Wales became the second nation in Britain to lock down large parts of its economy, even as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resisted calls to do the same throughout England. The Welsh government announced Monday it would close nonessential retail, hospitality and tourism businesses, beginning Friday.  Northern Ireland recently ordered new lockdown measures, closing schools for two weeks and shutting down many businesses, including bars and restaurants, for a month. Poland’s government said Monday it is transforming its National Stadium in Warsaw into a field hospital to handle the growing number of COVID-19 cases. The European Commission on Monday launched a system across the EU to link national COVID-19 tracing apps, beginning with COVID-19 trackers in Germany, Italy and Ireland. United StatesIn the United States, cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in almost every state, and an analysis by Reuters found the number of new cases in the past week rose 13% to more than 393,000, approaching levels last seen during a summer peak. A Wisconsin judge on Monday reinstated an order from Gov. Tony Evers’s administration limiting indoor public gatherings, including a 25% capacity limit on the number of people attending restaurants and bars.  “This critically important ruling will help us prevent the spread of this virus by restoring limits on public gatherings,” Evers said in a statement. A registered nurse takes a patient’s nasal swab at a coronavirus disease drive-thru testing site in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, Oct. 18, 2020. (Reuters)The United States continues to lead the world in COVID-19 cases, with 8.2 million infections and more than 220,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.  The World Health Organization on Monday said Europe and North America should follow the example of Asian countries and quarantine anyone who comes into contact with infected people. Mike Ryan, the agency’s top emergency expert, said the populations of Asian countries have shown “higher levels of trust” in their governments that have reduced the spread of the virus by isolating cases and quarantining contacts.Across the globe In Australia, the southern city of Melbourne is slowly coming out of three months of strict lockdown orders.    As of Monday, the city’s 5 million residents can spend as much time away from home as they wish for exercising or school, and the distance they can travel away from home has been increased from 5 to 25 kilometers. Outdoor gatherings have an increased limit from five people to 10 from two households, while facilities such as skate parks, golf courses and tennis courts will reopen.  Men queue for a haircut outside a barber shop in Melbourne, Oct. 19, 2020. (AFP)The relaxed rules come as the capital city of Victoria state reported just two new coronavirus cases on Sunday and no deaths. Authorities had reported more than 700 new daily infections at the peak of the resurgence in July.    In Israel, a veteran Palestinian negotiator and secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat, was rushed Sunday to a Jerusalem hospital, where he has been placed on a ventilator to treat COVID-19. The 65-year-old Erekat, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this month, underwent a lung transplant in the United States in 2017, which compromised his immune system and made him especially vulnerable to the virus.    A spokesperson at Hadassah Medical Center said Monday that Erekat “had a quiet night,” but his condition eventually deteriorated and is “now defined as critical.”  Another prominent person infected with COVID-19 is South African health minister Zweli Mkhize. Mkhize issued a statement Sunday that he and his wife tested positive for the virus the day before after experiencing mild symptoms. Mkhize’s news comes days after South Africa officially surpassed 700,000 infections.    Iran reported 337 new COVID-19 deaths Monday, breaking the country’s single-day death toll record of 279, set on Sunday.  U.S. firm VaxartAs scientists around the world race to develop therapies and an eventual vaccine against the novel coronavirus, U.S.-based biotechnology firm Vaxart, one of the many companies working on the vaccine, is under federal investigation for allegedly exaggerating its involvement in the Trump administration’s multibillion-dollar vaccine development program.    The company claimed in a news release in June that its experimental oral vaccine had been selected by Operation Warp Speed, which sent its shares skyrocketing from $3 to $17 a share. A hedge fund that partly controlled the company sold all its shares in Vaxart, reaping a $200 million profit.  But the government later revealed that Vaxart had not received any funding from Operation Warp Speed, and that its vaccine was only involved in preliminary studies on animals. The company is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department, and is also facing numerous lawsuits from shareholders. Megan Duzor and Richard Green contributed to this report.
 

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