25.11.2022
Covid-like virus is discovered lurking in bats in southern China

A Covid-like virus discovered lurking in bats in southern China is one of five with the potential to jump to humans, scientists say.

The virus, known as BtSY2, is closely related to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid, and is ‘at particular risk for emergence’.

It’s one of five ‘viruses of concern’ found in bats across China’s Yunnan province that are ‘likely to be pathogenic to humans or livestock’, the scientists say.

The team warn of potential new ‘zoonotic’ diseases – those caused by pathogens that pass to humans from other animals.

The research was led by researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Shenzhen, the Yunnan Institute of Endemic Disease Control and the University of Sydney.

It has been detailed in a new study published as a preprint paper, yet to be peer-reviewed, on the bioRxiv server.

‘We identified five viral species that are likely to be pathogenic to humans or livestock, including a novel recombinant SARS-like coronavirus that is closely related to both SARS-CoV-2 and 50 SARS-CoV,’ the team say in the paper.

‘Our study highlights the common occurrence of inter-species transmission and co-infection of bat viruses, as well as their implications for virus emergence.’

For the study, the researchers collected rectum samples from 149 individual bats representing 15 species, in six counties or cities in China’s Yunnan province.

RNA – nucleic acid present in living cells – was extracted and sequenced individually for each individual bat.

Concerningly, the researchers noted a high frequency of multiple viruses infecting a single bat at one time.

This can lead to existing viruses swapping bits of their genetic code – a process known as recombination – to form new pathogens, according to Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham.

‘The main take-home message is that individual bats can harbour a plethora of different virus species, occasionally playing host to them at the same time,’ Professor Ball, who was not involved in the research, told the Telegraph.

‘Such co-infections, especially with related viruses like coronavirus, give the virus opportunity to swap critical pieces of genetic information, naturally giving rise to new variants,’ he said.

BtSY2 also has a ‘receptor binding domain’ – a key part of the spike protein used to latch onto cells human cells – that’s similar to SARS-CoV-2, suggesting the virus can infect humans.

‘BtSY2 may be able to utilize [the] human ACE2 receptor for cell entry,’ the team add.

ACE2 is a receptor on the surface of human cells that binds to SARS-CoV-2 and allows it to enter and infect.

Yunnan province in southwestern China has already been identified as a hotspot for bat species and bat-borne viruses.

A number of pathogenic viruses have been detected there, including close relatives of SARS-CoV-2, such as bat viruses RaTG1313 and RpYN0614.

The team did not speculate on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, which is related to the SARS-CoV-1 virus that caused the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak.

Evidence already suggests SARS-CoV-2 originated in horseshoe bats, although it’s likely the virus passed to humans through pangolins, a scaly mammal often confused for a reptile.

Likewise, it’s thought the lethal outbreak of the Ebola virus in Western Africa between 2013 and 2016 stemmed from bats.

Yunnan, the region identified by the new study, is also home to pangolins, which are consumed as food in China and are also used in traditional medicine.

According to a 2021 study in the journal Science of the Total Environment, it’s possible the virus jumped from bats to Sunda pangolins and masked palm civits in Yunnan.

They were then captured and transported to a wildlife market in Wuhan, more than 1,200 miles away, where the initial Covid outbreaks occurred.

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  • 3 часа, 47 минут назад 08.12.2022Science
    Lessons learned during the pandemic could help tackle Strep A, expert says

    Some of the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic could help parents ensure that their children are minimising their risk of catching group A Streptococcus — an outbreak of which in the UK this winter has already killed nine children. According to the UKHSA, there is no evidence to suggest that a new strain of Group A Strep is circulating — with this year’s rise in cases being attributed to a combination of resumed social mixing and high amounts of circulating bacteria. Express.co.uk spoke with epidemiologist Professor Nadav Davidovitch, who is Director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University and a member of Israel’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. The professor — who was also formerly the head of epidemiology for the Israel Defense Forces — has experience dealing with Strep A outbreaks on military bases.

    Group A Streptococcus is a group of infectious bacteria that can cause various inflammatory conditions including strep throat, scarlet fever, and various skin infections. It can be spread by close contact with an infected person, by coughs and sneezes, and via wounds.

    According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), incidence of scarlet fever is also much higher than is typically seen at this time of year. In fact, three weeks ago, officials logged 851 cases of the infection, compared to 186, the average seen over previous years.

    Common symptoms of the condition include headaches, fever and sore throat, accompanied by a fine pinkish or red rash on the body that has a sandpapery feel. Parents who suspect their child has contracted scarlet fever are encouraged to contact their GP or NHS 111.

    A small subset of individuals who contract Group A Strep go on to develop an invasive infection, in which the bacteria enter the bloodstream. Leading to sepsis or more deep-seated infections.

    Invasive Group A Strep remains uncommon, the UKHSA have said, but there has nevertheless been a significant increase in cases seen this year — particularly in children under the age of 10.

    Specifically, this year has seen 2.3 cases per 100,000 kids aged one to four and 1.1 per 100,000 children aged five to nine — compared, respectively, to figures of just 0.5 and 0.3 at this time of year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    According to medical experts, symptoms of invasive Group A Strep can include a persistently high temperature, difficulties breathing, a spreading rash that doesn’t fade when pressed, red and swollen joints, irritability and difficulty waking.

    The latest child to die after contracting the severe form of Strep A is reported to be five-year-old Stella-Lily McCorkindale of Belfast, Northern Ireland, who passed away on Monday after being hospitalised last week.

    Although children are at the greatest risk of severe Strep A infections, adults can also contract the disease — with the elderly and medically vulnerable being more vulnerable.

    However, Prof. Davidovitch notes, under the wrong circumstances, even the most physically fit adults can develop severe infections. This, he explains, was the case in a notable outbreak he worked to treat at an Israeli military base.

    He explained: “An elite unit doing very intense training — including push-ups on the knuckles and climbing walls with ropes — [were] not having enough time to take proper showers or [engage in] basic sanitation.

    “In several of them, a strep outbreak started. The strep was very violent. Some soldiers had kidney injuries and they needed to be released from the military.”

    While this was an extreme situation, the cause — poor hygiene — is illustrative, as is the treatment — which involved ending the unsanitary conditions, sending the soldiers away and prescribing courses of antibiotics, either as treatment for the ill or prophylactics for those not yet infected.

    The UK Government is said to be considering the blanket use of preventative antibiotics in schools where outbreaks are detected.

    In a similar fashion, Prof. Davidovitch said, settings in the UK that might be at a higher risk of an outbreak — like nurseries, schools, or senior care homes — can better protect their charges by ensuring proper sanitation measures are in place, that there is proper access to soap and water, and that (in the case of schools) classrooms are not too densely packed.

    The public health expert also has advice for parents on how to minimise their — and other — children’s risk from Strep A. He says: “Not sending them [in] sick. Training them to wash their hands properly — soap, not just water! — and be alert to the situation.”

    In another lesson that might have been learned from the pandemic, it is also important to ensure that there is adequate ventilation, Prof. Davidovitch added, to help minimise the spread of the disease.

    From a research point of view, he added, more work needs to be invested in trying to develop a vaccine against strep A, which would be beneficial not only in outbreaks like the one the UK is seeing at present, but in developing countries where the severe version disease is often more prevalent.

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  • 3 часа, 58 минут назад 08.12.2022Science
    Experts reveal the districts in UK cities with the fastest and slowest broadband speeds

    We’ve all been there — tearing our hair out because the broadband is running slowly or has dropped out all together.

    But wouldn’t it be more maddening if we knew that someone just down the road had double the internet speed or better?

    Well that is exactly what it’s like in certain cities across the UK, including Glasgow, Nottingham, Cardiff, London and Newcastle.

    The most unequal place is Glasgow, according to research by the comparison and switching service Uswitch.com, which analysed 16,500 consumer speed tests across Britain.

    The highest average download speed measured in the Scottish city was 840.4Mbps, logged in the Milton district.

    However, just four miles away in the suburb of Bearsden speeds are as low as 0.97Mbps.

    This is less than a tenth of the 10Mbps download speed defined as the minimum required for a decent broadband connection as part of the UK Government’s universal service obligation.

    Nottingham has the next biggest broadband divide, with its top recorded speed 689 times faster than its slowest 1.16Mbps connection.

    The average UK home broadband download speed is currently 59.4Mbps.

    Among the worst performing five cities, all areas apart from Newcastle had far faster broadband packages available than where the slowest speeds were recorded, Uswitch.com said.

    To put the slow broadband into context, Glaswegians in the city’s worst performing areas would have to wait 11 hours 54 minutes to download a two-hour movie in HD.

    In comparison, it would take only 49 seconds using the city’s quickest connection.

    Edinburgh had the fastest recorded speed of all UK cities with 840.6Mbps, found in the Forth ward in the north, followed by Glasgow and Nottingham.

    Bradford had the smallest broadband speed divide, with a gap of 129Mbps between its fastest and slowest areas.

    Portsmouth and Wolverhampton were close behind, while Hull, which has the majority of its broadband supplied by regional provider KCOM, had the highest minimum speed of 14.2Mbps.

    The shortest distance between a city’s fastest and slowest areas was in Brighton.

    Just 1.2 miles separated an address in the Patcham area where the 419.5Mbps top speed was measured, from the bottom speed of 4.4Mbps recorded a short walk away in the Preston Park ward.

    Uswitch.com said the broadband gap between UK households was widening because of the availability of faster services, with some customers upgrading and other not.

    According to Ofcom’s latest figures, 4 per cent of UK households receive an average download speed of under 10Mbps.

    At the other end of the scale, nearly twice as many broadband customers (7 per cent) now get average ultrafast speeds of over 300 Mbps.

    In Glasgow, more than a third of addresses (37 per cent) in the slowest area did not have access to a superfast package, while the remainder was able to choose from standard, superfast or ultrafast full fibre deals.

    Ernest Doku, broadband expert at Uswitch.com, said: ‘While the average UK broadband speed is increasing year on year, not everyone is benefiting.

    ‘We are seeing a large and growing gap between customers benefiting from ultrafast speeds and those who are getting the bare minimum.

    ‘Legacy copper-wire broadband services often struggle to cope with the demands placed on them by busy households with many devices online, and are also more likely to suffer from outages.

    ‘Yet advances in technology and the rollout of infrastructure means that millions of customers have far faster options on their doorstep. And competition among providers offering full fibre services has also helped to deliver better value to consumers.’

    He added: ‘Where once, switching to a faster package involved a jump in bills, nowadays you can often upgrade your package at the end of your deal without paying more. So there’s never been a better time to review your options.

    ‘Those unhappy with their broadband performance should take an online speed test to make sure they are getting the minimum speed guaranteed by their current provider, and also look online to see what they could get by switching to another provider.’

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  • 3 часа, 58 минут назад 08.12.2022Science
    Dyson’s bizarre Zone headphones with a built-in air purification system will go on sale in March

    Take a deep breath, Dyson’s first pair of noise-cancelling, air-purifying headphones will go on sale in the UK in March, starting at £749.

    The Dyson Zone were first unveiled earlier this year as the UK-founded firm’s unique take on combating noise and air pollution in urban areas around the world.

    The headphones come with active noise cancellation to cut out noise around the wearer, and a detachable visor that pumps out filtered air.

    The visor sits over the wearer’s nose and mouth and pumps out filtered air to help cut exposure to air pollution.

    It can also be lowered to expose the wearer’s moth when speaking, or detached completely when not in use.

    The Zone headphones will initially launch in China in January, before coming to the UK, Ireland, the US, Hong Kong, and Singapore in March.

    The headphones are in response to data which shows that one in five people in the EU are affected by noise pollution and that 99 per cent of the world’s population live in areas that exceed the World Health Organisation’s safe levels for pollution.

    The Dyson Zone’s filtration system can capture 99 per cent of particles as small as 0.1 microns, including pollen, dust and bacteria, as well as viruses.

    A potassium-enriched carbon layer, also in the ear caps, captures city gas pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

    The compressors then project two streams of purified air to the wearer’s nose and mouth through the visor, which doesn’t touch the face like traditional face masks.

    However, the filters in the ear caps will need to be replaced up to every 12 months to keep the air purification system working.

    A notification from the MyDyson app, which connects to the headphones, will inform the user when replacement is necessary, and changing them over can be done at home.

    Users will also be able to adjust airflow speed and audio modes, as well as track the different levels of air quality they encounter, with the MyDyson app.

    Dyson says the headphones offer up to 50 hours of audio-only battery life, or around four hours of combined audio and air purification run time.

    Data from eight microphones monitoring the surrounding noise enables them to reduce the sounds of the city by 38dB.

    They can also play audio in the frequency range of 6Hz to 21kHz.

    The headphones can be charged using a USB-C cable, and can go from zero to 100 per cent battery in three hours.

    Dyson said the device takes inspiration from ‘the shape and design of a horse’s saddle’, by distributing weight over the sides of the head, rather than on the top.

    The firm says: ‘A saddle typically curves over the horse’s spine distributing the load through contact with the areas left and right of the backbone – a format used for the central cushion on the headband.’

    When the Dyson Zone headphones were first unveiled earlier this year, the company’s chief engineer, Jake Dyson, said: ‘The Dyson Zone purifies the air you breathe on the move.

    ‘Unlike face masks, it delivers a plume of fresh air without touching your face, using high-performance filters and two miniaturised air pumps’.

    The British firm has said that developing a non-contact solution was a must for its engineers, to avoid the discomfort and irritation often associated with masks that touch the face.

    Their headphones are the result of six years of development and more than 500 prototypes.

    They were originally a ‘snorkel-like’ clean air mouthpiece paired with a backpack to hold the motor and inner workings.

    In tests, Dyson engineers used a breathing manikins fitted with medical-grade mechanical lungs and sensing equipment, to ‘inhale’ pollution replicating human breathing patterns.

    They then measured the pollution level within each manikin’s nose and throat to determine the headphones’ filtration efficacy of that type of particle.

    Dyson warns that the world’s urban population continues to grow, resulting in a poorer quality of air to breathe as soon as we step out our homes.

    According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), nine in 10 people globally breathe air that exceeds its guidelines on pollutant limits.

    In January 2022, people living in London were advised not to exercise outdoors due to high levels of pollution.

    Also, around 100 million people in Europe are also said to be exposed to long-term noise exposure above its recommended level.

    It’s estimated that more than 100 million people, around 20 per cent of the European population, are exposed to long-term noise exposure above WHO guidance.

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  • 5 часов, 47 минут назад 08.12.2022Science
    Coal mine comeback as first pit in 30 years approved while Britain battles energy crisis

    Michael Gove has given the green light for the UK to build its first new coal mine for thirty years near Whitehaven, Cumbria. A decision on the project was initially expected in July, although the proposal has since faced three separate delays in the approval process. Government investment in the coal mine will cost an estimated £165 million, although the pit is expected to generate 500 new jobs in the region. With the mine now approved, industry experts and environmentalists have expressed concern over the renewed drive behind the coal industry.

    The mine, which will take roughly two years to build, will produce an estimated 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal a year, largely used in the steelmaking industry.

    Former CEO of British Steel Rob Deelan has slammed the decision to boost coal-based fuel resources for steel production.

    Mr Deelan said: “This is a completely unnecessary step for the British steel industry which is not waiting for more coal as there is enough on the free market available.

    “The British steel industry needs green investment in electric arc furnaces and hydrogen, to protect jobs and make the UK competitive.”

    A letter outlining the decision said Mr Gove was “satisfied that there is currently a UK and European market for coal.”

    The letter added: “There is no consensus on what future demand in the UK and Europe may be, it is highly likely that a global demand would remain.”

    The mine is expected to generate a “significant number” of jobs, with 500 direct roles anticipated and “perhaps twice as many” additional roles to emerge concerning the wider operations of the facility.

    Supporters of the decision have suggested the new coal mine will reduce British reliance on foreign imports, which has a larger carbon footprint than using domestic coal.

    However, concerns have also been raised over the environmental impact of the site, which is forecast to produce 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year, according to the Climate Change Committee.

    The coal mine is predicted to have a carbon emissions impact equivalent to placing an additional 200,000 cars on UK roads.

    Professor in energy and climate governance Rebecca Willis said: “There is no business case or scientific justification for this mine, which has only been made possible by a quirk of our planning laws.

    “It will harm the UK’s climate credentials and do very little for communities in Cumbria where the focus should be on delivering on long term, secure and green jobs.”

    Roz Bulleid, research director at Green Alliance, said: “The public don’t want new coal mines and the steel industry doesn’t need extra sources of coking coal.”

    She described the decision to approve the project as a “backwards step” for the UK’s climate ambitions.

    The Green Alliance has noted that West Cumbria Mining has made “no firm commitment” to providing the anticipated 500 new jobs, nor promised that these roles will last for 50 years.

    Additionally, local opposition groups within Cumbria have highlighted a number of health concerns relating to methane release as a consequence of coal extraction.

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  • 5 часов, 57 минут назад 08.12.2022Science
    How ChatGPT could make it easy to cheat on written tests and homework

    A new artificial intelligence chatbot could make it much easier for students to cheat on tests and homework that require written answers.

    Billed by technologists and industry watchers as the most powerful AI chatbot ever released, ChatGPT is the latest effort from OpenAI, a San Francisco-based company that also made tools like DALL-E 2, the image generator that made a splash earlier this year.

    ChatGPT, which has been trained on a gigantic sample of text from the internet, can understand human language, conduct conversations with humans and generate detailed text that many have said is human-like and quite impressive.

    ‘We’ve trained a model called ChatGPT which interacts in a conversational way,’ OpenAI said in a statement. ‘The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.’

    Although ChatGPT has been released to the public for anyone to use, for free, the AI has been so popular that OpenAI had to temporarily shut down the demo link today. More than a million people signed up in the first five days it was released.

    This type of AI could be misused in countless ways, from furthering misinformation and hateful content to stealing the copyrighted work of published authors and upending the entire education system.

    Kevin Bryan, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto who ran an AI-based entrepreneurship program and follows the industry closely, said he was ‘shocked’ by the capabilities of ChatGPT after he tested it by having the AI write numerous exam answers.

    ‘You can no longer give take-home exams/homework,’ he said at the start of a thread detailing the AI’s abilities.

    He asked the AI ‘whether a new cash-constrained auto startup will have trouble motivating suppliers with relational contracts, what they can do instead, and what it means for the boundaries of the firm.’

    The results were deemed worthy of an A.

    It’s worth noting that ChatGPT does not trawl the internet for answers in the model of Google Search, and it’s knowledge is restricted to things it learned before 2021. It is also prone to giving simplistic, more moderate responses.

    OpenAI has programmed the bot to refuse ‘inappropriate requests’ – which includes requests for generating instructions for illegal activities, such as how to make a bomb.

    In assigning the AI various tasks, some of which involved combining knowledge across different areas, Bryan said it performed ‘frankly better than an average MBA.’

    Bryan also clarified for those reading his thread who are outside his specialty area: ‘None of the answers are “wrong” and many are fairly sophisticated in their reasoning about some of the most conceptually difficult content you would see in an intro strategy class. It is not just meaningless words!)’

    ChatGPT even composed a tweet for Bryan, included in the thread, which Bryan noted was another sign of the technology’s amazing advancement.

    ‘What’s even wilder is that the rate of improvement is increasing,’ Bryan said on Twitter. ‘Right now, it doesn’t actively search the internet nor incorporate a proper mathematical engine, but both will absolutely be part of these models next year. 100% sure these models will be part of our workflow…’

    However, not everyone is ready to hold a funeral for student essays.

    In Plagiarism Today, Jonathan Bailey stated that the college essay – which has been declining in popularity for years – is in fact not dead.

    ‘Despite the challenges, there are still times when an essay is an appropriate assessment tool. Even if it ceases being the default or the gold standard, the essay will likely remain as a tool instructors use to assess student’s grasp of the material,’ Bailey wrote.

    ‘AI won’t be the death of the essay, but it may change it. It may change the prompts that are used, the receivables that need to be graded, and the general approach to the concept.’

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  • 5 часов, 57 минут назад 08.12.2022Science
    Back-to-back meetings really are stressful – they increase brain activity linked to mental efforts

    New research finds the stress you feel during back-to-back meetings is all in your head.

    Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab studied electrical activity participants’ brains as they endured one meeting after another, without breaks, and observed a spike in beta wave activity – a characteristic seen during mental efforts.

    The team also looked at another group who were given 10-minute breaks between meetings and found beta activity dropped, allowing the individual to reset and perform better during their next appointment.

    Microsoft’s researchers said these findings prove that breaks are necessary to improve people’s ability to focus and engage during meetings and suggest that even grabbing a glass of water or stretching is enough to clear your head.

    The research was released in 2021 while much of the world was working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, and all meetings were held online.

    However, now that the world is back to normal and offices are filled with staff, in-person meetings are again consuming people’s days.

    And the study still applies.

    Approximately 14 volunteers were fitted with electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment – a cap to monitor the electrical activity in their brains – while they attended meetings.

    On the first day of the study, the group attended stretches of four half-hour meetings back-to-back, with each call devoted to different tasks and no breaks.

    The following day, participants endured another round of four half-hour meetings, but this time had 10 minute breaks between each session.

    ‘As we’ve seen in previous studies, in two straight hours of back-to-back meetings, the average activity of beta waves—those associated with stress—increased over time. In other words, the stress kept accumulating,’ Microsoft shared in a press release.

    ‘But when participants were given a chance to rest using meditation, beta activity dropped, allowing for a ‘reset.’

    This reset allowed participants to go into the next meeting relaxed, compared to those who did not have breaks and were stressed just thinking about the next meeting.

    Researchers also analyzed the difference in right and left alpha wave activity over the brain’s frontal regions, known as frontal alpha asymmetry, which correlates to higher engagement during the meeting.

    Positive levels were found in brainwave patterns among participants who had breaks and those who did back-to-back meetings showed stress in the brain.

    These individuals also reported it was harder to focus and engage in sessions.

    Michael Bohan, senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering group, who oversaw the project, said in a statement: ‘Our research shows breaks are important, not just to make us less exhausted by the end of the day, but to actually improve our ability to focus and engage while in those meetings.’

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Science Covid-like virus is discovered lurking in bats in southern China