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13th July 2020

Science Coronavirus: Health minister says app should roll out by winter

Science Coronavirus: Health minister says app should roll out by winter


science NHS Covid-19 app

A government minister has said the NHS coronavirus contact-tracing app is “not a priority” and he was not sure it would be out by winter.

The app, which has been trialled on the Isle of Wight, was initially expected to launch nationally weeks ago.

The BBC can also reveal that the project’s two lead managers – NHSX’s Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis – are stepping back.

And Simon Thompson – a former Apple executive – is joining to manage it.

Mr Thompson is currently chief product officer at the online grocer Ocado. He has been appointed to Baroness Dido Harding’s Test and Trace team, where he will have other duties in addition to the app.

Mr Gould and Mr Lewis had always expected to move back to their other duties this month, however they had intended for the app to have had its national rollout by now.

Science Winter target

Lord Bethell, the Minister for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care, said he was unable to give a date for its launch.

But he insisted that the trial “has gone very well indeed”.

He was responding to questions at the Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

“We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t the priority for us at the moment,” Lord Bethell said in answer to a question about the app.

He admitted that was “an expectation of management answer, saying I can’t give you a date”.

Lord Bethell said it was still the government’s intention to launch it at some point.

Lord Bethell has just poured a bucket of icy water over the project that was supposed to be at the heart of the government’s test-and-trace strategy.

At the beginning of May, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said people had a duty to download the app, which was expected to be rolled out nationally by the end of the month.

Plenty of people warned at an early stage that telling people via an app notification to go into quarantine might not work.

Now it seems the Isle of Wight trial has confirmed that most prefer the more human touch of a phone call.

The team behind the app have an updated version ready to go which they feel addresses many of the concerns. But it looks as though ministers and the Test-and-Trace supremo Baroness Harding have decided to put the whole idea in the deep freeze. Don’t bet on it coming back in the winter.

He also added that the trial on the Isle of Wight had shown that some people preferred humans to do the contact tracing.

“There is a danger of it being too technological and relying too much on text and emails, and alienating or freaking out people – because you’re peddling quite alarming news through quite casual communication,” he said.

Since the launch of the trial phase six weeks ago, there have been few official updates about any expected timeline, and reports that ministers are considering switching systems.

In other app developments:

  • Spain said it will trial a new app on La Gomera, near Tenerife in the Canary Islands, before deciding whether to roll it out nationwide
  • Germany’s tracing app has been downloaded 6.5 million times in 24 hours after its launch
  • The EU agreed a technical framework to allow national apps to work across borders – but it may not work well with “centralised” apps such as that planned for France

Lord Bethell said that because the disease’s prevalence was currently relatively low, “we’re not feeling under great time pressure, and therefore we’re focusing on getting the right app”.

He added: “I won’t hide from you that there are technical challenges with getting the app right, and we are really keen to make sure that we get all aspects of it correct.”

He also acknowledged that the public were highly concerned about the app, which he said was one reason an app had not been “rushed” out.

“If we didn’t quite get it right the first time round, we might poison the pool and close down a really important option for the future.”

13th July 2020

Science Why are we ‘milking’ crabs for a coronavirus vaccine?

Science Why are we ‘milking’ crabs for a coronavirus vaccine?


science A horseshoe crabImage copyright
Getty Images

They’ve got 10 eyes, have existed for more than 300 million years – and we use their pale blue blood to keep us all safe.

No, it’s not science fiction, just plain old science. We’re talking about the horseshoe crab.

For decades we’ve needed them, and their blood, to help us discover human medicines.

They’re being used today to help scientists research a potential coronavirus vaccine.

But there are questions about how many are still around, how the process affects the animals and some campaigners want this “milking” of horseshoe crabs stopped.

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Getty Images

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Around 30 percent of each crab’s blood is taken out

Science How do they help?

These “living fossils” matter because their blood helps make sure there are no dangerous bacteria in newly created drugs – the sort of bacteria that can kill people even in tiny amounts.

An extract in the crab’s blood cells chemically reacts to harmful stuff and scientists use it to test if new medicines are safe.

And horseshoe crab blood is the only thing humans can find, anywhere on earth, that does this.

Each year hundreds of thousands are caught and taken to labs in America, where some of their blood’s removed from a vein near their heart.

Then they’re released back into the wild.

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Getty Images

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The species has been around so long horseshoe crabs are known as “living fossils”

Science ‘No one really knows the impact it has’

Initially, experts reckoned nearly all crabs survived the unlikely donation.

But in recent years, it’s been estimated that anything up to 30% die from it.

Oher studies suggest female crabs that go through it are less likely to mate afterwards.

All of that, say wildlife campaigners, causes problems.

“Right now, they bleed about half a million crabs,” says Dr Barbara Brummer, who’s in charge of a team working on conserving nature for the state of New Jersey – where a lot in America are caught.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “no-one really knows the impact the withdrawal of blood has on the life of that crab” when they’re put back alive.

American horseshoe crabs are now close to officially being seen as an endangered species.

But some of the big companies who make drugs point to stats that suggest numbers have stayed roughly the same for a few years now.

Science ‘We can move away from this natural source’

A lot of research has been done into creating a man-made substance that could replace the blood.

And in 2016 – bingo.

Scientists came up with an alternative which was given the okay to be used in Europe. Some drug companies in the US joined in as well.

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So why are we talking about this now?

Because last month, the organisation that decides on what makes drugs safe in America said it can’t prove the alternative works well enough.

Any companies wanting to sell medicines in the States have been told they need to keep using crab blood for testing.

That means anyone who might come up with a coronavirus vaccine will need to check it out it the old way – if they want to be able to get it to millions of Americans.

Dr Barbara says she’s pushing for them to take another look – since the other option’s being used elsewhere.

“It’s so we can move away from relying on this natural source,” she says.

Some drugs companies say they can meet the demand for a Covid-19 vaccine without having to take blood from many more crabs than normal.

But Dr Brummer says there are “at least 30 companies working on a vaccine” and “every one of them has to go through this testing.

“So my concern is about the population of the horseshoe crabs – because they’re such a key part of the eco system.”

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13th July 2020

Science Star Wars and sunflowers: Your home schooling stories

Science Star Wars and sunflowers: Your home schooling stories


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After 12 weeks, parents and pupils are struggling with home learning

It’s 14 weeks since schools across Scotland were closed as part of a plan to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

Although some children have continued to go to childcare “hubs” at schools, most have spent lockdown at home and parents have had to juggle home-schooling with their own employment.

Now that many pupils are now officially on their summer break, parents have been telling us how home-schooling worked for them – and how they feel about the prospect of their children returning full-time in August.

Science ‘It’s been a challenge’ – Derek Miller, Aberdeenshire

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Derek Miller

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The Millers have tried their best with home schooling but have struggled with a poor internet connection

For Derek Miller’s family, home learning has been a challenge. He has been trying to juggle working from home while his two sons, who are 13 and 15, get on with school work.

They have struggled with a poor internet connection at their rural Aberdeenshire home.

But he says this is only part of the difficulty – while his sons’ school is trying its best, the absence of traditional classroom teaching has made things tough.

“We are relying heavily on them self-disciplining and supervising themselves”, he added.

He said that not always having access to a teacher to clarify simple queries has presented problems. How available teachers are to pupils has been mixed. He suspects some teachers have struggled with working from home.

“When they get stuck then sometimes I can help with things if I remember it from school – a lot of the time I can’t help because I don’t have time. It is a bit of a farce really”, he said.

Derek said that the news children might be able to go back to school full-time after summer was a welcome relief.

Science ‘A disaster’ – Carole Lyons, East Renfrewshire

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Carole Lyons says home schooling has been “a disaster”. She has one daughter, and Carole says she can’t imagine how difficult it must be for families with more children.

There has been the odd taught class, and a few lecture-style videos. Most lessons have been more like home work rather than teaching.

Her daughter, who is finishing first year at high school, has been given reading and research to do, with very limited teaching taking place.

Carole was concerned and asked the school how to help, and was “basically told to back off”.

She says she doesn’t fault the teachers, because they are trying their best, but had been concerned that blended learning would be an “absolute shambles” in August.

She had been concerned about the prospect of blended learning after the summer, but is not too worried about her daughter catching up on what she has missed if schools return full-time in August.

Science Virtual piano lessons – Mark Cummings, East Dunbartonshire

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Getty Images

Mark Cummings’ daughters attend a fee-paying school, and he is very pleased with how quickly it adapted to the circumstances.

His youngest daughter is in nursery and has had video calls with her teacher and classmates every week.

His eldest daughter is finishing primary one. Twice a day she has virtual lessons with her teacher, with other work set to be completed independently.

She has even been able to keep up with her piano lessons – virtually, of course.

Science Learning life skills – Sandy Rennie, Inverness

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Sandy Rennie

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The Rennie children have been using the afternoons to learn life skills and take in the fresh Highland air

While dad Sandy Rennie has “really enjoyed” spending so much time with his children, it has also been very challenging.

Teachers issue work in the morning, and then the children are left to their own devices. But, Sandy says, it can’t be easy for teachers either.

“I don’t envy the teachers. there’s more appreciation for teachers when you’re home schooling.”

One saving grace, he says, is that his children have been given laptops by the school.

The Rennies often manage to conclude their assignments by lunchtime, so mum and dad have been using the afternoons to teach them life skills – like cooking, cleaning and gardening.

Science Star Wars and sunflowers – Heather, Fife

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Heather’s sons have enjoyed Star Wars themed science experiments

Heather and her sons have taken a hands on approach to home learning. One of the examples they have enjoyed was growing sunflowers. They planted them back in March and she has since incorporated them into lessons about maths, writing and biology.

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Sunflowers planted in the spring have been used as props in different home learning lessons

Another highlight was Star Wars Day, where the boys thought they had a “day off” but actually did science experiments and cooking.

Heather says their teachers have been excellent, but despite this the enthusiasm from her sons has dropped off.

As time goes on, they are missing their classmates more.

12th July 2020

Science Coronavirus: ‘Being in the bath just isn’t the same as the pool’

Science Coronavirus: ‘Being in the bath just isn’t the same as the pool’


science Daniel and Hannah Lancaster in the poolImage copyright
Puddle Ducks

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Daniel and Hannah Lancaster in the pool

“They change when they get into the water, their eyes just light up,” says mum of two Hannah Lancaster.

Her children Daniel, three, and Daisy, two, have been swimming since they were just a few weeks old and are excited to get back in the pool after three months.

The government announced on Thursday that outdoor pools could open this weekend while indoors pools can do so from 25 July.

But it will be a different experience for the Lancaster family when they return after the coronavirus lockdown.

No longer will they be able to sit at the side and watch the other classes while they chat to friends, instead it will be straight back home.

“It will be different,” Hannah, 31 tells the BBC, “but a lot of things now are and we are going to have to get used to the new normal.”

“Daisy is a little bit young to understand but Daniel can’t wait to get back in the pool,” she adds.

The activities will be different too with only the instructor allowed to sing and parents being encouraged to be more hands-on with their own children’s needs to prevent the virus spreading between families.

“In terms of the actual lessons people are going to have to be more socially distanced,” says Jo Stone, managing director of Puddle Ducks, which runs classes across the country, including those attended by the Lancasters.

“The teacher can’t be as hands-on, we will be expecting customers to bring their own equipment and it will only be the teacher singing.

“Some activities will be adapted while others we won’t be able to do.”

Science What do I need to know about the coronavirus?

While the government announcement means pools can reopen before the end of the month, many will not be ready to do so as safety plans need to be put in place and lifeguard training needs to be brought up to date.

Guidance has been laid out by the government and Swim England. It includes:

  • Swimmers coming to the pool “beach ready” in their costumes
  • Booking of time slots to prevent overcrowding
  • Swimmers to bring their own equipment
  • No overtaking
  • Ensuring chlorine levels are high enough to kill the virus

For those who use the pools for their classes or training it means having to adapt to a new set of rules, with each facility required to put a safety regime in place.

Marlborough Penguins head coach Rich Smith is hoping to get back to the poolside as soon as possible to put members of the Wiltshire club through their paces.

“We are hoping to get going as soon as possible but we are not hedging our bets to be back on 25 July,” he explains. “The government can announce it but the pools have to get their staff back in, get them trained back up and then get working from there.

“We are all excited, it has been 17 weeks.”

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Rich Smith

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Rich Smith said his club were excited to get back in the pool

It will be a relief to get back in the water after three months of land training online, as a result of which Mr Smith says he and his coaching team had lost weight due to joining in the workouts.

He adds that Swim England’s sports psychologist will be speaking with swimmers to help them mentally focus on the return to the pool and in dealing with the struggles of the pandemic.

Science Can chlorine kill coronavirus?


Chlorine is used as a disinfectant in pools and can easily disable viruses, including coronavirus, as well as more resilient bugs such as bacteria.

The chemical has to be used at the right concentration, but this will be standard practice.

There are two infection risks in the pool – other swimmers themselves and water they may have contaminated.

Sage, the government’s science advisers, say the risk of catching the virus through water is “negligible”.

But being within 2m of other swimmers – perhaps when catching your breath in the shallow end – is a bigger risk.

Remember the risks are about more than just the pool. Coronavirus is spread through close contact, so beware in a cramped changing room.

And it can linger on surfaces such as lockers, benches, shower buttons and taps.

Swim England chief executive Jane Nickerson warns that while many pools are looking forward to reopening, there are lots that face an uncertain future.

She is calling for the government to invest in pools after warning that more than 10% of pools may never reopen.

One pool that will not be reopening in the coming weeks is Petersfield Open-Air Swimming Pool, in Hampshire, after renovation works were delayed due to the virus.

Now the trustees are faced with the choice of opening for a short season or waiting until 2021.

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Petersfield Open Air Pool

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Petersfield Open Air Pool is undergoing renovations which have been delayed due to the pandemic

A normal season for an open-air pool would last until mid-September but if the lido is not able to open soon it will be unviable to open until next year.

“If we can only get four weeks, in which we can only support 30 people an hour, then it will be very hard to break even,” says Linda Knutsen, chair of the trustees. “We have to think about what is best for the future of the pool.”

While Petersfield will not be reopening, Ms Knutsen says other open-air pools are planning to over the coming days.

For the Lancasters, who live in Northwich, Cheshire, any trip to the pool will be worthwhile after weeks of lockdown.

“Being in the bath just isn’t the same as the pool,” Mrs Lancaster says.

12th July 2020

Science Milton Glaser: Graphic designer behind ‘I ♥ NY’ logo dies aged 91

Science Milton Glaser: Graphic designer behind ‘I ♥ NY’ logo dies aged 91


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Media captionMilton Glaser says the I love New York design “almost never came into existence”

Milton Glaser, the influential American graphic designer who created the “I ♥ NY” logo, has died aged 91.

Made for a 1977 tourism campaign, the logo rapidly gained recognition across the world and has been described as the most frequently imitated in history.

Glaser later said he was “flabbergasted by what happened to this little, simple nothing of an idea”.

He also created a famous poster of Bob Dylan with psychedelic hair and was a co-founder of New York magazine.

The cause of his death was a stroke, his wife Shirley told the New York Times.

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Milton Glaser was given the the National Medal of Arts in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama

Glaser was born in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1929. He studied at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a college in Manhattan, and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy.

In 1954, Glaser set up Push Pin Studios with three Cooper Union classmates and helped bring a new visual language to commercial art, seeking inspiration from everything from Art Nouveau to Chinese wash drawing, German woodcuts, and the cartoons of the 1930s.

His poster of Bob Dylan featured a silhouette of the musician based on a self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp and brightly coloured locks of hair borrowed from Islamic art. The poster was included in Dylan’s 1967 album Greatest Hits, which was bought by six million fans, and adorned countless walls.

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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The poster for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits was inspired by Marcel Duchamp and Islamic art

In 1968, Glaser co-founded New York magazine and was its design director for nine years.

“Around our office, of course, he will forever be one of the small team of men and women that, in the late sixties, yanked New York out of the newspaper morgue and turned it into a great American magazine,” the magazine’s obituary said.

In 1974, he established his own design firm, Milton Glaser, Inc.

Three years later, he designed the “I ♥ NY” logo free of charge to help promote tourism in his home city, amid a crime wave and financial crisis. He came up with the idea while riding in a taxi and scribbled it in red crayon on an envelope, which is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

“It is one of those peculiarities of your own life where you don’t know the consequences of your own actions,” he told the New York Times in 2008. “Who in the world would have thought that this silly little bit of ephemera would become one of the most pervasive images of the 20th Century?”

After the 9/11 attacks, Glaser released an amended version of the logo that featured a bruised heart and read “I ♥ NY MORE THAN EVER“.

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Getty Images

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After the 9/11 attacks, the Daily News printed a modified version of the ‘I ♥ NY’ logo

Glaser is also known for his designing the World Health Organization’s international Aids symbol and poster, the logo for the Brooklyn Brewery, and an advertisement for the final series of Mad Men.

In 2004, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. In 2009, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

12th July 2020

Science Government plans new office to attract scientists to UK

Science Government plans new office to attract scientists to UK


science Lab researcherImage copyright
Science Photo Library

A new body, called “Office for Talent”, will be set up in No 10 to encourage scientists, researchers and innovators to come to the country, the government has said.

It will be tasked with making immigration “simple, easy and quick” for those wanting to move to the UK.

The initiative comes as the UK seeks to recover economically from coronavirus.

Some scientists have warned that uncertainty over Brexit could lead to researchers leaving the UK.

In addition, the government says its new Research and Development Roadmap will cut “unnecessary red tape” in a bid to encourage scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs to work and study in the UK.

The roadmap includes a £300m investment for upgrading scientific infrastructure and a promise to support “innovators and risk-takers”.

The plan also includes extending the time foreign graduates can stay after their PhDs are completed.

And, the government says, the roadmap will support efforts to tackle climate change, develop new medicines, strengthen national security and improve public services.

An Innovation Expert Group will also be set up to review how the government supports research “from idea stage right through to product development”.

Under a new graduate route, international students who complete a PhD from summer 2021 will be able to live and work for three years.

Successive governments have boosted science spending over the past 20 years, but none more so than the current administration.

In March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak pledged to more than double spending on UK government research and development (R&D) by 2024.

The pledge means that the government may exceed its target of boosting the proportion of private and public R&D spend from 1.7% to 2.4% by 2027.

But it’s more than just about the money.

Never before has science has science been a greater priority right at the heart of government.

The prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings is taking the lead in the project to what Boris Johnson called “supercharge” the science base.

Scientific leaders who have been in discussions with Mr Cummings tell me that second to getting Brexit done, sorting out science policy is his greatest passion.

A proportion of the new money will go to make up for the real-terms cut that some research areas have faced in recent years.

But priority is to turn the UK’s world-class science into world-class goods and services that create jobs and benefit the economy.

Successive governments have tried and failed to do this for decades.

I put this point to a senior official drawing up the new plan. Their response was: “They didn’t have the kind of money we have now.”

The government also says it wants to change the immigration system to extend visa application windows for prospective students and remove study time limits for those at postgraduate level.

No 10 also plans to launch an innovation fellowship programme open to international and national digital and tech talent to help deliver public services

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Scientists working in the Graphene laboratory at the University of Manchester

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “The UK has a strong history of turning new ideas into revolutionary technologies – from penicillin to graphene and the world wide web.

“Our vision builds on these incredible successes to cement Britain’s reputation as a global science superpower.”

President of the Royal Society Venki Ramakrishnan said the UK’s success had been built on attracting talent from around the world, as well as home grown researchers, and welcomed steps to achieve that.

“Our participation in EU research programmes has benefited everyone and it is good to see the government’s renewed commitment to continuing that fruitful association.

“Maintaining the UK’s position as a scientific leader is essential to our long term success as a nation and will be crucial to rebuilding jobs and the economy as we recover from the pandemic.”

The UK government has said it wants to negotiate its continued participation within the Horizon Europe research programme as part of the post-Brexit talks, however a overall deal between the UK and EU has yet to be reached.

12th July 2020

Science How Ghana paid tribute to George Floyd

Science How Ghana paid tribute to George Floyd


science Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo speaks during his swearing-in ceremony at Independence Square in Accra, Ghana January 7, 2017.Image copyright

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Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo sent a message of condolence to George Floyd’s family

In our series of letters from African writers, Ghana’s Elizabeth Ohene writes that George Floyd, whose killing has sparked a global debate about race relations, has been immortalised in the West African state that was central to the transatlantic slave trade.

We do funerals well here in Ghana. When it comes to the rituals, music, clothes and ceremonies that accompany them, I can safely say that nobody does them better.

As I watched the funeral of George Floyd on television, I needed no reminding that most African-Americans can trace their origins to West Africa and grand funerals come easily to them. Or they have had to organise these painful funerals of their people so regularly that they have become well practised.

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George Floyd’s death in police custody has galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement

During the Houston funeral on Tuesday, there was a reference to the message of condolence sent to Mr Floyd’s family by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo.

It was also mentioned that at the president’s request, Mr Floyd’s name had been permanently mounted on the wall of the Diasporan African Forum at the W.E.B. Du Bois Centre in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

This was done at a moving ceremony, organised by the Ghana Tourism Authority last week, in memory of Mr Floyd, who was killed on a street in Minnesota when a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Ghana marked in spectacular scale the year 2019, the 400th anniversary of the start of the transatlantic slave trade.

President Akufo-Addo declared 2019 the Year of Return, with a special invitation to all Africans in the diaspora, especially the descendants of slaves, to come to Ghana, either to visit or even to live permanently.

Many of the forts and castles through which the slaves were transported are still standing in Ghana and they remain a source of trauma and emotional distress for visiting black people.

When the Floyd murder story broke, many people took it personally here.

Before the outbreak of coronavirus, we had been looking forward to a big influx of visitors from the African-American community.

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A slave castle along Ghana’s coastline is now a major tourist attraction

Six black state attorneys general from the US had been in Ghana in March as part of the Beyond the Return initiative, and were guests at our Independence Day celebrations on 6 March.

Among that group was Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is now in charge of prosecuting the accused in the Floyd case.

When the GTA organised the memorial, it was personal and it showed.



The haunting music of the dirges on the flutes signalled that Mr Floyd was one of our own and we were sending him off to our forefathers”

A crucial part of funerals in Ghana are the colours worn. They would try to describe the person who had died and how.

So the colour scheme at Mr Floyd’s memorial was predominantly red and black to show a man had been cut down in the prime of his life, and his death had been unnatural and unexpected.

The haunting music of the dirges on the flutes signalled that he was one of our own and we were sending him off to our forefathers.

It has been interesting for us here to note that our famous distinctive fabric, the kente, has also become part of the George Floyd story.

When senior US Democratic lawmakers “took a knee”, in a dramatic gesture to honour Mr Floyd, they all wore kente stoles.

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Media captionDemocrats kneel in moment of silence for George Floyd

Ghanaians are intensely proud of the kente fabric. Once upon a time, the kente, or kete as it is called in my part of the country, was an almost exclusive fabric worn by royalty and rich people.

It is hand woven and each design has a name and tells a story.

With the passage of time and the intervention of the Arts Faculty of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in the second city Kumasi, the kente was transformed and popularised for use among young people in particular.

It remains the fabric for special occasions but we have now found more and varied uses for it.

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Kente is often woven from silk and cotton

When the University of Ghana started issuing its own degrees following independence, it put kente strips on the boring academic gowns that it had been using when it started life as a University College of London University.

Kente stoles soon became the symbol of graduation and other commemoration events, with the appropriate words woven into the strip. You may therefore have Class of 2000, or Year of Return, or even The Best Dad kente stoles.

We are happy to have African-Americans adopt the kente to emphasize their African roots and if others want to use it to show their solidarity, we have no complaints.

I suspect that some enterprising weavers will soon bring a kente design named I Can’t Breathe, and we shall wear it to remember and celebrate the life of Mr Floyd.

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12th July 2020

Science DR Congo’s deadliest Ebola outbreak declared over

Science DR Congo’s deadliest Ebola outbreak declared over


science A medic wearing PPE looks at the camera during a simulation exercise at the Bwera General Hospital in 2018.Image copyright

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The largest-ever Ebola vaccine campaign was a key factor in containing its spread

The worst-ever outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo has officially been declared over, almost two years after it began.

No new cases of the disease have been reported in the north-east of the country, where dozens of armed groups operate, since 27 April.

Some 2,280 people died since the outbreak began in August 2018.

The deadliest outbreak on record was in West Africa between 2014 and 2016 with more than 11,000 deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the end of the outbreak in the east, where insecurity is also endemic, was a cause for celebration as it had a been a tough and often dangerous two years for those involved in fighting it.

However, DR Congo, which is the size of mainland western Europe, is dealing a fresh Ebola outbreak in the north-west of the country.

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Media captionSome simple techniques can help prevent spread of Ebola

The case in Mbandaka was announced on 1 June where 13 people have since died. Genetic analysis shows it is a different strain of the virus to that found in the east.

The WHO in DR Congo has told the BBC the situation in Mbandaka – the country’s 11th outbreak – is nearly under control.

But new Ebola outbreaks are to be expected given the existence of the virus in animals in many parts of DR Congo, the WHO says.

For an outbreak to be declared over, there has to be a 42-day period since the last positive case was tested negative and discharged from hospital.

Science Why did it take so long to end?

The outbreak in eastern DR Congo was the 10th to have hit the country since 1976, when the virus was first discovered by a group of scientists who decided to call it Ebola after a local river.

Health Minister Eteni Longondo described it as “the longest, most complex and deadliest” in the DR Congo’s history.

Decades of conflict in the east have led to widespread mistrust of the authorities, which has made it harder for health workers to treat sick and at-risk people.

BBC health reporter Rhoda Odhiambo says there had been more than 420 attacks on health facilities in the region by armed groups since 2018, which greatly hampered efforts to contain the spread of the disease.

Another challenge in tackling the eastern outbreak was its geographical span across 1200km (475 miles) and three provinces – North Kivu, Ituri and South Kivu, she says.

Fear of the deadly Ebola virus – which sees patients suffer gruesome symptoms and rules out customary burial rites – has been another challenge.

Science How was it achieved?

WHO’s regional director to Africa says the end of the outbreak was only possible because of collaboration.

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Ending the epidemic required an enormous effort involving different arms of government amongst others

“This is a sign of hope that with solidarity and science epidemics can be controlled,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti said.

The largest-ever Ebola vaccine campaign was a key factor in containing its spread.

The introduction of two experimental vaccines saw more than 320,000 people inoculated.

Health workers and Congolese authorities have mostly succeeded in preventing the spread to neighbouring countries.

In Uganda last year, a five-year-old boy and his grandmother died days after visiting family across the border in DR Congo.

Months later, Tanzania was criticised by the WHO for failing to provide information about suspected Ebola infections, including one person who died.

Science What is Ebola?

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BSIP/Getty Images

  • Ebola is a virus that initially causes sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat
  • It progresses to vomiting, diarrhoea and both internal and external bleeding
  • People are infected when they have direct contact through broken skin, or the mouth and nose, with the blood, vomit, faeces or bodily fluids of someone with Ebola
  • Patients tend to die from dehydration and multiple organ failure.

From Ebola survivor to trainee doctor

12th July 2020

Science Too much time lost for exams next year, say heads

Science Too much time lost for exams next year, say heads


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Head teachers in England say GCSEs and A-levels will have to be slimmed down for next year’s exams, because of the teaching time lost in the lockdown.

A grassroots group of more than 5,000 heads is warning it is “neither realistic nor workable” to catch up in full by next summer.

They are calling for reduced content or to have some “open book” exams where students can use text books.

The exam watchdog Ofqual has suggested removing some practical parts of exams.

West Sussex head teacher Jules White is the organiser of the Worth Less? campaign group, which originally formed over school funding shortages.

The network of heads is now raising concerns about trying to run next year’s exams with few changes, when many pupils have been out of school for so long and when there is the risk of more disruption from local lockdowns.

They are also calling for more support for pupils’ mental health when they return to school in the autumn.

“The government must strike a much better balance to maintain standards whilst looking after children’s mental health,” said Mr White, head of Tanbridge House School in Horsham.

“The idea that pupils will simply ‘catch up’ on months of lost learning is neither realistic nor workable.”

He also said it would be “highly undesirable” if the lack of time to complete courses meant “reducing grade boundaries so low as to become meaningless”.

“Content for content’s sake achieves nothing. Surely it is best that students leave Year 11 with deep knowledge and understanding for the next step in their education,” said Clive Sentance, head teacher of Alcester Grammar School in Warwickshire.

Last week the Department for Education’s guidance for the return to school in the autumn said pupils would be expected to carry on with all the GCSEs and A-levels they had planned.

The exams regulator Ofqual said there would not be any reduction in the number of exams and suggested only a few changes, such as removing geography field trips or science practicals.

Additionally, to allow more teaching time, next year’s exams are expected to take place later in the summer.

Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, described the changes as “little more than tinkering at the edges”.

He warned that young people had “lost a huge chunk of face-to-face teaching time” and said the “very minor changes” proposed by Ofqual failed to “recognise the enormous pressure on schools and their pupils”.

Mr White’s group of heads, representing schools in 78 local authorities, is calling for a significant reduction in next year’s exams, to reduce pressure on schools and stress on students.

As well as reducing the course content for GCSE and A-level, they also suggest using open-book exams for some subjects, where candidates would have access to text books or other notes during the exam.

Ofqual is running a consultation on any changes to next year’s exams and says final decisions will be announced in August.

12th July 2020

Science Coronavirus: Could ‘immunity passports’ create an antibody elite?

Science Coronavirus: Could ‘immunity passports’ create an antibody elite?


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Covid-19 immunity passports could be used as a way to date without social distancing

Governments around the world are testing citizens for coronavirus antibodies, to work out whether people have had the deadly Covid-19 disease.

Some countries are setting up so-called “immunity passports” and others may follow suit.

The idea is that a passport would certify that you have had coronavirus and will not carry or contract the disease again, opening up a way out of lockdown restrictions for the holder.

But is this theory correct? And will it create a group of antibody-carrying elite who can date, travel and work as they wish, while others are still limited by health precautions?

Science ‘I know I’m clear, we should meet!’

Pam Evans, from Aberdeen, has just had a rude awakening to the new reality of internet dating. She says that a man who was interested in meeting her took a novel approach.

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Pam Evans

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Pam Evans does not want to break lockdown rules by meeting men who think they are immune to Covid-19

“I had one guy at the weekend: ‘I’ve just been tested last week for Covid so I know I’m clear, we should meet up’ And I said: ‘Oh no, absolutely not’… he became just absolutely abusive straight away.”

Pam’s hopeful date was trying to take advantage of his apparent negative coronavirus test result as a reason to break lockdown rules to visit her.

Is this a sign of how those who get a certificate stating they’ve already had coronavirus might use their privileged position in society?

In New York, people are using antibody tests – showing that they have been exposed to the virus and have recovered – as a way of suggesting they are safe to date.

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New Yorkers have been going to testing centres where blood is taken to test for coronavirus antibodies

They are photographing positive test results to use as a kind of improvised “Covid-immunity passport”.

If you have antibodies, the theory goes, you will not get the disease again.

Dating aside, what if we could decide who is safe to return to work or get on an aircraft? For those people. the Covid-19 lockdown could be over.

Science ‘Immunity passports’

The idea behind immunity passports, is that of a certificate confirming that you have had Covid-19. It could be used to enter places that those people without one are barred from.

To get one, you’d have to test positive for antibodies created after exposure to the virus.

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A mock-up of a Covid-19 immunity passports – a way to avoid quarantine after flying?

Estonia is building an “immunity passport” system, and Chile is also planning what it calls a “release certificate”, following such principles.

Tavvet Hinrikus, co-founder of the money exchange firm TransferWise, helped in the development of Estonia’s phone app-based system.

“There are areas where I think it’s a no-brainer we should use this, like… who takes care of our elders; can I go and see my parents?

“If immunity as a concept exists, then I think people who have immunity should be cleared to work with elders, or the same for frontline workers,” he says.

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Estonia’s Covid-immunity passport uses mobile phone technology to identify users

Other apps are being developed to display antibody – and potentially immunity – status. One example is Onfido. Its co-founder, Husayn Kasai, says some US hotel chains are now accepting immunity passports via an app.

“It’s predominately for guests who want to access some of the services, be it the spa or the gym, where social distancing isn’t an option.”

Science Antibody elite

But could there be a sinister aspect: the potential for a supposedly Covid-immune elite to develop?

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Chinese shoppers use an app to show they are healthy before enter a shopping centre: Could immunity apps be used in the same way?

Robert West, professor of health, psychology and behavioural science at University College London (UCL), fears a “divisive society”.

“You can imagine a situation where if you can get hold of some sort of certification, it will open up doors for you that wouldn’t be open to people who can’t have that certification.

“It could create a multi-tier society and increase levels of discrimination and inequity.” Prof West also warns that the entire premise of immunity might be on shaky ground.

“It wouldn’t be based on solid scientific foundation. It would be based on a probability that you may or may not be susceptible [to coronavirus] yourself or may or may not be in a position to pass the virus onto other people.

“It would be to the detriment of sectors of society, really being driven by commercial pressures.”

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Covid-immunity passports could mean travellers no longer feel they should wear masks

Prof West envisages a point where people with recent antibody certificates would be able to work with vulnerable patients in healthcare roles, or that firms might use their workers’ immunity passports as a way of competing with other companies.

But he believes there’s not enough evidence to show that having antibodies is a reliable way to tell how likely you are to catch or pass on the virus.

Science ‘She’s OK, she has antibodies’

The air travel sector has been hit particularly hit hard by the pandemic and John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Europe’s busiest airport, London Heathrow, wants all countries to recognise antibody certificates.

“What you really need [is to know that] your health passport… is going to be accepted in the country you are going to, and you’ll be allowed to return home safely without having any kind of quarantine.”

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The Covid-19 virus under the microscope

Carmel Shachar, of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School in the US, fears that people may actually try to catch Covid-19.

A scenario she worries about is: “If you want to go back to work, you’re going to have to contract a deadly disease, one that we don’t actually want you to have, from a public health point of view or from an individual point of view.”

She also worries about privacy. “If my employer can demand medical information about me, have I had Covid, do I have antibodies – are they allowed to do so? If they have that information, are they allowed to share it?”

The commercial benefits of publicising this information for certain industries are obvious, Ms Shachar believes. “If I work at a restaurant, can my employer tell every customer who walks in the door: ‘Oh don’t worry, she’s OK because she has antibodies’?”

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The US has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 infections in the world

Ms Shachar thinks known immunity could be of significant benefit. “You might say, for healthcare workers working with Covid patients, or nursing facility workers… we do want to see immunity.”

She says that people really want to get back to how things were before the pandemic, or a “new normal” that is close to it, and are prepared to make compromises.

Science Testing questions

Getting to that “new normal” as quickly as possible is the target for governments around the globe, Many find antibody-testing the entire population a tantalising idea where infection rates are high.

In Germany, the country’s disease control and prevention agency, the Robert Koch Institute, is conducting large-scale random antibody testing.

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Antibody test blood samples: Countries are gearing up to offer mass antibody tests

But questions remain about the accuracy of some of these tests. Research published in May by the US-based Covid-19 Testing Project found that 12 antibody tests were accurate between 81-100% of the time.

While the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that some antibody tests could incorrectly state you had antibodies – up to half the time. Meaning those who’d never had Covid-19 could mistakenly think they had immunity, and might then act riskily because of this false sense of security.

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Home finger-prick kits are being used to send blood samples to labs that test for Covid-19 antibodies

And even if the test correctly identifies that you have antibodies, does that mean you are actually immune? The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed its doubts.

In the UK, for example, concerns were voiced by 14 senior academics in a letter published in the British Medical Journal at the end of June, saying that antibody tests for UK healthcare staff were being rolled out without “adequate assessment”.

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US researchers have found a wide range of accuracy for antibody tests

Back in Aberdeen, Pam is similarly unconvinced by the antibody testing argument.

“We don’t know how long this immunity could last for. We don’t know if it is 100% right if you’ve had those symptoms. There’s no harm in meeting somebody and sitting and having a coffee in a park,” she says.

“I’m not someone who’ll kiss on the first date anyway. So to me, having that two metres apart means that a guy can’t lunge on you for once!”

This article featured interviews broadcast on Business Daily, on the BBC World Service.

Can ‘immunity passports’ help us get back to normal?

The business case for immunity passports

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