Connected Thermometer Tracks the Spread and Intensity of the Flu

When a child feels sick, one of the first things a parent does is reach for a thermometer.

That common act intrigued Inder Singh, a long-time health policy expert.

What if the thermometer could be a communication device – connecting people with information about illnesses going around and gathering real time data on diseases as they spread? 

That’s the idea behind Singh’s firm Kinsa, a health data company based in San Francisco that sells “smart” thermometers.

Worst flu season in years

With the U.S. in the midst of its worst flu season in years, Kinsa has been on the forefront of tracking the spread and severity of flu-like symptoms by region.

The company says its data is a close match to flu data tracked by the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whereas the CDC collects from state and regional reports, Kinsa can spot fever spikes in regions or even by cities, said Singh.

Fast and accurate information about how disease is spreading can make a difference during a health crisis.

“If you knew when and where a disease was starting, you could target the people who needed the treatment and potentially prevent pandemics and epidemics from occurring,” said Singh, founder and chief executive of Kinsa.

How it works

Kinsa thermometers, which range in price from $14.99 to $49.99, connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, which pose questions about a person’s symptoms. The customer’s personal information is private, the firm said.

With its thermometers in 500,000 households, Kinsa receives 25,000 temperature readings per day.

The company can’t diagnose illnesses or distinguish between different kinds of sicknesses. But from gathering information about individuals’ fevers and other symptoms, it can report where flu-like symptoms are peaking. In recent weeks, Missouri and Kansas have been the hardest hit, Kinsa said. 

Selling aggregated data 

Beyond selling thermometers and advertising on its app, Kinsa makes money by selling data – stripped of any personally identifiable information – to companies that want to know where and how illness is spreading – cough and cold companies, disinfectant manufacturers, orange juice sellers. Sales of toothbrushes spike during flu season, Singh says.

Companies “want to know when and where illness is striking on a general geolocation basis,” he said. Firms stock shelves with products and change marketing plans if they know how an illness is progressing.

Kinsa has launched a program in schools, where it gives away thermometers, so parents can learn about illness trends locally. The company is also starting a new initiative with some U.S. firms, which buy Kinsa thermometers for their employees. When an employee shows a fever, Kinsa can inform the person about available company benefits.

At the moment, Kinsa thermometers are sold just in the U.S. But the company plans to go global.

“Imagine a living breathing map where you can see where and when disease is spreading,” Singh said. “That’s what we want.”

British Prime Minister Arrives in China to Forge Post-Brexit Trade Ties

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in China Wednesday on a visit aimed at boosting economic ties with the Asian giant ahead of her country’s exit from the European Union next year.

May began her three-day trip in the central industrial city of Wuhan, before heading to Beijing for talks with Premier Li Keqiang. She is accompanied by a large delegation of 50 British business leaders eager to expand their business in the world’s second largest economy.

The prime minister will meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday, before wrapping up her visit Friday in the financial hub of Shanghai.

The British leader says she is eager to use her trip to lay the groundwork for a so-called “golden era” between London and Beijing, a term which first surfaced in 2015 ahead of a state visit to Britain by President Xi. The Chinese leader is hoping Britain will endorse his flagship Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-billion dollar project aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road trade routes between Asia and Europe. 

But Prime Minister May has been cautious in the past about embracing Chinese investment. She angered Beijing in 2016 when she temporarily delayed approval of Chinese-funded nuclear power plant in southwest England.

She has also expressed caution over the Belt and Road Initiative, saying that while the project holds promise, it is important the project meets “international standards.” 

In addition to trade, May is expected to discuss the escalating political tensions in Britain’s former colony, Hong Kong, which it ruled for more than 150 years before giving it back to China in 1997.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, wrote May this week warning that the semi-autonomous territory is facing “increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy” that China agreed to observe under the handover agreement.

Protests Return To Barcelona As Standoff Over Catalan President Deepens

Protests broke out in the Spanish city of Barcelona Tuesday after Catalonia’s parliament postponed a vote on who should be president of the region. Pro-independence parties, which form a majority in the parliament, had nominated only one candidate – the exiled former leader Carles Puigdemont. The stand-off between Barcelona and Madrid looks set to deepen as parties on all sides of the debate harden their positions, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

Britons Ever More Deeply Divided Over Brexit, Research Finds

The social divide revealed by Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union is not only here to stay but deepening, according to academic research published Wednesday.

UK in a Changing Europe, a research initiative, said Britons were unlikely to change their minds about leaving the EU, despite the political and economic uncertainty it has brought, because attitudes are becoming more entrenched.

“The [Brexit] referendum highlighted fundamental divisions in British society and superimposed a leave-remain distinction over them. This has the potential to profoundly disrupt our politics in the years to come,” said Anand Menon, the think tank’s director.

Britain is negotiating a deal with the EU that will shape future trade relations, breaking with the bloc after four decades, but the process is complicated by the divisions within parties, society and the government itself.

Menon said the research, based on a series of polls over the 18 months since Britain voted to leave the European Union, showed 35 percent of people self-identified as “Leavers” and 40 percent as “Remainers.”

Research also found that both sides had a tendency to interpret and recall information in a way that confirmed their pre-existing beliefs, which also added to the deepening of the impact of the vote.

Second vote

Polls have shown increasing support for a second vote on whether to leave the European Union once the terms of departure are known, but such a vote would not necessarily provide a different result, a poll by ICM for The Guardian newspaper indicated last week.

The report also showed that age was a better pointer to how Britons voted than employment. Around 73 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted to stay in the EU, but turnout among that group was lower than among older voters.

“British Election Study surveys have suggested that, in order to have overturned the result, a startling 97 percent of under-45s would have had to make it to the ballot box, as opposed to the 65 percent who actually voted,” the report said.

The difference between generations became even more pronounced in the 2017 general election, when the largest gap in how different generations voted was measured in Britain.

The British Election Study has been conducted by academics at every general election since 1964 and looks at why people vote, and why they vote the way they do.

Police Reinforce Mexican Tourist Cities After Violence

Mexican officials said Tuesday they are dispatching 5,000 additional federal police officers to several tourist cities after a series of violent incidents, including a lengthy shootout that rattled the Baja California resort city of La Paz.

 

Renato Sales, the country’s national security commissioner, said the officers would be sent “to key cities” like La Paz in the hopes of reducing violence. He told the Televisa network that the cities are mostly tourism destinations and include Cancun, Los Cabos, Manzanillo and Colima.

 

The announcement came a day after police and crime suspects exchanged long bursts of gunfire in La Paz. The prosecutor’s office in Baja California Sur state said Tuesday there were no deaths, but five people were arrested and 10 guns were confiscated.

 

Some of the suspects were wanted on murder, drug, weapons and other charges, authorities said.

 

Baja California Sur was once a peaceful state home to the twin resorts of Los Cabos, but now it has Mexico’s second-highest homicide rate, at 69 per 100,000 inhabitants.

 

The government is trying to figure out ways to restore peace in Los Cabos and other tourist destinations.

 

Tourism Minister Enrique de la Madrid, for one, recently suggested the legalization of marijuana at the resorts as a way to decrease violence. He quickly stepped back from that proposal, saying he wasn’t speaking in an official capacity.

 

But it’s clear there is a drug problem in several resort cities.

 

On Tuesday, prosecutors announced they had found 25 one-kilogram (2.2-pound) bricks of cocaine on a beach in Cozumel, the island near Cancun that is Mexico’s primary cruise ship destination.

 

One resort that has long been plagued by violence is Acapulco, in the southern state of Guerrero.

 

Killings have become so common in Guerrero that few were surprised Monday when two men wearing police uniforms and driving a truck with police logos were found dead in the state capital, Chilpancingo. It turned out they weren’t police and the truck was stolen.

 

That appeared to confirm the chilling prospect that fake police had been driving around the capital, until they met members of a rival gang. Chilpancingo’s real police were disarmed in early January after they were suspected in the kidnap-killing of two men.

 

On Tuesday, investigators in Chilapa, a city near Chilpancingo, found 15 plastic bags containing the hacked-up remains of at least seven people, including one woman.

 

The remains were so jumbled that police counted the victims based on how many heads they found in the bags. None were immediately identified, but Chilapa has long been the scene of turf battles between rival drug gangs.

Sources: Russian Spy Chief Met US Officials in US Last Week 

Russia’s foreign spy chief, who is under U.S. sanctions, met last week outside Washington with U.S. intelligence officials, two U.S. sources said, confirming a disclosure that intensified political infighting over probes into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian service known by its acronym SVR, held talks with U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other U.S. intelligence officials, the sources said. The sources did not reveal the topics discussed.

A Russian Embassy tweet disclosed Naryshkin’s visit. It cited a state-run ITAR-Tass news report that quoted Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, as telling Rossiya-1 television that Naryshkin and his U.S. counterparts discussed the “joint struggle against terrorism.”

Antonov did not identify the U.S. intelligence officials with whom he met.

The Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment. Coats’ office said that while it does not discuss U.S. intelligence officials’ schedules, “any interaction with foreign intelligence agencies would have been conducted in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with appropriate departments and agencies.”

News of Naryshkin’s secret visit poured fresh fuel on the battles pitting the Trump administration and its Republican defenders against Democrats over investigations into Moscow’s alleged 2016 election interference.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded that the administration “immediately come clean and answer questions — which U.S. officials did he meet with? Did any White House or National Security Council official meet with Naryshkin? What did they discuss?”

The key question, Schumer told reporters, is whether Naryshkin’s visit accounted for the administration’s decision on Monday not to slap new sanctions on Russia under a law passed last year to punish Moscow’s purported election meddling.

“Russia hacked our elections,” Schumer said. “We sanctioned the head of their foreign intelligence and then the Trump administration invites him to waltz through our front door.”

A January 2017 U.S. intelligence report concluded that Russia conducted an influence campaign of hacking and other measures aimed at swinging the 2016 presidential vote to Trump over his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.

Last week, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported that the Netherlands intelligence concluded that some of the Russians running a hacking operation, known as “Cozy Bear,” against Democratic organizations were SVR agents.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the BBC in an interview last weekend that he had not “seen a significant decrease” in Russian attempts at subversion in Europe and the United States, and he expects Moscow to meddle in November’s U.S. mid-term elections.

Congressional panels and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are investigating Russia’s alleged interference and possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s election campaign. Russia denies it meddled and Trump dismissed the allegations of collusion as a political witch hunt.

Naryshkin’s visit coincided with other serious disputes in U.S.-Russian relations. They include Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and its interference in Ukraine and Russia’s military intervention on the government’s side in the Syrian civil war.

Washington and Moscow cooperate in some areas, including the fight against Islamic militant groups, officials said.

For example, a month ago the United States provided advance warning to Russia that allowed it to thwart a terrorist plot in St. Petersburg, the White House said.

Naryshkin, who was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to head the SVR in September 2016, was sanctioned by the Obama administration in March 2014 as part of the U.S. response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. At the time, he was speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament.

He was banned from entering the United States, but sanctions experts said there are processes for providing people under sanction permission to enter for official business. Meetings between foreign intelligence chiefs, even from rival nations, mostly are kept secret but are not unusual.

Rio Urges Carnival Visitors to Stick to Urban Areas

Brazilian health authorities are urging Carnival visitors to stick to celebrations in the city of Rio de Janeiro and avoid heading out of town for sightseeing at waterfalls and forests where yellow fever has been detected.

Rio state Health Secretary Luiz Antonio Teixeira Junior said on Tuesday that there have been no recent urban cases of the disease and that the risk of contagion in touristic parts of Rio is “nearly zero.”

“Visit our beaches, but avoid forests, bushes and waterfalls. That is where the mosquitoes that transmit the disease live,” Teixeira Junior said in a press conference.

 

Brazil is vaccinating more than 20 million people against yellow fever in a massive campaign to control a budding outbreak, and the secretary said Rio state alone has vaccinated more than 8 million. The World Health Organization also suggests that visitors to Rio get vaccinated.

 

As of Tuesday, Brazil’s Health Ministry has confirmed 213 cases across the country and 81 deaths in the current outbreak. That’s fewer than the 468 cases and 147 deaths that had been confirmed during the same period in the last outbreak, which was unusually large.

Alfredo Lopes, the head of Rio’s hotel association, said tourism agencies have expressed concern about the outbreak.

“There are many doubts because of yellow fever, but few cancelations for now. We don’t know how many people would come, but later chose not to,” Lopes said.

Rio state Tourism Secretary Nilo Felix said the disease won’t have a meaningful impact during the high season for tourists. He expects 1.5 million visitors in the city in the next couple of weeks, about the same figure of 2017.

James Story, the U.S. consul general in Rio, said he hasn’t heard of American concerns about yellow fever directly and believes the outbreak will not affect tourism in the coming weeks.

“Carnival is an international festival with people from all over. I am sure this time will be no different,” he said.

Venezuela Drops Overvalued Exchange Rate for State Imports

Venezuela is abandoning the most-overvalued of its two official foreign exchange rates, which had been used for state imports of food and medicine amid a worsening economic crisis.

 

The move could potentially encourage businesses to import more and put more goods on store shelves and in pharmacies, but only if the government carries it out as written, said Francisco Rodriguez, a former Venezuelan official who is now chief economist at the New York-based Torino Capital.

 

“This is not a place where there’s a good tradition of following the letter of the law,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “I don’t think that one should get too optimistic.”

 

Oil-rich Venezuela is in the fifth year of a deepening economic crisis that has brought scarcities of basic foods and medicine after nearly two decades of socialist rule and mismanagement of the world’s largest crude oil reserves.

 

The exchange rate reforms became public Monday when published in the nation’s official gazette, signaling that all transactions will now use a second official exchange rate known as Dicom. That rate still contrasts sharply with the black market exchange rate.

 

One U.S. dollar buys 3,345 bolivars at the Dicom rate, while Venezuelans are paying an average of nearly 250,000 bolivars per U.S. dollar on the black market.

 

The rate being abandoned, known as the Dipro, was set at 10 bolivars per dollar.

 

Venezuela has been operating with two official exchange rates, though most Venezuelans can buy dollars only on the illegal black market.

 

Rodriguez cautioned that the shift in exchange rates may only allow for the import of high-value goods, which are out of reach from most Venezuelans.

 

The government decree goes beyond eliminating the official protected rate Dipro rate, opening up access to the exchange system by relaxing government controls, so more imports could begin to flow, he said.

 

On Tuesday, Maduro announced new government subsidies for millions of Venezuelans. But with the slipping value of the bolivar, their value adds up to tiny sums.

 

The monthly minimum wage many working Venezuelans earn is now worth the equivalent of just $3. A program for 315,000 pregnant Venezuelan women would provide each about $21 at the black market exchange rate. Eight million Venezuelans who will be eligible to receive state money for the upcoming Carnival season will receive the equivalent of about $2.81.

 

Venezuela’s inflation hit 2,616 percent last year, according to estimates by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The International Monetary Fund estimates inflation could soar to 13,000 percent this year.

UN Envoy, in Athens, Says Time to End Macedonia Name Dispute

A U.N. special envoy urged Greece and Macedonia on Tuesday to seize on momentum in talks to resolve a name dispute straining relations for a quarter of a century, saying the two sides now appeared “energized” to reach an accord.

Athens says Skopje’s use of “Macedonia” as its name could imply a territorial claim over the northern Greek province of the same name, and a claim to its national heritage. Skopje counters that Macedonia has been its name dating to the now defunct Yugoslav federation of which it was part.

The 25-year-long dispute has posed an obstacle to Macedonia’s ambition to join both the EU and NATO.

“Everyone knows what the issues are. There is a time for decision-making, and I think we are there,” said Matthew Nimetz, U.N. special envoy on the “Macedonia” dispute since 1999.

“I know the [Greek] government is very sincere and energized to reach a solution to the problem … I think there is a will here, and I think also in Skopje, to try to reach a settlement,” he told reporters in Athens.

The two countries recently agreed to intensify talks. Still, there is mounting public sentiment in Greece against any deal which could include the name Macedonia. Greece has said a compromise could include a compound name with a geographical or chronological qualifier, and be known only by that name.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has so far failed to secure broad backing from political parties for a settlement which would include the contentious name.

“I think waiting, slowing things down doesn’t make any sense. Here it doesn’t make any sense, and in the northern neighbor it doesn’t make any sense [either],” Nimetz said.

Athens may submit an outline of its proposals to Skopje and the United Nations next month, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told state television on Monday night.

Until the issue is resolved, Greece has agreed only that its Balkan neighbor be referred to internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the name under which it was admitted to the United Nations in 1993, two years after Skopje won independence from Yugoslavia.

Syria Talks in Russia Marred by Boycotts, Heckling

Peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s seven-year war began Tuesday in Russia, despite heckling, boycotts and disputes over who should preside over the event.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s opening speech at the two-day Syrian Congress of National Dialogue held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi was interrupted by heckling from Syrian delegates and cries of “Long live Russia!” The speech was delayed by two hours due to ongoing negotiations.

Reading a letter from Russian president Vladimir Putin, Lavrov said conditions were ripe for Syria to turn “a tragic page” in its history. Syrian delegates accused Russia of killing innocent civilians in their country. Russian state television footage of the event showed security guards ordering a man in the audience to sit down.

Critics of the Sochi Congress, which is backed by Turkey and Iran, accused Russia of trying to hijack the Syrian peace process from the United Nations and offering a solution that favors the government of Bashar al-Assad.

A Syrian opposition delegation that included members of the armed opposition who had flown in from Turkey refused to leave the airport upon arrival, saying it was boycotting the talks because of broken promises to remove the Syrian government emblem from the premises.

Artyom Kozhin, senior diplomat at the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Lavrov had spoken by phone with his Turkish counterpart prior to the meeting and promised that Syrian flags and emblems would be removed from the airport and the conference venue. Kozhin acknowledged that there had been complications.

The United States, France and Britain declined to attend the conference, deferring to a U.N.-led effort to end the civil war.

VOA’s Victor Beattie contributed to this report.