Scientists are racing to predict where the next pandemic will start

In a race to prevent future deadly pandemics, scientists are trying to pinpoint the animals and regions where the next Ebola or Zika might arise — before the viruses start harming people. But some experts argue that it makes more sense to look for new viruses in humans, not other animals. In fact, the next emerging infectious disease is probably already out there, making people sick.

Animals host a massive number of viruses, and sometimes these viruses make the jump to humans. (These viruses are called zoonoses.) This happens pretty rarely, but when it does, it can wreak havoc: most pandemics in recent memory like HIV, pandemic influenza, and Zika were caused by viruses that started out in animals. The Ebola virus, which probably jumped from bats, killed more than 11,000 people during the recent outbreak in West Africa.

If there were a way to predict which infectious disease might emerge and threaten humans next, maybe it could give us a head start on a vaccine, or prevention strategy. But the challenge is even more complicated than you’d think, because where exactly do you go looking for the next pandemic? In animals, which carry a vast array of viruses that might never infect people? Or in humans, once a virus has made that rare leap — but before it spreads out of control?

Peter Daszak, an epidemiologist with the research and conservation nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, wants to find these viruses before they make anyone sick. “If we allow these viruses to get into people, it’s already too late,” he says.

To do that, he and his team hunted through the scientific literature to create a database of nearly 600 viruses and the more than 750 mammals they infect. Then, the researchers looked for patterns that could help them understand what makes an animal virus more likely to infect humans. Their research was published this week in the journal Nature.

A few clear trends emerged: animals that are closer to humans geographically (like rats) and genetically (like monkeys and apes) have a better shot at sharing their viruses with us. Animals harboring more virus species in general (like bats) are more likely to carry one that could sicken humans. And viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes and can infect a broad range of species tend to hop into humans more successfully. These are trends that previous studies also identified, but finding them with this new method is a reassuring reality check, says Barbara Han, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, who was not involved in the research.

Using these patterns, the researchers then mapped where unknown zoonoses might be hiding: in Central and South American bat populations, for instance, or rodents in North and South America. These aren’t predictions about precisely where the next virus will emerge, Daszak says. But these maps could help steer research efforts like Global Virome Project, a $3.4 billion proposal supported by organizations that include the EcoHealth Alliance to sample and genetically sequence 99 percent of the viruses that could one day threaten humans. (Sequencing a virus is an early step toward attempting to make a vaccine.) “Right now, we’re always on defense,” Han says. “The important thing about figuring out where the next one is likely to happen is that it gives us a leg up.”

But some researchers say that spotting the next pandemic before it starts will take more than sequencing the viruses that currently infect animals. “While most pandemics are zoonoses, most zoonoses do not cause pandemics,” infectious disease expert James Lloyd-Smith writes in a commentary published alongside the Nature paper. So, it’s important to figure out the factors that drive a virus to spread across the globe. This depends more on human-to-human than animal-to-human transmission, he writes.

That’s because there are a lot of hurdles that an animal virus has to clear before it spreads to a person, and from there, to another person. “A virus doesn’t just jump out of a bat and cause an epidemic in humans,” says Ronald Rosenberg, an infectious disease researcher. Instead, a virus can spend decades or even centuries hopping back and forth between animals and humans before the conditions come together for an outbreak. (The exception are influenza viruses, which can make this leap more rapidly, Rosenberg says.)

For example, scientists discovered the Zika virus in monkeys living in the treetops of an Ugandan forest in 1947 decades before it caused the first large outbreak on the island of Yap in 2007 (and nearly 70 years before it spread across the globe). Yet, the virus still managed to catch the world unprepared: in fact, scientists are still racing to develop a vaccine or cure. “It wasn’t really a matter of whether we could find these viruses early in animals,” Rosenberg says. “We needed to examine them more closely after they were found in humans.”

What we really need, experts like Lloyd-Smith and Rosenberg say, is better surveillance in human communities — especially in ones that frequently come into contact with wildlife. That means setting up sentinel clinics in viral hot spot regions that can screen sick patients for the usual infectious suspects. Central laboratory facilities could hunt for less typical, or completely unknown, infections, if those initial screens come up negative. Rosenberg is currently piloting such a system in Uganda.

It’s possible the next pandemic could already be infecting people, but without the time, money, or tools to identify the cause of every fever or illness, doctors and scientists might miss it. “We don’t really have the wherewithal to identify epidemics as they’re beginning in the human population,” Rosenberg says. “We miss opportunities many, many times every day.”

“There’s a big gap there,” Daszak agrees. “There are outbreaks that go undiagnosed.” Still, Daszak hopes that his team’s hot spot map can help target surveillance efforts in people, too. The stakes are too high to sit still. “My biggest fear is that we don’t do anything, and we discover these viruses the hard way by them emerging and killing people.”

Snapchat’s newest feature is also its biggest privacy threat

Earlier this week, Snapchat introduced Snap Map, an opt-in function that allows you to share your location with your friends on a map. Snapchat’s introduction video to Snap Map, seen above, focuses on sharing the location of posted Snaps to Our Story, which is public, and could be useful for, say, seeing a collection of Snaps from a particular event.

But what Snapchat doesn’t tell you in the video, or in the app, is that if you aren’t careful, Snap Map will broadcast your exact location to anyone on your friends list every time you open the app.

When you update Snapchat and get to the Snap Map walkthrough, as seen below, only three screens need to be clicked through to complete it. Though it mentions sharing your location, it’s vague on what that exactly means. Users might not understand that Snap is posting your location on Snap Map every time you open the app. Not just when you share Snaps to Our Story.

Snap Map walkthroughSnap Map walkthrough
Snap Map walkthrough.
Image: Snapchat

When I first opened Snap Map, I saw the Bitmoji for one of my friends in a residential area. I presumed this was her home, and was able to zoom in close enough to estimate where she lived on that particular block. Then I called her. “This is a weird question,” I said, “but do you live at the intersection of X and Y? More particularly, one of these addresses?” I rattled off three house numbers on the street closest to where her Bitmoji appeared on Snap Map. One of them was correct. I’ve never been to her house.

Turned out, she didn’t know she had Snap Map enabled, and didn’t know it was showing her location every time she opened the app. When she updated Snap and went through the Snap Map introduction, she believed Snap was giving the option to geotag her Snaps for Our Story, as shown in the promotional video. Instead, she had inadvertently broadcast where she lived to every one of her Snap contacts.

She was understandably freaked out. “That’s so creepy!” she said. “I don’t know why anyone would use that. I understand if you’re at an event and checking in, but I wouldn’t want people to see where I am at all times.”

Because Snap Map shows exactly where you are every time you open the app, there are a number of dangerous scenarios that could take place without a user even posting a Snap publicly. What if you’re at home alone, at night, and open the app to view Snaps posted by friends? What if you’re walking by yourself and get a ping that a friend sent you a Snap message, so you read it? What if you’re traveling and want to take a pic with a location-specific filter to post later on another platform? In all of these vulnerable situations, if you have Snap Map enabled, your location is immediately broadcast to some, or all of the people in your Snapchat friends list.

People have been responding to the risks Snap Map poses to children who aren’t aware of the dangers location-sharing poses, but Snap Map is a threat for teens as well, whose parents might not know about Snap Map and how it works. And it can also be dangerous for adults, as the conversation with my friend proved. Not only is the consumer-facing information for Snap Map not detailed enough, many people often agree to updates and new settings on apps without looking at the specifics.

A Snapchat representative told The Verge, “The safety of our community is very important to us and we want to make sure that all Snapchatters, parents, and educators have accurate information about how the Snap Map works.” However, the way Snap Map currently functions and is communicated to users provides opportunity for lurking, stalking, and other dangerous activities with real-life consequences.

We spoke with a Snapchat representative about the specifics of how Snap Map works. Here are details we learned that aren’t communicated through Snapchat’s video and Snap Map walkthrough:

  • If you are choosing to share your location on the Map, your location is updated every time the Snapchat app is opened.
  • If a Snapchatter chooses to share their location with all of their friends on Snapchat, the app will remind them of that choice periodically to make sure they are still comfortable with this.
  • Only mutual friends can see each other on the Map.
  • Snapchat will delete precise location data after a short period of time. (This period of time was not specified.) Some more general location data may be retained a little longer (this time was also not specified), but the company says that is also subject to regular deletion.
  • If you tap on your friend, you will see when their location was updated (i.e., 1 hour ago, 2 hours ago). Their location reflects where they last opened Snapchat.
  • A friend’s location will remain on the Map for up to 8 hours if they do not open the app again, causing location to update. If more than 8 hours has passed and a Snapchatter has not opened the app, their location will disappear from the Map entirely.

If you want to disable Snap Map, select “Ghost Mode” upon Snapchat’s initial walkthrough. If it’s already enabled, tap the settings gear in the top right while viewing Snap Map, and select Ghost Mode from there.

SpaceX successfully launches and lands a used rocket for the second time

SpaceX has successfully launched and landed a recycled Falcon 9 rocket for the second time. The rocket’s first stage — the 14-story-tall core that houses the fuel and the rocket’s main engines — touched down on one of the company’s autonomous drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean shortly after taking off from a launchpad at nearby Cape Canaveral, Florida. It’s the 12th time SpaceX has successfully landed one of these rocket stages out of 17 attempts, and the seventh time it’s performed the feat at sea.

This particular rocket previously flew in January, when it was used to put 10 satellites into orbit for communications company Iridium. The rocket then landed on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean. SpaceX retrieved the rocket and spent the next few months refurbishing it in preparation for today’s launch. This afternoon, it was used to launch Bulgaria’s first communications satellite for TV service provider Bulsatcom.

The landing wasn’t easy, though. Because the rocket had to push BulgariaSat-1 to such a high orbit, the first stage experienced more force and heat during reentry than any other Falcon 9, according to a tweet from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Musk even warned that there was a “good chance [the] rocket booster doesn’t make it back.”

Shortly after the landing, though, Musk returned to Twitter to add that the rocket booster used “almost all of the emergency crush core,” which helps soften the landing. It was the first time SpaceX has landed one rocket on both of its drone ships. (SpaceX keeps one in California for launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.)

Rocket is extra toasty and hit the deck hard (used almost all of the emergency crush core), but otherwise good

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 23, 2017

Being able to reuse parts of the Falcon 9 rocket has long been a goal for Musk. He’s been trying to get the company to a point where it can reuse things like the rocket’s main stage, or the payload fairing (the cone at the top), instead of building a new rocket for each new launch. Reusing rockets is a great way to bring down launch costs; previously, they were discarded after each launch, and building them from scratch costs millions of dollars.

To that end, SpaceX launched and landed a reused Falcon 9 for the first time back in March, and it also recovered that rocket’s fairing — a first for the company. Then, earlier this month, SpaceX sent a used Dragon cargo capsule back to space for the first time ever.

But it’s the company’s strides towards sticking these rocket landings that finally made this all possible. While many of its early landing attempts were met with fiery ends, SpaceX hasn’t lost a rocket in a landing attempt since early last summer. With today’s success, the company has now landed eight rockets in a row dating back to that June explosion, save for a few launches where there wasn’t enough leftover fuel for a landing attempt.

Local businesses can now feature content directly in Google search results

Last year, Google opened up a program called “Posts on Google,” which let big companies and celebrities feature content in a carousel in search results. And today, Google is opening that up to local businesses, allowing them to directly inject things like daily specials, events, products, and more to results for when customers search for the business, as noted by TechCrunch.

The new posts show up below the company card in search results, where information like the location, phone number, web address, and hours of the company are already aggregated. The Posts feature is available starting today for verified companies using Google My Business.

Opening up Posts on Google for all businesses, regardless of size, should help make more information accessible to users as they search for things, which gels with Google’s ongoing efforts to keep building out functionality directly into Google search.

HTC’s next Edge Sense features for the U11 still seem very gimmicky

HTC today released a video of some new features coming to Edge Sense, the headlining, squeeze-your-phone-to-do-something feature of its U11 smartphone. The examples shown include Google Maps (which automatically zooms in when you squeeze), Google Photos (same thing), Calendar (change to a different view with a squeeze), and the ability to end calls by — you guessed it — squeezing the phone.

I don’t know about you, but my response to every single one of these new functions was “okay, but why wouldn’t I just do this the regular way?” I can understand the convenience part if you’re stuck using the U11 with a single hand, but so far the best thing about Edge Sense is using it as a shortcut button for your favorite apps. Or to turn on the flashlight. But you know what’s also good for those things? A button.

HTC is encouraging fans to submit ideas to the company for future Edge Sense tricks. Maybe you’ve got the secret to turning the U11’s gimmick into something far more useful.

Google will stop scanning your Gmail messages to sell targeted ads

Google will stop its long-standing practice of scanning the contents of individual Gmail users for advertising purposes, according to a report today from the Financial Times. The practice, something Google has done nearly since the launch of its email service, allows the company to digest the contents of email messages and use them to deliver targeted ads within Gmail itself.

Users are allowed to opt out, and Google also reserves the practice only for personal Gmail users and not those of corporate accounts. However, the practice has made it difficult for Google to find and retain corporate clients for its cloud services business, according to Diane Greene, Google’s cloud division head, who spoke with the FT. This is due to general confusion over Google’s business tactics and an overall apprehension to trust the company with sensitive data, the report says.

Greene’s role, since her hiring in November 2015, has been to convince more companies to rely on Google’s G Suite and to move more data off competitors’ services and onto Google’s cloud. This has been a bit of an uphill battle for Google, as both Microsoft and Amazon have emerged as two of market leaders in providing cloud services, with Amazon primarily providing hosting and Microsoft providing corporate productivity services. Now, Google hopes it can bring more customers on board by convincing them that its practices won’t jeopardize corporate privacy.

The move to end targeted advertising in Gmail doesn’t mean users won’t still see ads. Google can still parse search histories, YouTube browsing, and other Chrome activity as long as you’re signed into your Gmail account. But for those who might have been wary of Google’s ad-targeting practices in the past, this may put those worries to rest. The company certainly hopes it will do so for the worries of potential corporate clients.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered is coming to PS4 next week

The enhanced version of Call of Duty 4 is now a standalone title — at least on PS4. Today Activision announced that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered will be available on Sony’s console on June 27th for $39.99. The game — which features the same story campaign and multiplayer maps as the 2007 original, but with updated visuals — was previously available bundled with special editions of last year’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. As of now, however, there’s no word on if or when the remastered version will be available to purchase on either PC or Xbox One. The next major Callof Duty game, meanwhile, takes the series back to World War II, and will be available on November 3rd.

The hunt for offshore oil is killing tiny sea creatures that are key for healthy oceans

A widely used method to find oil and gas for offshore drilling can kill tiny sea creatures that are key for feeding many marine animals like shellfish, fish, and even whales. And the impacts on these tiny, drifting creatures — called zooplankton — are seen in an area much larger than previously thought.

The study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, adds to the body of evidence that the loud noises produced during oil and gas exploration can disrupt marine life — including whales that use sound to communicate and look for food. It also comes just a few months after President Donald Trump has signed an executive order looking to expand offshore gas and oil drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

Oil and gas companies looking for offshore natural resources use seismic airguns to blast compressed air through the water and into the seafloor. The noise produced by these airguns is louder than a Saturn V rocket during launch, according to Nature. So researchers wanted to see what the effects are on the sea’s base of the food chain, the zooplankton.

The researchers blasted airguns in the ocean off southern Tasmania, and checked zooplankton populations before and after by using sonar and nets. The abundance of these tiny creatures dropped by 64 percent within one hour of the blast, the study says. Two to three times as many zooplankton were also found dead — and the impacts were recorded as far away as 0.7 miles. Scientists previously estimated that impacts would occur only within 33 feet from the blast.

An airgun test conducted by the researchers off southern Tasmania.
Photo by Rob McCauley

It’s not 100 percent clear how the airguns are causing the die-offs, but it’s possible the blast throws off the receptors the animals use to navigate, disorienting them and causing them to die, according to Nature. Because zooplankton is key for feeding larger marine animals, the die-offs could have serious cascading effects.

“Plankton underpin whole ocean productivity,” lead author Robert McCauley, an associate professor at Curtin University in Australia, said in a statement. “Their presence impacts right across the health of the ecosystem so it’s important we pay attention to their future.”

Old-school Mystery Science Theater 3000 is returning for six days with a Twitch marathon

2017 has been a big revival year for Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show got its start in the late 1980s, moved to Comedy Central for half the 1990s, and closed out the decade on the Sci Fi Channel before its 1999 cancellation. But this year, it returned with a new series on Netflix. And for fans who miss the retro spin of the show — an odd tale of a janitor held hostage by mad scientists and forced to watch bad movies — Twitch is airing a marathon of “classic” episodes.

The 38-episode run kicks off on June 26th at 11AM PT on Shout! Factory TV’s channel, and wraps on July 3rd. Twitch hasn’t said which episodes it will air, though it’ll draw from the Comedy Central and Sci Fi era spanning 1989 to 1997.

Lately, Twitch has been experimenting with unusual programming. Earlier this year, the platform streamed an 18-day marathon of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s also streamed other PBS programs, including Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting and Julia Child’s The French Chef.

There’s a strong nostalgic appeal to this oddball programming, the return of childhood figures viewers may have grown up with. And it’s hard to resist the allure of a marathon. One episode bleeding into the next is a perfect security blanket, especially if you’re the kind of person who winds up unable to sleep at 3AM.

Leaked photos of the Tesla Model 3 ignite an internet power struggle

Yesterday afternoon, popular gadget reviewer Marques Brownlee tweeted out a link to an article on a Tesla fan site of new leaked photos of the upcoming, hotly anticipated Model 3 electric car. “Yo Tesla Model 3 looks better and better in every leaked photo,” Brownlee tweeted. “Gotta love the incremental updates.”

But the next day, Brownlee woke up to find that his tweet had been removed and replaced with this message: “This tweet from @MKBHD has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder.”

In an email to The Verge, Brownlee said that the photographer, You You Xue, requested the removal of Brownlee’s tweet on the grounds of copyright infringement. Brownlee followed up with a tweet wondering if the request was an attempt by Xue to promote his photography on Flickr.

@youyouxue Are you submitting copyright requests because you want people to link to your Flickr page, or…..?

— Marques Brownlee (@MKBHD) June 23, 2017

On Reddit yesterday, Xue claims to have randomly spotted the Model 3 in San Matteo, California: “jumped straight out of the car and started snapping photos!” But since capturing the detailed shots, Xue has been highly protective of his images, even getting posts on Facebook removed as well.

Ever since it was first announced last year, the Tesla Model 3 has been the subject of intense speculation and curiosity among the electric carmaker’s growing online fan base. Tesla has taken pains to camouflage the car when taking it out in the public, even going so far as to cover it completely when charging it and hiding its steering wheel and screen.

Tesla’s secrecy around the vehicle’s rollout — the company is eschewing an official launch, opting instead for a more subdued delivery to the first customers — has created a black market for these types of spy shots, and made the internet go a little crazy in the process.

On Twitter, and in most of his public comments to date, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been cagey about the Model 3, the car that’s supposed to bring Tesla’s vision of emission-free driving to the masses. He has said repeatedly that the Model 3 is not intended to be the third version of Tesla’s electric cars, but rather a paired-down version of the Model S.

Indeed, interior shots of the Model 3 show a simplistic-bordering-on-spartan dashboard, with a 17-inch touchscreen and not much else. Musk has said he intends to keep driving a Model X, even after the Model 3’s release.

As for the power struggle over leaked images of the Model 3, we’ve reached out to Tesla and You You Xue, and will update this post if we hear back. For his part, Brownlee said it “seems pretty lame that someone would go around copyright striking tweets (others besides me were taken down as well) over a Flickr album that’s been uploaded everywhere already anyway.”

He added, “Model 3 hype does have some people getting a little skittish though.”