May 13, 2020

Axios Future

Welcome to Axios Future, where our hairstyle after two months of sheltering in place can best be described as "balding werewolf."

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Today's issue is 1,659 words, a 6-minute read

1 big thing: The brave new world of digital coronavirus screening

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Employers emerging from lockdown are looking to new COVID-19 screening tools to help workers get back on the job.

Why it matters: Neither employees nor customers are likely to return to businesses if they fear infection, so there needs to be some way to separate the sick from the well. But many new screening services are untested, and they could open the door to intrusive health surveillance.

Driving the news: Dozens of states have begun at least a limited form of reopening, but putting workers and customers back in offices and restaurants will raise the risk of new outbreaks unless the potentially infectious can be identified.

  • As a result, medical security needs to become part of overall workplace security, says Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle Systems, the leading U.S. provider of commercial security. "In the same way we've secured buildings for 50 years, we think we need to create a safe environment for the ecosystem of a commercial building, which includes the owners, the tenants, the visitors and suppliers."

What's happening: A number of companies are already rolling out new digital tools designed to identify possible COVID-19 cases at the point of entry for workplaces.

  • Kastle is introducing KastleSafeSpaces, which will use touchless access controls, symptoms tests and thermal cameras for temperature screening. Once inside the office, workers can be monitored using intelligent video cameras to investigate close contacts in the case of an infection and to reinforce social distancing within the workplace.
  • The biometric ID company CLEAR, best known for providing expedited security in airports, is offering a new Health Pass service via the company's app that will link an employee's digitally verified identity with health data.
  • Financial services firm PwC has developed a contact-tracing app that allows the company to identify employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19-positive colleagues in the workplace.

The catch: It's far from clear how effective any of these tools will be.

  • While the FDA is temporarily permitting companies to market infrared thermal cameras that have not yet been approved by health authorities for workplace temperature checks, such devices are often inaccurate.
  • And even if they do work, they wouldn't necessarily catch infected employees who are asymptomatic — as many COVID-19 cases are — or who have yet to show symptoms but are still infectious.
  • Linking screening services directly to COVID-19 tests would improve their accuracy, but the U.S. is still a long way from ubiquitous testing. And there's no guarantee a positive antibody test means a worker is safe from getting sick or sickening others.

Beyond issues with effectiveness, these new services present challenges to autonomy and privacy. But just as 9/11 led to more invasive security in airports and other vulnerable spaces, most indications are the pandemic will lead to more pervasive health surveillance abetted by new digital tools.

  • In a recent report forecasting life after the virus, Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work envisioned the creation of a massive Health Security Agency that would mandate automated illness scanning for any building, space or country.
  • "We can build anything," says Karin Giefer, a senior vice president at the digital business transformation company Publicis Sapient. "The question we should be asking is whether we should."

The bottom line: Digital surveillance offers the possibility of speeding up the safe reopening of the economy. But if it is implemented poorly, it will come with a cost.

2. How coronavirus could benefit alternative meat

A Beyond Meat burger. Photo: Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The pandemic is disrupting the supply chain for conventional meat, opening the door for alternatives.

Why it matters: Meat production carries an environmental cost and has proven vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. More climate-friendly alternative meat has been held back in part by high costs, but the pandemic could change that calculation in a lasting way.

Driving the news: Beyond Meat, which makes burgers and other products from plant-based ingredients, reported that sales had more than doubled in the first quarter, in part because retailers who were worried about a meat shortage were stocking up on alternatives.

  • According to a Nielsen report, demand for plant-based meat alternatives is up 278% since this time last year.

Between the lines: Some of the growth in sales is due to an increase in distribution channels for alternative meat products, including a rollout to hundreds of Kroger-owned grocery stores for Impossible Foods and an expansion into China for Beyond Meat. But alternative meat companies have also benefited from a more resilient supply chain and rising prices for its conventional competitors.

  • Meatpacking facilities often require workers to stand shoulder to shoulder — conditions that have led to the rapid spread of COVID-19. That isn't the case at alternative meat facilities.
  • With meat supplies hit by the pandemic, there have been shortages in some stores and restaurants, leading to an 8% increase in the price of fresh meat in the week that ended April 25. Since conventional meat is generally cheaper than plant-based meat, any increase in price stands to benefit alternative products.

Yes, but: The plant-based meat industry is still much less than 1% the size of its conventional counterpart.

  • And while plant-based meat is more sustainable than animal meat, some environmentalists have criticized the new alternatives as overly processed.

The bottom line: Meat-eating exacts an environmental cost. Plant-based alternatives can reduce that toll, and the pandemic seems likely to make more of us ready to switch.

3. The new "Cold War" started in China

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A growing number of experts are warning against what they call a "new Cold War" with China. But many Chinese Communist Party elites already view the rest of the world as a staging ground for competition between China and the United States, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes.

Driving the news: The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations. “Both governments are trying to profit domestically off the other's failures," Rachel Esplin Odell of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft told USA Today.

Background: The Chinese Communist Party has two different messages — one intended for the rest of the world and one intended for party members who govern the country.

  • "If you read speeches that Xi Jinping would give at Davos, or at the Boao Forum, it would contain a lot more language about cooperation, mutual aid, and peaceful and respectful diplomacy between China and other countries, and China and the United States," Victor Shih, an associate professor of political economy at UC San Diego, told Axios.
  • "But if you look internally on foreign policy by Chinese leaders or Chinese experts and the government, those things tend to frame things as global competition between the U.S. and China."

The bottom line: Some U.S. experts deny China's global ambitions, while others exaggerate its threat.

  • Bethany's thought bubble: Neither of these approaches is an effective response to the party's true intentions.

Go deeper

4. The viral spread of anti-vaccination sentiment

Women hold up anti-vaccination signs at a protest in Washington state on May 13. Photo: Jason Redmond / AFP

Anti-vaccination movements could grow large enough to disrupt efforts to create public immunity when a vaccine is developed, according to new research.

Why it matters: Vaccines are only effective if enough people take them to develop herd immunity against a new infection. Anti-vaxxers, though small in number, have an online savvy that makes them powerful.

Driving the news: Last week, a YouTube video titled "Plandemic" promoting the baseless idea that a future coronavirus vaccine would kill millions of people received more than 8 million views before it was deleted by the platform.

  • Anti-vaxxers are increasingly showing up at protests against stay-at-home orders, according to reporting by the New York Times and NPR.

Though vast majorities of Americans still support vaccines, a recent Gallup survey found that number had fallen somewhat over the past two decades. Now a new analysis of Facebook pages published in Nature suggests that while the anti-vaccination presence online has fewer followers than the pro-vaccination side, its pages are more numerous and more often linked to by undecided Facebook pages.

  • The research suggests anti-vaxxers are proving more successful at reaching persuadable groups like parents than pro-vaxxers, who appear largely disconnected from public sentiment.
  • Anti-vaxxer pages are growing faster, and based off computer simulations, the researchers suggest anti-vaccination views might dominate Facebook within 10 years, according to Nature News.

What they're saying: "The anti-vaxxers have been practicing for this," tech columnist Kevin Roose wrote in the Times. "They are savvy media manipulators, effective communicators and experienced at exploiting the weaknesses of social media platforms."

The bottom line: As shocking as it might seem at a moment when the world desperately needs an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic seems poised to make the anti-vaccination movement even stronger.

5. Worthy of your time

The dark decade ahead (Matthew Walther — The Week)

  • Some of you wrote in recently to take issue with the perceived pessimistic tone of the last Axios Future. If you're one of them, definitely do not read this piece.

Good science is good science (Marc Lipsitch — Boston Review)

  • A brilliant epidemiologist on the need for scientists to rethink their priors on evidence over action.

Anatomy of an internet shutdown (Jina Moore Rest of World)

  • A reported analysis of Sudan's effort to suspend the internet over political protests, from a news outlet dedicated to covering the impact of technology outside the rich world.

The day the live concert returns (Dave Grohl — Atlantic)

  • The former Nirvana drummer and longtime Foo Fighters frontman on the future of live music.
6. 1 dystopia thing: Robocops

A robot enforcing social distance rules in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

Robots are being employed to remind people of social distancing rules during the pandemic.

Why it matters: Sure, it may seem like putting robots in crowd control is a bad idea — at least according to fiction. But expect to see more drones and bots in the position as technology improves and public spaces become more heavily surveilled.

What's happening: Since May 8, Spot — a doglike robot made by Boston Dynamics — has been patrolling Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore as part of a tw0-week trial by the city-state's government.

  • Spot is meant to "assist safe distancing efforts at parks, gardens and nature reserves" managed by the government, according to a press release.
  • The robot is fitted with cameras that help it estimate the number of people in the park, and it plays a prerecorded message urging visitors to follow social distancing rules.
  • More effective than the robot's message seems to be its very presence, which has reportedly weirded out parkgoers enough that they remain very distant — at least from Spot.

Spot isn't the first machine to be drafted for pandemic duty.

My thought bubble: The perfectly benign Spot isn't exactly Robocop's trigger-happy ED-209, but based on public reaction to its presence, humans aren't quite ready to be served and protected by robots.

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