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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic gave Silicon Valley's profound self-confidence a good hard shake, presenting technologists with a host of problems that resisted quick fixes in code.

The big picture: Tech's AI-driven, network-powered services stepped adroitly into problem spots around the edges of pandemic life, as offices regrouped into virtual Zoom hives, homebound families ordered grocery and restaurant delivery by app, and e-commerce, led by Amazon, picked up where retail had gone dark.

Yes, but: At the heart of the pandemic sat a challenge — controlling the spread of a virus among humans — that tech was unable to meet any better than other power-centers in American society.

  • Pharmaceutical companies in concert with government did a bang-up job of developing and testing vaccines using novel techniques in record time.
  • But tech, along with our other institutions, failed the challenge of restraining the virus' spread while we waited for that fix — at the price of millions of deaths globally and even broader illness and suffering.

Apple and Google partnered up to develop a contact-tracing system, but without government backing and broad-based promotion, it languished, largely unused.

Between the lines: The pandemic rubbed our collective noses in the hard limits of tech solutionism — the ideology, widespread in industry circles, that tech is the key to solving all human problems, and if we throw enough startups at some aspect of human woe, they will overcome it.

  • The most intractable problems that COVID-19 posed the U.S. and the world were social and behavioral — from getting people to wear masks and socially distance to combatting online misinformation to winning over vaccination doubters.
  • COVID reminded us that the deeper digital technology weaves itself into our social fabric and daily lives, the more important it is for tech companies to involve sociologists, ethicists and other disciplines — experts on human behavior rather than computer science and marketing.

Our thought bubble: A classic science fiction trope shows humanity, confronted by a sudden hostile alien threat, laying aside its divisions and squabbles and uniting against a common enemy.

  • Those aliens arrived last year — they just happened to take the form of a virus — and we failed the test. The tech industry was no exception.

Go deeper

White House expected to name Rick Spinrad as NOAA leader

In this NOAA GOES-East satellite handout image, Hurricane Dorian, a Cat. 4 storm, moves slowly past Grand Bahama Island on September 2, 2019. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images)

The White House is slated to name Rick Spinrad, an oceanographer at Oregon State University, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: Filling the NOAA slot would complete the Biden administration's leadership on the climate and environment team. The agency, located within the Commerce Department, houses the National Weather Service and conducts much of the nation's climate science research.

1 hour ago - World

Israeli officials will object to restoration of Iran deal in D.C. visit

Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed the delegation traveling to Washington, D.C. next week for strategic talks on Iran to stress their objection to a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal and to refuse to discuss its contents, Israeli officials say.

Why it matters: That position is similar to the one Israel took in the year before the 2015 nuclear deal was announced, which led to a rift between the Israeli government and the Obama administration. History could now repeat itself.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases aren't budging — even after vaccinations doubled— Health care workers feel stress, burnout more than a year into the pandemic — Handful of "breakthrough" COVID cases occurred in nursing homes, CDC says.
  2. Vaccines: Johnson & Johnson's vaccine production problems look even bigger — All U.S. adults now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine.
  3. Political: Watchdog says agency infighting increased health and safety risks at start of pandemic.
  4. World: EU regulator: Benefits of J&J vaccine outweigh risk of rare blood clots.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.