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Game

PAX West Requiring COVID Vaccine, Negative Test to Get In

PAX West, the Seattle-based gaming convention run by Penny Arcade and ReedPop, has reversed its lax stance on COVID safety. Anyone attending the event will now need either proof that they’ve been vaccinated or a recent, negative COVID-19 PCR or antigen test.

PAX West 2020 was canceled, like many other events, due to the coronavirus pandemic last year. The event and its organizers quickly drew criticism earlier this year for announcing that the event would take place in person without any vaccination requirements. Along with a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination, attendees of PAX West will need to provide a “valid, government-issued ID.”

In an email, ReedPop global gaming event director Kyle Marsden-Kish wrote “We are pleased to announce that, in line with the recommendations of state and local public health authorities, we will be implementing a vaccination or negative COVID-19 test requirement for everyone at PAX West.”

We're pleased to announce that, in line with the recommendations of state and local public health authorities, we will be implementing a vaccination or negative COVID-19 test requirement for everyone at #PAXWest. Read the full update at: https://t.co/1ZtYPOCQeI pic.twitter.com/hZJkFeRngR

— PAX (@pax) July 27, 2021

The driving force behind this change in position may be the Delta variant of COVID-19. This version of the virus, first spotted in Washington State this past April, is “more transmissible compared with other variants” according to the Washington State Department of Health. Washington State recently rescinded a majority of its COVID restrictions, but the virus is still present in the state.

Notably, in King County, which includes Seattle, positive cases of COVID-19 have been increasing steadily since the start of July. That being said, the positive case rate is still far below where it was during the virus’ peak last year. PAX West 2021 is currently set to begin on September 3.

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Security

Coronavirus Vaccine Researchers Are Targeted by Cyberattacks

Pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers working on a coronavirus vaccine have been the target of hacking attacks, a new report from Microsoft says. The company says these attacks are coming from nation-states, and it condemns the attacks and calls on other states to condemn them too.

Microsoft said in a blog post by Tom Burt, Corporate Vice President, Customer Security & Trust, that it has detected cyberattacks targeting both pharmaceutical companies and researchers in Canada, France, India, South Korea, and the U.S. Most of the attacks targeted organizations that were in the process of developing a coronavirus vaccine, especially those who were currently performing clinical trials.

“Among the targets, the majority are vaccine makers that have COVID-19 vaccines in various stages of clinical trials,” Burt wrote. “One is a clinical research organization involved in trials, and one has developed a COVID-19 test. Multiple organizations targeted have contracts with or investments from government agencies from various democratic countries for COVID-19 related work.”

Microsoft says the attacks came from three actors: Strontium from Russia and two groups from North Korea named Zinc and Cerium. Each group has its own preferred method of hacking, with Strontium using brute force login attempts, in which computers generate and automatically test millions of passwords with the hope that they will happen upon a working password by chance which can then be used to access the system.

Zinc prefers to use spear phishing, in which a particular person, usually someone high up in an organization, is targeted with a phishing attack tailored to their personal situation. Microsoft gave the example of pretending to be a recruiter and emailing someone with what appears to be a job offer to lure them into sharing their credentials.

Cerium also used spear phishing, but instead of pretending to be a recruiter, they pretended to be representative of the World Health Organization and lured people in by discussing themes related to coronavirus.

Microsoft says it blocked many of these attacks with the security protections that are a part of its products and has offered to help organizations where attacks did get through. The company is also urging international leaders to be more proactive in protecting healthcare workers and researchers from cyberattacks.

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AI

Google taps AI to identify COVID-19 vaccine name variations

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In May during its Google I/O 2021 developer conference, Google demoed multitask unified model (MUM), a system trained on 75 languages at once that can simultaneously understand different forms of information including text, images, and videos.  Today, Google revealed that it’s using MUM to identify variations in the names of COVID-19 vaccines across multiple languages, which the company claims has improved Google Search’s ability to surface information about COVID-19 vaccines for users around the world.

As Google notes, the COVID-19 vaccines released to date — including those from AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer — go by different names depending on the country and region of origin. There are roughly hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine names globally, not all of which have historically risen to the top of Search when users would type in phrases like “new virus vaccines,” “mrna vaccines,” and “AZD1222.”

MUM, which can transfer knowledge between languages and doesn’t need to be explicitly taught how to complete certain tasks, helped Google engineers to identify more than 800 COVID-19 name variations in over 50 languages, according to Google Search VP Pandu Nayak. With only a few examples of “official” vaccine names, MUM was able to find interlingual variations “in seconds” compared with the weeks it might take a human team.

Google MUM

Above: Google’s MUM is being used to surface COVID-19 vaccine information across different languages in Search.

Image Credit: Google

“This first application of MUM has helped to provide users around the world with important information in a timely manner,” Nayak said in a blog post translated from Japanese. “We look forward to making search more convenient through the use of MUM in the future. Early testing has shown that MUM not only improves existing systems, but also helps develop new methods of information retrieval.”

Future work

Google previously applied AI to the problem of providing projections of COVID-19 cases, deaths, ICU utilization, ventilator availability, and other metrics useful to policymakers and health care workers. In August 2020, in partnership with Harvard, the company released models that forecast COVID-19–related developments over the next 14 days for U.S. counties and states.

MUM has potential beyond vaccine name identification, particularly in situations where it can lean on context and more in imagery and dialogue turns. For example, given a photo of hiking boots and asked “Can I use this to hike Mount Fuji?”, MUM can comprehend the content of the image and the intent behind the query, letting the questioner know that hiking boots would be appropriate and pointing them toward a lesson in a Mount Fuji blog.

MUM can also understand questions like “I want to hike to Mount Fuji next fall, what should I do to prepare?” Because of its multimodal capabilities, MUM realizes that “prepare” could encompass things like fitness training as well as weather. The model, then, could recommend that the questioner bring a waterproof jacket and give pointers to go deeper on topics with relevant content from articles, videos, and images across the web.

“We’re in the early days of exploiting this new technology,” Prabhakar Raghavan, senior VP at Google, said onstage at Google I/O. “We’re excited about its potential to solve more complex questions, no matter how you ask … MUM is changing the game with its language understanding capabilities.”

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AI

Walgreens used AI to optimize vaccine outreach emails

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As of May 18, nearly 40% of the U.S. population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with close to 50% having received at least one shot. But outreach remains a major challenge. McKinsey estimated in December that vaccine adoption would require “unprecedented” public and private action and incremental investment of about $10 billion. Highlighting the unevenness in the rollout, a lower percentage of Black Americans than of the general population had been vaccinated by March in every state reporting statistics by race.

Governments at the local, state, and federal levels are involved in distributing and administering vaccines, alongside private-sector partners like pharmacy chains, grocers, and retailers. Among those is Walgreens, which now offers same-day COVID-19 vaccine appointments in most of its U.S. retail locations.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Walgreens aimed to ensure that it had strong customer engagement and high open rates of its email communications on vaccine availability. To meet this goal, the company partnered with Phrasee, an AI-powered copywriting platform, to create a targeted email marketing campaign for customers.

AI-powered marketing

When McKinsey surveyed 1,500 executives across industries and regions in 2018, 66% said addressing skills gaps related to automation and digitization was a “top 10” priority. Forrester predicts that 57% of business-to-business sales leaders will invest more heavily in tools with automation.  And that’s perhaps why Salesforce anticipates the addressable market for customer intelligence will grow to $13.4 billion by 2025, up from several billion today.

According to loyalty and personalization director Brian Tyrrell, Walgreens leveraged Phrasee’s technology to create more engaging subject lines and bodies that reflected the right degree of urgency. “We knew that our largest owned channel in terms of reach was our email channel. We had the opportunity to communicate with 50 million customers there. So when we started rolling out communications about testing, and now the vaccine, it was never more important to ensure that these customers were opening that content,” Tyrrell said in a statement.

Phrasee, which was founded in 2015 by Neil Yager, Parry Malm, and Victoria Peppiatt, offers an email “optimization” product that combines AI and computational linguistics to generate, automate, and analyze language in real time. Phrasee tailors language for email subject lines, in-body copy, and calls-to-action, reminding customers about things like abandoned shopping carts and important sale announcements.

Walgreens tapped the Phrasee platform in March 2020 to change its use of emojis in emails. The goal was to make sure “urgent” emojis, like the red alarm bell, were being used in a way that matched the level of severity covered in the content.

“The folks at Phrasee helped us understand how customers were engaging with different parts of those subject lines, to know where to tone down and where to tone up certain parts of our brand language. We also made everything much more simplified so that customers could digest the content of our emails as easily as possible,” Tyrrell said.

While the platform helped Walgreens simplify its emails, Phrasee’s team also partnered with the retailer to make sure the tone of its campaign was appropriate. Specifically, Walgreens altered some of the “fun” language that felt tone-deaf during the early pandemic.

“One of the most important elements is that we (Walgreens) maintained a very consistent and authentic tone of voice. We take a lot of this feedback loop that we get from Phrasee to roll back up into how we develop brand tone as a brand in its entirety,” Tyrrell said.

Expanded partnership

Walgreens said it saw a 30% increase in email open rates after implementing Phrasee’s suggested changes. This means 30% more customers received info on available vaccine appointments — and potentially up to 30% more customers scheduled a vaccine.

Since March, Walgreens has expanded its partnership with Phrasee beyond optimizing email subject lines. Now, the retailer and Phrasee, along with Adobe, are helping optimize messaging throughout the customer experience.

“Phrasee’s really good at subject lines. But what’s next, how can we use this for app push messaging? How can you power the content within our emails instead of just the subject lines? So we’re really expanding our partnership into other areas,” Tyrrell said. “If we only have one shot to get customers to engage and get a vaccine today, how can we put our best foot forward?”

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AI

What the vaccine rollout can teach us about big data and AI

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I’ve spent my entire career looking at data and the world through a scientific lens. Perhaps that’s why when observing the vaccine rollout, I discovered some interesting connections between the challenges governments and scientists have overcome and those most enterprise companies face.

When considering this comparison, I discovered four tech takeaways for enterprise companies, in terms of becoming data driven and innovating with big data and AI:

1. Train your employees to trust the science

When we think about the extensive campaigns and mass education that helped build confidence in the science behind the vaccine, the same needs to happen within the enterprise. There is a tendency for employees to dismiss AI on anecdotal evidence. They lean towards their own biases instead of allowing AI and predictive modeling to do its job.

We see this often among sales reps. They see that their AI tech was off once or twice and dismiss the science completely. Sadly, this can interfere or override the enterprise go-to-market strategy entirely. So, what enterprise companies should do is educate their workforce on how to work with the technology and the data, not against it.

Employees should learn how to look at AI in a scientific way, analyzing its risk-reward effectiveness according to benchmarks and overall pipeline metrics, seeing how AI is impacting their business as a whole instead of on a case-by-case basis.

2. AI can still be powerful in a world where you have a limited sample size

As in the process of developing the vaccine, enterprise companies are also limited to a small data set and quick timeline. They don’t have the luxury to run multiple tests or put in years of research and trials. Neither the Covid-19 virus nor enterprise customers have that kind of patience, unfortunately.

I work in the B2B world and that industry has a fraction of the amount of data compared to B2C. In the case where companies only have a few tens of clients, they would like to use AI to find more. Given that they are using the right methods – selecting the right benchmarks, accurately A/B testing and bringing in additional data from outside their organization — AI can be just as powerful when dealing with a small data set and short timeline.

3. Be aggressive with your timeline

No matter the industry, every company I’ve ever worked with has considered their goal as “high stakes”. Although not as high stakes as developing a vaccine, these businesses still have millions on the line and are solving high stake business problems. So my suggestion to them is to be aggressive.

During the pandemic, I worked closely with a company whose demand increased by 10X because of the nature of their business and our world’s current needs. Before the pandemic, they were using manual solutions, but with such “high stakes” and massive opportunity, they couldn’t afford not to bring on sophisticated AI technology.

On top of making the switch so quickly, they were aggressive in their deployment as well. Every minute was crucial to their sales team, so in most cases, they followed the 80/20 rule of thumb — if 80% of the problem is solved after running AI, then it’s time to go live!

Which brings me to my last point.

4. AI isn’t 100% guaranteed

AI will never be 100% right, which means you need to start with the lower risk and higher gains first, and keep monitoring the performance for potential risks. We saw this with vaccinating the front liners first. In business we do this by focusing on those who need AI to help them make decisions most — usually sales and marketing — and they become our front liners. From there, we apply AI to the remaining departments that will benefit from it.

Now, as a data technologist, it’s natural for me to “trust the science.” I take all of this information — be that around the vaccine or enterprise data — and churn it into statistics and predictions while living quite well with the uncertainty. What the vaccine rollout has done is create a moment in time for the scientific perspective to sink in throughout the world. And when the enterprise joins in on this new wave of scientific thinking, it will drastically change the way AI, big data and technology impact business.

Amnon Mishor is founder and CTO of Leadspace.

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Categories
Tech News

England will launch its digital vaccine passport next week

People in England will be able to use the National Health Service app as a vaccine passport from Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed today.

The digital certificates will be available from May 17, the same day that the country lifts its ban on non-essential travel. Holidaymakers who don’t have a smartphone will be able to request a paper version by calling the NHS helpline on 119.

“The certification, being able to show that you’ve had a jab, is going to be necessary for people to be able to travel,” Hancock told Sky News. “So, we want to make sure people can get access to that proof, not least to show governments of other countries that you’ve had the jab if they require that in order to arrive.”

The digital version will be displayed on the NHS app that was originally designed to book appointments and order repeat prescriptions, rather than the COVID-19 app that’s used for test and trace. To download the app, users need to be registered with a GP in England and aged 13 or over.

The app will initially only show the user’s vaccination record, although future updates will integrate their COVID-19 test results. The government says that vaccination status will be “held securely within the NHS App,” and only accessible via the NHS login service.

[Read moreThis dude drove an EV from the Netherlands to New Zealand — here are his 3 top road trip tips]

The announcement will be welcomed by many holidaymakers hoping to travel abroad this summer, but their options remain limited for now.

“There are not many countries that currently accept proof of vaccination,” the government’s travel guidelines state. “So for the time being most people will still need to follow other rules when traveling abroad – like getting a negative pre-departure test.”

In addition, there are presently only 12 countries on the government’s green list of destinations that people can visit without quarantine on their return. However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the restrictions will be reviewed every three weeks from May 17 “to see if we can expand the green list.”

Vaccine passports will initially be used for only international travel, but the government has previously suggested they may be later used for domestic venues such as pubs.

Civil liberties campaigners fear that approach will create a two-tier system in which some people can access freedoms and support that others are denied — with the most marginalized among us the hardest hit.

The Ada Lovelace Institute, a data ethics body, published a report yesterday that set out six requirements that governments must meet before permitting vaccine passports:

  1. Scientific confidence in the impact on public health.
  2. Clear, specific, and delimited purpose.
  3. Ethical consideration and clear legal guidance about permitted and restricted uses, and mechanisms to support rights and redress, and to tackle illegal use.
  4. Sociotechnical system design, including operational infrastructure.
  5. Public legitimacy.
  6. Protection against future risks and mitigation strategies for global
    harms.

With the momentum for vaccine passports building, the institute hopes that setting high thresholds for their use will ensure that they benefit society.

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Tech News

Uber teams with Walgreens to help riders get COVID-19 vaccine

Ride-sharing company Uber has teamed up with Walgreens to help customers get appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time they schedule a ride to the pharmacy. With this new feature, users can browse vaccination appointment time slots at Walgreens in the Uber app, claim the time they want, then continue on to book a ride for the appointment.

Though it is still difficult to get a COVID-19 vaccination appointment in some places, many states are seeing a drop in demand that is making same-day appointments possible. If you want to see whether there’s a time slot available at your local Walgreens, you can tap the banner in the Uber app that reads “Need a vaccine?”

You’ll then be able to tap a “Schedule a vaccine” option, at which point you’ll be prompted to enter your zip code. The app will then find your local Walgreens store and show the COVID-19 vaccine appointment time slots that are currently available.

Assuming you choose to book that time, you’ll see a page with all of the important details, including the date and time for your second vaccine dose appointment. From there, you’ll then be taken to the familiar Uber ride page where you’ll arrange for an Uber ride to take you to the COVID-19 appointment.

Of course, the option remains to directly book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment through Walgreen’s website and app, as well as the digital platforms for other companies participating in the vaccine program, including CVS and supermarket pharmacies like Kroger Pharmacy.

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Tech News

Digital vaccine passports could deny people rights ‘by algorithmic decision’

Digital vaccine passports could provide a path back to our pre-pandemic lives, but the route of return is an ethical minefield.

China, Israel, and Bahrain have already begun rolling out digital vaccine certificates. On Wednesday, the EU announced its plan to join them.

In theory, the passes can provide evidence that someone is safe to travel, return to the office, or enter leisure venues. But critics fear they will exacerbate inequalities and compromise data privacy. They also worry that even inoculated people can spread COVID-19.

One of their biggest concerns involves the rollout of vaccines. People who get their jabs first — such as older citizens in wealthy countries — could receive far more freedoms than young people and individuals in nations with smaller supplies of vaccines.

[Read: Amazon’s search algorithm spreads vaccine disinformation, study finds]

This week, the UK’s professional body for IT added its voice to the concerns. BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, warned that the system could mean entry to cinemas or bars is “denied by an algorithmic decision.”

It added that we could be asked for as much linked data to enter venues as to travel abroad.

Adam Leon Smith, the chair of BCS’ Software Testing Group, said governments could create central digital identifiers to manage the vaccination process or mass testing activities.

But then you can easily imagine how this data might be joined with other information, such as address, or key worker status. All with sensible intentions, but care needs to be taken that this data is not misused.

He warned that this cross-referencing of data could be used to create personal risk calculations. These scores could then deny people access to basic rights and services.

For example, denying cinema access to someone because an algorithm computes their home location as being a high-risk one, their key worker status as inferring they are an NHS front-line worker.

Despite the concerns, a growing number of governments and travel companies plan to roll out digital vaccine passports. The worry is that in their rush to open borders and jump-start economies, the risks of the certificates will be overlooked.

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Published March 19, 2021 — 19:05 UTC



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Tech News

Beware of biased vaccine distribution algorithms

As the sheer logistical challenge of distributing vaccines to over 300 million Americans looms large, institutions are furiously developing algorithms to assist the rollout. The promise: that technology will enable us to allocate a limited number of doses efficiently — to the highest priority groups, and free of human error. 

Vaccine distribution algorithms have already been deployed in many places. In December 2020, researchers at Stanford University rolled out a system that ranked individuals in its 20,000-plus strong community by priority. Around that time, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed it had partnered with the data-analysis firm Palantir in harnessing “Tiberius,” an algorithm to efficiently allocate doses across the hardest-stricken areas. And at the state level, Arizona, South Carolina, Tennessee and at least four others are building proprietary technologies to modulate vaccine rollout. 

But all this could go horribly wrong. 

Imagine an algorithm for vaccine distribution that under-supplies majority-black counties. Or one that disadvantages female patients compared to male ones. Or yet another that favors the top one percent.

These possibilities seem outlandish, even dystopian. But they could become reality in the space of the next few months.

At the heart of these frightening prospects is the issue of bias in algorithms. Rule-based systems, like the one powering Stanford’s algorithm, can deliver discriminatory outcomes if programmers fail to capture all the relevant variables in painstaking detail. Machine learning systems, such as the one most likely behind Palantir’s algorithm, on the other hand, may seem to escape this issue because they learn from data with minimal human input. But in their case, bias arises when the data they are fed underrepresents certain demographics — like class, gender, or race. The algorithms then replicate the bias encoded in data.

Already, there are warning signs that vaccine distribution algorithms may allocate doses inequitably. For instance, Stanford’s system caused a debacle when it selected only seven of 1,300 medical residents to receive doses. Researchers deduced that this error was caused by a failure on the programmers’ part to adjust for residents’ actual exposure to the virus.

The University then had to issue a widespread apology and revise its rollout plans; some vials were even manually apportioned. Moreover, a number of studies have exposed bias in machine learning systems, and might be reason to doubt their efficacy.

In 2018, a test by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that Amazon’s machine learning system misidentified 28 members of Congress as criminals. Disproportionately many of those falsely detected were people of color — they included six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among them the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. There’s a danger that algorithms deployed with the intention of ethically distributing vaccines will, ironically, distribute them unethically.

This problem points at a central tension. Technology is probably the best solution we have today for massive logistical challenges like delivering groceries, meals, and packages. But simultaneously, algorithms are not yet sufficiently advanced to make ethical decisions. Their failures could pose great harm, especially to vulnerable populations. So how can we resolve this tension, not just in the context of vaccine distribution, but more broadly? 

One way is to remedy the technology. Rule-based systems can be extensively evaluated before deployment. Machine learning systems are harder to correct, but research suggests that improving the quality of data sets does reduce bias in outcomes. Even then, building perfectly unbiased data sets might be a bit like a band-aid for a terminal illness. Such sets often contain millions, or even billions of samples.

Humans would need to sort through them all and categorize them appropriately for this approach to succeed — something that’s both impractical and unscalable. The central limitation, as the pioneering computer scientist Judea Pearl has pointed out, persists: that machine learning is statistical in nature, and powered by reams of data.

But this limitation also hints at avenues for improvement. The psychologist Gary Marcus has proposed one: a “hybrid” approach, which combines statistical elements with those of deductive reasoning. On this idea, programmers would explicitly teach algorithms about concepts like “race” and “gender” and encode rules preventing any discrepancies in outcomes based on those categories. Then, the algorithms would learn from reams of relevant data. In this way, hybrid approaches would be the best of both worlds. They would capture the benefits of statistical methodologies while providing a clear solution for issues like bias.

A third solution to the tension is to designate domains where algorithmic approaches should for now be experimental and not decisive. Perhaps it’s acceptable to harness algorithms for well-defined tasks where the risk of failure is low (like running transportation networks, logistics platforms, and energy distribution systems) but not yet those that involve messy ethical dilemmas, like distributing vaccines.

This point of view still leaves open the possibility that some more advanced system in the future can be entrusted with such a task while protecting us from immediate potential harms.

As technology becomes increasingly potent and pervasive, it will serve us well to be on guard for any harms algorithms may cause. We will need suitable cures in place — or eventually let machines allocate them.

Published March 18, 2021 — 21:18 UTC



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Tech News

Facebook warns it may remove users who keep sharing false vaccine claims

Facebook is expanding its policy on removing false claims to include a greater variety of posts about vaccines, including ones about vaccines in general, not just the COVID-19 products. The company announced the expansion on which claims it will remove from the platform, explaining that this change follows consultations with the WHO and more.

In December, Facebook started removing some false claims about the COVID-19 vaccine, noting that it targeted ones ‘debunked by public health experts.’ The company has been criticized for the amount of misinformation that remains on the platform, however, including viral images making dangerous, false vaccine claims.

With this expansion, Facebook says it will now also remove posts that claim COVID-19 is a man-made or ‘manufactured’ virus, that the COVID-19 vaccines can’t help prevent the disease, and claims that it is safer to get COVID-19 than to get one of the vaccines now authorized for use.

Likewise, Facebook will now remove content about vaccines in general, namely ones claiming that vaccines are dangerous, can cause autism, and/or that they’re toxic. These new items join other claims that can get a post removed; the full list can be found on Facebook’s Help Center here.

Facebook says that it will start enforcing this policy update immediately, noting that it will focus on accounts, Pages, and groups, ultimately expanding its enforcement of the change ‘over the coming weeks.’ Assuming an account, group, or Page continues to share such claims, Facebook says it may remove it entirely.

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