COVID variant indicates community spread, fuels push for vaccines


“It’s kind of like how COVID testing was a year ago, very few people could COVID test. Right now it’s, very few people can sequence. But that’s increasing quickly as the public health community is understanding how important it is to [do],” Wells explained.



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Pandemic fuels travel boom in virtual reality


BEIJING: Annual profits at China’s industrial firms surged in the first two months of 2021, highlighting a rebound in the country’s manufacturing sector and a broad revival in economic activity from the coronavirus crisis early last year.

Profits stood at 1.114 trillion yuan ($170.31 billion) in the first two months of 2021, up 179 percent from the same period last year when the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed economic activity, data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed on Saturday.

They were also up 72.1 percent from the 2019 levels, bringing the two-year average growth to 31.2 percent, according to NBS. Profits had risen 20.1 percent in December.

The figures combine data for January and February to exclude distortions caused by the weeklong Lunar New Year, which fell in February in 2021.

“Due to a combination of factors such as stabilizing domestic and foreign demand, low bases and the ‘stay put’ initiative over the Lunar New Year, growth in industrial production and sales quickened, the rebound in corporate revenues and profits accelerated and profitability has recovered significantly,” Zhu Hong, a senior statistician of NBS, said in a statement accompanying the data.

Millions of workers who normally travel home over the Lunar New Year holiday had stayed put this year due to the virus fears. That kept factories humming over the period.

Margins in the raw material manufacturing sector rose 346 percent from a year earlier, data showed, as factory-gate prices accelerated at their fastest pace in more than two years.

China’s industrial output surged in the first two months of the year, while exports, a major growth driver for China after the pandemic shock, rose at a record pace in February.

China managed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic before many of its peers last year, making it the only major economy to have posted full-year growth in 2020, with an expansion of 2.3 percent.

Beijing has set a modest annual economic growth target at above 6 percent this year, well below analyst expectations, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang saying that setting hugely different growth targets from year to year would “disturb market expectations.” 

Liabilities at industrial firms were up 9.4 percent year-on-year at end-February, versus 6.1 percent growth as of end-2020.

The industrial profit data covers large firms with annual revenues of over 20 million yuan from their main operations.



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Pandemic fuels travel boom — in virtual reality


Jem Jenkins Jones was stuck at home in Wales for much of the past year amid pandemic lockdowns but managed to fulfill a promise to her 10-year-old daughter to see the northern lights from Iceland and South Africa’s game reserves — in virtual reality.

“She was amazed,” she said, calling the VR travel experiences “a lifesaver for us.”

Strict lockdowns and travel limitations during the pandemic have sparked fresh interest in immersive virtual travel experiences, which have become more accessible and affordable with new apps and VR hardware.

Even those confined to their homes can take a virtual jaunt to Machu Picchu, the rainforests of Borneo or a road trip across the United States in a convertible.

Data on VR travel usage is limited but developers have seen surging interest since the pandemic hit.

“It has been skyrocketing,” said Cezara Windrem, creator of the Alcove VR platform at AARP Innovation Labs. “We’re getting more adoption every month.”

Alcove enables users to visit exotic locales such as Australia’s coral reef or the island of Malta, while adding a “shared” experience which enables people to interact and even “lead” a family member without the technical skills to navigate in a VR headset.

“We’ve heard from a lot of people who discovered Alcove and decided buy a headset for their elderly family members,” Windrem said.

This allows for shared travel even during a lockdown and other kinds of experiences such as “playing chess with someone on the other side of the planet.”

– Travel substitute, complement –

With the tourism industry largely obliterated by the coronavirus outbreak, virtual reality has emerged as both a substitute for real-world travel and a complement to help people plan their next trip.

App developers have created a range of travel experiences: touring the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the savannahs of Kenya or the Antarctic from a kayak. These come from commercial operators or organizations such as National Geographic or World Wildlife Fund.

Users can opt for hardware from Facebook’s Oculus, Sony’s PlayStation or the inexpensive Google Cardboard, among others. Some gear costs as little as $300 and many apps are free.

“I have traveled every week since the pandemic, from the comfort of my home,” said Rafael Cortes, a San Antonio computer professional who uses Alcove and YouTube VR.

“I’ve been to London, the glass bridge in China, Angel Falls in Venezuela, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, a helicopter tour of New York.”

Amy Erdt lives in Portland, Oregon, but with VR, “I like to walk around my sister’s town in Wallingford, England, occasionally because I can’t be there.”

Erdt, who administers a Facebook group of VR users, said there are “some great travel experiences” in virtual reality, which can be remarkably realistic.

“I once sat at VR poker table at 1 am with a guy in Australia who was eating KFC (chicken), she said. “I could hear his KFC crunch. It was a trip.”

– Gaming and beyond –

Virtual reality’s most popular applications are in gaming and fantasy worlds, but travel is seen as a new growth vector.

“During the pandemic when everyone is socially isolated it may seem strange to isolate yourself further to transport yourself somewhere else but it does allow us to experience things we can’t experience today,” said Avi Greengart, analyst with the consultancy Techsponential.

Greengart said VR travel has some advantages but can’t be compared with the real thing.

“With VR travel you’re not getting the food unique to the area, you’re missing a lot of the sensory experiences and serendipitous meetings with locals,” he said.

On the other hand, “you can browse a museum and have it all to yourself,” which may be impossible in the physical world.

A report by research firm GlobalData shows that virtual and augmented reality had already been gaining momentum from travel operators and tourism boards before the pandemic to enable people to get a taste of a destination before going there.

GlobalData analyst Ralph Hollister said the pandemic may be giving the sector a lift that will endure even after the pandemic.

“Spending considerably more time indoors with an abundance of spare time, combined with an urge to travel, has meant that aspiring travelers have been turning to VR to fill a void that travel restrictions have left,” Hollister said.

Hollister said he sees VR becoming an important part of the process of travelers viewing and selecting a travel destination.

“The widespread adoption of VR for this kind of purpose could be the next step for this technology and help it permanently move away from its ‘gimmick’ label,” he said.

rl/dw



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Pandemic fuels demand for delivery drivers and tutors


Looking for work? The editors at SideHusl.com have found jobs for drivers, tutors, warehouse workers, cleaners and creatives of all types.

Although the pandemic crushed travel and entertainment jobs, it fueled rapid growth in other industries. Delivery and tutoring jobs are particularly hot and are expected to remain so.

Jobs for drivers

Delivery Drivers Inc. enlists drivers to deliver groceries, legal documents and more. The company says it quadrupled its roster of freelance drivers in 2020. It plans to add 140,000 drivers nationwide this year.

“Delivery drivers have always been essential,” Aaron Hageman, chief executive of the Irvine-based company, said in a statement. “But especially this year, we’ve seen a demand for more drivers across all industries, from grocery to e-commerce.”

Delivery Drivers is a middleman between freelance drivers and companies that need delivery services. It says its corporate clients determine the workers’ pay, which makes it difficult to generalize about the drivers’ wages and working conditions.

In California, the drivers earn at least 120% of the minimum wage. In other states, wages vary dramatically but largely depend on tips.

On average, the service says drivers make 1.5 to 2.5 deliveries per hour and earn a $5-per-delivery fee plus an $8 tip. That’s good pay if you’re lucky enough to receive tips on every delivery. But if you’re not, it’s sorry wages for using your own car and gasoline.

Other options in delivery include Amazon Flex, DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Jobs for tutors

Many students have fallen dramatically behind grade-level expectations as the result of distance learning. As students prepare to go back to classrooms, demand for tutoring, both online and in person, is brisk.

What do you need to qualify as a tutor? There’s no standard answer. Although some tutoring platforms require teaching credentials or tutoring experience, others merely demand subject-matter mastery and patience.

TutorOcean makes few demands on tutors, who select their own subject areas, rates and availability. It expects tutors to post their education and experience. But you’re not barred from registering on the platform if your experience and credentials are less than stellar.

Using the site is free for tutors who bring in their own students and handle their own billing. The site charges only if you want it to help you find students or bill for you.

Other sites to find tutoring jobs include Wyzant, Wize, Juni Learning and Lessonface.

Light industrial work

A site called MyWorkChoice hires warehouse, janitorial and light industrial workers in 10 states, including California. Unlike many other online platforms that offer flexible jobs, MyWorkChoice hires its workers as W-2 employees. That means it pays the employer portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes and provides other employee benefits. That’s a big plus.

Unfortunately, the jobs are physical and the site pays only slightly more than minimum wage. There’s also no guarantee that the site will have enough work to keep you busy.

If you’re looking for work in warehouses, you may also want to sign up with Wonolo, Shiftgig and Bluecrew.

Jobs for creatives

If your talent is in fashion, fine art, marketing or filmmaking, a new platform called Creatively could work for you.

Launched by Alice + Olivia founder Stacey Bendet, the site makes it easy to post a portfolio and apply for jobs offered by a wide array of local and national brands.

Creatives can sign up and post a profile for free. Brands and employers are asked to subscribe to connect with creatives.

Launched last summer, Creatively doesn’t have a long enough track record to indicate whether it’s an effective tool for finding work. However, there’s no downside to posting a portfolio here. And, possibly because of Bendet’s reputation and connections, there are already numerous high-end help-wanted advertisements on the site.

Kristof is the editor of SideHusl.com, an independent site that reviews hundreds of money-making opportunities in the gig economy.





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Return of business travel, sustainable fuels expected in aviation’s future


By Laura Sanicola

(Reuters) – International business travel is not expected to remain permanently depressed, though it will likely recover from the coronavirus pandemic at a slower rate than leisure travel, United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby said on Monday during CERAWeek by IHS Markit.

Business travel was a key area of growth for the airline industry prior to last year’s onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which sapped demand for all transportation fuels worldwide.

Fears that business travel will never return are unfounded, Kirby said during the virtual energy conference, arguing that while some companies may try to reduce business travel to cut costs, they will run up against competition who are willing to fly.

“The first time they lose a sale to a competitor who showed up in person while they tried to do a sales call over Zoom, will be the last time they try to do a sales call on Zoom,” Kirby said.

Volumes for jet fuel, while lagging behind gasoline and diesel, will “probably restore itself more or less back to normal by the second half of this year,” Ben Van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, also said on the panel.

Both CEOs also spoke on the role of sustainable fuels as part of the aviation industry’s role in cutting emissions to reach net zero carbon by 2050, a theme of this year’s CERAWeek oil and gas conference.

Reducing emissions “is a moral imperative for a company who wants to remain on the right side of history,” and also provides a business opportunity, Van Beurden said, adding that he expects Shell to be a major player in biofuels.

Earlier in the conference, keynote speaker, investor and philanthropist Bill Gates noted that lower-carbon fuels to power aircrafts costs three times as much than traditional petroleum-based jet fuel.

United Airlines’ fleet will likely need a combination of sustainable fuels that could be sourced from municipal solid waste, industrial gases and algae, though only the latter may be scalable, according to Kirby.

“Algae’s tough, the science exists but getting it to be economic and work is really difficult. I don’t think there’s an answer yet,” Kirby said.

(Reporting by Laura Sanicola; Editing by Marguerita Choy)



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Positive news on Covid vaccine fuels new enthusiasm for travel: Travel Weekly


Good news about Covid-19 vaccines has been on the uptick this month, and with it, a bump in inquiries to travel agencies about what these medical advances might mean for travel in 2021.

The calls don’t always lead to bookings, advisors said, and although the good news is tempered in part by spiking cases around the country, consumer response to the vaccine news appears to both reflect high levels of pent-up demand and herald the nascent return of broad consumer confidence to travel.

On Nov. 9, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that preliminary data indicates their vaccine is more than 90% effective. A week later, Moderna on Nov. 16 said preliminary analysis found its vaccine was more than 94.5% effective. And just before Thanksgiving, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford said preliminary data found their vaccine up to 90% effective.

“Within an hour of Pfizer announcing their vaccine, we started getting calls,” said Helen Papa, owner of TBH Travel in Dix Hills, N.Y. “Within an hour. It was amazing.”

Cruise lines also saw some positive effects attributable to vaccine news. During Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ most recent financial earnings call, the day after Pfizer’s news, president and CEO Frank Del Rio said bookings in the previous 24 hours were “pretty good; better than the previous four or five Mondays.”

“And that’s, I think, attributable to the vaccine news,” he said. “We did not have any particular promotion or did any outsized marketing.”

Similarly, Royal Caribbean Group chairman Richard Fain addressed the question of positive news about vaccines during Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld, which was held virtually earlier this month.

“I don’t think it will surprise anybody that when the news is scary, people tend to go back into their cocoons,” Fain said. “As the news gets to be more positive they come out. What’s encouraging is how quickly it responds.”

After both the Pfizer and Moderna news broke, Skyscanner found that searches for travel from the U.S. to Mexico surpassed their weekly volume from last year, up 10%. Skyscanner attributed that increase to the vaccine news, as well.

Helen Papa

Helen Papa

For Papa, some of the inquiries she received at TBH have turned into bookings. Clients are “cautiously optimistic,” she said.

On the other side of the country from Papa, Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif., also received a number of emails and calls from clients following vaccine announcements, according to president Jay Johnson. 

While there has been a general sense of optimism and more confidence in travel’s return by next summer, he said, the influx of inquiries has not yet resulted in new business.

“There is without a doubt a huge amount of pent-up demand to travel in 2021,” Johnson said. “All we need now is confirmation that the vaccines work and a lowering of cases. Then, we’ll be off and running.”

Joshua Bush

Joshua Bush

Avenue Two Travel in Villanova, Pa., saw an uptick in both calls and bookings as a result of the positive vaccine news, but that was tempered by the rising number of cases around the country, said CEO Joshua Bush.

Avenue Two has seen steady, week-over-week increases in travel since mid-August, thanks to domestic travel and clients dreaming about 2021 travel, Bush said. In addition to closer-in domestic bookings, Avenue Two has even been booking things like world cruise segments and expedition trips. Overall, business is down about 70% year over year, but better than the 95 to 97% it was down when the pandemic first hit.

The week before Pfizer had announced its vaccine’s effectiveness, business was “absolutely dead,” which Bush attributed to the unsettled U.S. presidential election. 

But the week of Nov. 16, Bush said, “with the election result [more widely accepted] and the vaccine … we are on track for our best week this year since Covid.” Those bookings were for both the holiday season and 2021 as travelers are getting more optimistic about a vaccine.

At the same time, the good news is offset by the surge in cases and deaths around the world, especially in the U.S.

“We’re hitting milestone death numbers,” Bush said. “We’re hitting milestone cases on individual days. That is really kind of tamping down the news that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re definitely in this still.”

In some places, though, travelers have shown less concern about traveling during the pandemic, and the news of the vaccines was akin to a nonevent. Jeanne Polocheck, owner of Well Traveled Texan in Houston, said her Texas-based clients largely kept traveling during the pandemic. Things had initially slowed early this year, but by Memorial Day clients were out and about again, a trend that has continued. Domestic spots and Mexico have been popular.

She didn’t even get one phone call from a client about vaccines.

A potential stumbling block to the recovery of travel is the resistance among some people to being vaccinated. A Gallup poll conducted between Oct. 19 and Nov. 1, before the vaccine trial results were announced, indicated 58% of adult respondents were willing to get a vaccination, a rise from 50% in September.

Lingering and significant reluctance to be vaccinated will likely present hurdles to overcome with regard to travel in the future, said Ensemble Travel Group CEO David Harris.

He pointed to the flu vaccine: It’s been available for decades, but a portion of the population skips it each year.

However, he is more hopeful about a Covid vaccine, given how serious the impact of the virus has been. While a vaccine will never be 100% effective, it could go a long way to the resumption of travel, he said, by giving confidence to governments to relax requirements for quarantines and other deterrents to travel.

“Those should, in theory, be relaxed if you get traction from an effective vaccine,” he said.

Johanna Jainchill contributed to this report.



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