Month: December 2020

SolarWinds Hackers Accessed Microsoft Source Code, Microsoft Says

The hacking group behind the SolarWinds compromise was able to break into Microsoft Corp. and access some of its source code, Microsoft said Thursday. In a blog post, Microsoft said its investigation into the SolarWinds breach had turned up irregularities with a “small number of internal accounts” and that one of the accounts “had been used to view source code in a number of source code repositories.” It added that the account had no ability to modify the code. The disclosure adds to the growing picture of the compromises associated with the SolarWinds hack, which used the Texas-based company’s flagship network monitoring software as a springboard to break into sensitive U.S. government networks and other tech companies. Microsoft had disclosed that, like other firms, it found malicious versions of SolarWinds’ software inside its network, but the source code disclosure is new. FILE – A woman walks in front of the Microsoft stand during the Cybersecurity Conference in Lille, northern France, Jan. 29, 2020.A company’s source code, the underlying set of instructions that run a piece of software or an operating system, is typically among its most closely guarded secrets. It is not clear how many or specifically which source code repositories the hackers were able to access or how long the hackers were lurking in Microsoft’s systems. A Microsoft spokesman declined to elaborate on the blog post. Modifying source code, which Microsoft said the hijacked account could not do, could have potentially disastrous consequences, but experts said that even just being able to review the code could offer hackers insight that might help them subvert Microsoft products or services. “The source code is the architectural blueprint of how the software is built,” said Andrew Fife of Israel-based Cycode, a source code protection company. “If you have the blueprint, it’s far easier to engineer attacks.” Both he and Ronen Slavin, Cycode’s chief technology officer, said a key unanswered question was which source code repositories were accessed. Microsoft has a huge range of products, from its flagship Windows operating system to lesser-known software such as social networking app Yammer and the design app Sway. Slavin said he was also worried by the possibility that the SolarWinds hackers were poring over Microsoft’s source code as prelude for something more ambitious. “To me the biggest question is, ‘Was this recon for the next big operation?’ ” he said. In its blog post, Microsoft said it had found no evidence of access “to production services or customer data.” “The investigation, which is ongoing, has also found no indications that our systems were used to attack others,” it said.  

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Pandemic-Weary World Welcomes 2021 

The world’s 7.8 billion people are bidding a hearty farewell to 2020, but without the usual fanfare and public gatherings because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.   Japan rang in the new year quietly due to rising cases.  Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, had asked people not to attend countdown ceremonies. “The coronavirus knows no year-end or New Year’s holidays,” she said. World Bids Farewell to Year 2020Pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many people bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget. South Korea, where the government banned gatherings of more than five, saw a different New Year’s Eve as a traditional bell ringing in Seoul was cancelled for the first time since 1953. Beaches where South Koreans flock to watch sunrise were closed with some outlets planning on broadcasting it instead. Ski resorts and other tourist spots were closed. In Taiwan, officials held a fireworks show near the iconic Taipei 101 tower. A New Year’s morning flag-raising ceremony took place in front of the Presidential Office Building, but it was limited to government officials and invited guests. Taiwan is seen as a success story in fighting COVID-19, registering only seven deaths and fewer than 1,000 total cases, the Associated Press reported. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus. Hong Kong cancelled public celebrations for the second year in a row. Last year, it was due to public security concerns. Restaurants closed at 6 p.m. local time and live performances were cancelled. Gatherings were limited to two people, but the AP reported crowds were still present in shopping areas. The small central Pacific island nations of Tonga, Samoa and Kiribati were first to welcome 2021 due to their location on the international date line, with the bigger regional powers of New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea following.    New Zealand’s port city of Auckland rang in the new year with a major laser light show and fireworks display at the iconic Sky Tower, as residents celebrated the island nation’s successful response to the coronavirus outbreak that resulted in just 2,162 coronavirus infections and 25 deaths.    Many of the traditional celebrations around the world that mark the chronological changeover have either been curtailed or called off, as public officials struggle to contain a rising surge in the number of infections.    In Australia, the one million people who normally gather at the Sydney Harbor to watch the world-famous fireworks display over the city’s renowned Opera House watched the proceedings from home. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced earlier this week that the public will not be allowed at the harbor due to an outbreak at its Northern Beach suburbs.    The pandemic forced the cancellation of the midnight fireworks show over Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, as well as the pyrotechnics over the River Thames in London, which has been under a strict lockdown that curtailed Christmas celebrations and shopping sprees.    Across the Atlantic, New York City’s historic Times Square is banning visitors from gathering to witness the traditional “ball drop” that counts down the final minute of the outgoing year. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, officials have called off its annual New Year’s Eve beach party, which normally attracts hundreds of thousands of people with live music and a spectacular fireworks display.    

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2020 Finally Ending, but New Year’s Revelries Muted by Virus 

This New Year’s Eve is being celebrated like no other, with pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many people bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget.  Australia will be among the first nations to ring in 2021 because of its proximity to the International Date Line. In past years 1 million people crowded Sydney’s harbor to watch fireworks that center on the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Authorities this year are advising revelers to watch on television. People are only allowed in downtown Sydney if they have a restaurant reservation or are one of five guests of an inner-city apartment resident. People won’t be allowed in the city center without a permit. Some harborside restaurants are charging up to 1,690 Australian dollars ($1,294) for a seat, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported Wednesday. A man and woman pose for a photo in front of a 2021 sign as a limited number of people begin celebrating New Year’s Eve at the Sydney Harbour waterfront amidst tightened COVID-19 prevention regulations in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 31, 2020.Sydney is Australia’s most populous city and has its most active community transmission of COVID-19 in recent weeks. Melbourne, Australia’s second-most populous city, has cancelled its fireworks this year.  For the first time in many, many years we made the big decision, difficult decision to cancel the fireworks,'' Melbourne Mayor Sally Capp said. We did that because we know that it attracts up to 450,000 people into the city for one moment at midnight to enjoy a spectacular display and music. We are not doing that this year,” she added. New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbors have no COVID-19, and New Year celebrations there are the same as ever. In Chinese societies, the Lunar New Year celebration that falls in February in 2021 generally takes precedence over solar New Year, on Jan. 1. While celebrations of the Western holiday have been growing more common in recent decades, this year will be more muted.  Beijing will hold a countdown ceremony with just a few invited guests, while other planned events have been cancelled. And nighttime temperatures plunging to -15 Celsius (- 5 Fahrenheit) will likely discourage people from spending the night out with friends.  Taiwan will host its usual New Year’s celebration, a fireworks display by its capital city’s iconic tower, Taipei 101, as well as a flag-raising ceremony in front of the Presidential Office Building the next morning. The island has been a success story in the pandemic, registering only 7 deaths and 700 confirmed cases of COVID-19.  Hong Kong, with its British colonial history and large expatriate population, has usually seen raucous celebrations along the waterfront and in bar districts. For the second year running, however, New Year’s Eve fireworks have been cancelled, this time over coronavirus rather than public security concerns.  Still roiled by its coronavirus outbreak, Hong Kong social distancing regulations restrict gatherings to only two people. Restaurants must close by 6 p.m. Live performances and dancing are not allowed. But crowds still throng shopping centers.  In Japan, some people skipped what’s customarily a chance to return to ancestral homes for the holidays, hoping to lessen health risks for extended families amid the coronavirus pandemic.  Rural restaurants saw business drop, while home deliveries of traditional New Year’s good luck'' food calledosechi” boomed.  Emperor Naruhito is delivering a video message for the new year, instead of waving from a window with the imperial family as cheering crowds throng the palace.  Train services that usually carry people on shrine visits overnight December 31, as well as some countdown ceremonies, have been cancelled.  Meiji Shrine in downtown Tokyo, which attracts millions of people every year during New Year holidays and is usually open all night on New Year’s Eve, will close its doors at 4 p.m. on December 31 this year, the shrine announced on its website.  In South Korea, Seoul’s city government has canceled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony in the Jongno neighborhood for the first time since it first held the event in 1953, months after the end of the Korean War.  The event, in which citizens ring a large bell at a traditional pavilion when the clock strikes twelve, drew an estimated 100,000 people and was broadcast live.  Authorities in eastern coastal areas say they’ll close beaches and other spots where hundreds of thousands of people typically gather on New Year’s Day to watch the sunrise.  The southeastern city of Pohang says it instead plans to broadcast live the sunrise at several beaches under its jurisdiction on its YouTube channel on January 1.  Earlier this week, South Korea’s central government said it will ban private social gatherings of more than five people and shut down ski resorts and major tourist spots nationwide from Christmas Eve until January 3 as efforts to bring a recent viral resurgence under control.  Associated Press journalists Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, Raf Wober in Hong Kong, Mary Yamaguchi and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.  

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California Reports Coronavirus Variant Case

Health officials in the U.S. state of California said a patient there has been infected with a coronavirus variant first detected in Britain, and that it is likely more cases will be identified in the United States.California is the second state with the COVID-19 variant strain, following a case in Colorado earlier this week.As was true with the Colorado case, the California Department of Public Health said the person infected there also had no known travel history.California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly called the development “concerning” and stressed the importance of known methods of preventing coronavirus spread, such as wearing masks, social distancing, staying home and avoiding travel.”It appears that this particular mutation does make the virus better at transmitting from one person to another,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist.During an online discussion Wednesday with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Fauci said virus mutations are normal, and that he was “not surprised” additional cases of the COVID-19 variant would be found in the country.He also said the variant is not believed to cause more severe illness than earlier forms, and that vaccines already being deployed should be just as effective against it.The United States has begun vaccinations of frontline health care workers and high-risk populations such as those living in nursing homes using two vaccines given emergency use authorization.The vaccines will then be made available to other groups in the coming months.Fauci said if the vaccination program progresses as it should through May, June and July, then by early fall there will be “enough good herd immunity to be able to really get back to some strong semblance of normality – schools, theaters, sports events, restaurants.”The United States has recorded 342,000 COVID-19 deaths, including more than 3,700 on Wednesday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

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Alarm in Australia as COVID-19 Infections Grow

Tough New Year’s Eve restrictions are being put in place as Australia’s biggest city struggles to contain growing coronavirus clusters.Sydney’s COVID-19 outbreak has been described by health officials as “a bit of a roller coaster ride.” Australia’s biggest city accounts for most of the estimated 204 active infections across the country.Parts of its northern coastal suburbs, where a cluster of cases emerged about two weeks ago, remain in lockdown. Infections have been detected in other parts of the city.The authorities have banned large gatherings on New Year’s Eve to “avoid super spreading events.” Sydney’s famous fireworks display will go ahead, but crowds won’t be allowed to gather around the harbor to watch.Gatherings have been limited, and visits to nursing homes banned for at least a week to try to curb the spread of the virus.“Please, the last thing we want is to welcome in 2021 with a super-spreading event,” said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “2021, all of us are hoping, will be easier on us than 2020 and let us start the year off on a positive foot by doing the right thing, by respecting the restrictions that are in place, but also demonstrating common sense.”Experts are calling for the state government to impose a citywide lockdown as infections grow.In response, other Australian states and territories are restricting travel for residents from Sydney.In Victoria, six coronavirus cases have been reported in the past two days, which authorities have linked to infections further north in Sydney.Residents in Victoria are being urged not to travel to neighboring New South Wales, and masks will become mandatory indoors. Residents are not required to wear a mask inside their own homes, but they must if they visit friends or go shopping.Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley said a swift response to the outbreak is needed.“Now that we have got links to the New South Wales outbreaks here in Victoria, we are having to respond really quickly to get on top of that, and a part of that is to make sure that as the situation seemingly continues to deteriorate in New South Wales that we respond appropriately,” he said.Australia has recorded 28,380 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Its just over 200 active estimated COVID-19 cases is small by many international standards, but in the context of Australia, a country that has taken a very cautious approach to the virus, the number is cause for alarm.With fewer than 1,000 deaths related to COVID-19 since the pandemic, Australia has fared better than many other developed nations.Health officials in Sydney have blamed “an avalanche of complacency” for recent outbreaks.

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Scientists Trying to Understand New Virus Variant

Does it spread more easily? Make people sicker? Mean that treatments and vaccines won’t work? Questions are multiplying as fast as new variants of the coronavirus, especially the one moving through England and now popping up in the U.S. and other countries.Scientists say there is reason for concern and more to learn but that the new variants should not cause alarm.Worry has been growing since before Christmas, when Britain’s prime minister said the coronavirus variant seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. On Tuesday, Colorado health officials said they had found it there. And on Wednesday, California officials reported a case.Here are some questions and answers on what’s known about the virus so far.Q: Where did this new variant come from?A: New variants have been seen almost since the virus was first detected in China nearly a year ago. Viruses often mutate, or develop small changes, as they reproduce and move through a population.Most changes are trivial. “It’s the change of one or two letters in the genetic alphabet that doesn’t make much difference in the ability to cause disease,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who directs a global health program at Boston College.A more concerning situation is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system, or if it acquires a lot of changes that make it very different from previous versions.Q: How does one variant become dominant?A: That can happen if one variant takes hold and starts spreading in an area, or because “super spreader” events helped it become established.It also can happen if a mutation gives a new variant an advantage, such as helping it spread more easily than other ones that are circulating.Scientists are still working to confirm whether the variant in England spreads more easily, but they are finding some evidence that it does. The variant “out-competes the other strains and moves faster and infects more people, so it wins the race,” Landrigan said.The British variant was first detected in September, WHO officials said. A new South African variant also has emerged.Q: What’s worrisome about the British variant?A: It has many mutations — nearly two dozen — and eight are on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. The spike is what vaccines and antibody drugs target.Dr. Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge in England, said modeling studies suggest it may be up to two times more infectious than the version that’s been most common in England so far. He and other researchers posted a report of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments, but it has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal.Q: Does it make people sicker or more likely to die?A: “There’s no indication that either of those is true, but clearly those are two issues we’ve got to watch,” Landrigan said. As more patients get infected with the new variant, “they’ll know fairly soon if the new strain makes people sicker.”A WHO outbreak expert, Maria Van Kerkhove, said that “the information that we have so far is that there isn’t a change” in the kind of illness or its severity.Q: What do the mutations mean for treatments?A: A couple of cases in England raise concern that the mutations in some of the emerging new variants could hurt the potency of drugs that supply antibodies to block the virus from infecting cells.Studies on antibody response are under way, Van Kerkhove said.One drugmaker, Eli Lilly, said that tests in its lab suggest that its drug remains fully active.Q: What about vaccines?A: Scientists believe current vaccines will still be effective against the variant, but they are working to confirm that. On Wednesday, British officials reiterated that there is no data suggesting the new variant hurts the effectiveness of the available vaccines.Vaccines induce broad immune system responses besides just prompting the immune system to make antibodies to the virus, so they are expected to still work, several scientists said.Q: What can I do to reduce my risk?A: Follow the advice to wear a mask, wash your hands often, maintain social distance and avoid crowds, public health experts say.”The bottom line is we need to suppress transmission” of the coronavirus, said the WHO’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.”The more we allow it to spread, the more mutations will happen.”  

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California Has Nation’s 2nd Confirmed Case of Virus Variant

California on Wednesday announced the nation’s second confirmed case of the new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus, offering a strong indication that the infection is spreading more widely in the United States.Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the infection found in Southern California during an online conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd. It’s to be expected,” Fauci said.Newsom did not provide any details about the person who was infected.The announcement came 24 hours after word of the first reported U.S. variant infection, which emerged in Colorado. That person was identified Wednesday as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Health officials said a second Guard member may have it, too.The cases triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.”The virus is becoming more fit, and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr. Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He noted that the U.S. does far less genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants than other developed nations, and thus was probably slow to detect this new mutation.The two Guard members had been dispatched Dec. 23 to work at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in the small town of Simla, in a mostly rural area about 90 miles outside Denver, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist. They were among six Guard members sent to the home.Nasal swab samples taken from the two as part of the Guard’s routine coronavirus testing were sent to the state laboratory, which began looking for the variant after its spread was announced in Britain earlier this month, Herlihy said. Samples from staff and residents at the nursing home are also being screened for the variant at the lab, but so far no evidence of it has been found, she said.The Colorado case announced Tuesday involves a man in his 20s who had not traveled recently, officials said. He has mild symptoms and is isolating at his home near Denver, while the person with the suspected case is isolating at a Colorado hotel while further genetic analysis is done on his sample, officials said.The nursing home said it is working closely with the state and is also looking forward to beginning vaccinations next week.Several states, including California, Massachusetts and Delaware, are also analyzing suspicious virus samples for the variant, said Dr. Greg Armstrong, who directs genetic sequencing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said the CDC is working with a national lab that gets samples from around the country to broaden that search, with results expected within days.The discovery in Colorado has added urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, that has killed more than 340,000 people and sickened nearly 20 million in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.Johns Hopkins said 3,927 people died Wednesday of COVID-19 in the U.S., a new daily record.Britain is seeing infections soar and hospitalizations climb to their highest levels on record. The variant has also been found in several other countries.Scientists have found no evidence that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness, and they believe the vaccines now being dispensed will be effective against it. But a faster-spreading virus could swamp hospitals with seriously ill patients.The discovery overseas led the CDC to issue rules on Christmas Day requiring travelers arriving from Britain to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. But U.S. health officials said the Colorado patient’s lack of travel history suggests the new variant is already spreading in this country.Topol said it is too late for travel bans.”We’re behind in finding it. Colorado is likely one of many places it’s landed here,” he said. “It’s all over the place. How can you ban travel from everywhere?”Colorado public health officials are conducting contact tracing to determine its spread.Researchers estimate the variant is 50% to 70% more contagious, said Dr. Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer.”Instead of only making two or three other people sick, you might actually spread it to four or five people,” France said. “That means we’ll have more cases in our communities. Those number of cases will rise quickly and, of course, with more cases come more hospitalizations.”London and southeast England were placed under strict lockdown measures earlier this month because of the variant, and dozens of countries banned flights from Britain. France also briefly barred trucks from Britain before allowing them back in, provided the drivers got tested for the virus.New versions of the virus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China a year ago. It is common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population. The fear is that mutations at some point will become significant enough to defeat the vaccines.South Africa has also discovered a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that is driving the country’s latest spike of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.  

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Actor Dawn Wells, Castaway Mary Ann on TV’s ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ Dies From COVID-19

Dawn Wells, who parlayed her girl-next-door charm and wholesome beauty into enduring TV fame as the sweet-natured desert island castaway Mary Ann on the classic 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, died Wednesday at age 82, her publicist said. 
 
Wells, who won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959 and competed in the Miss America contest, died from complications of COVID-19, publicist Harlan Boll said in a statement. 
 
Born in the gambling city of Reno, Wells played Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers, one of seven castaways stranded after their boat, the S.S. Minnow, became battered in a storm during what was supposed to be a three-hour tour from Hawaii. Wells beat out actors including Raquel Welch for her role. 
 Gilligan’s Island ran for three seasons (1964-1967) with a cast that also included Bob Denver as the zany Gilligan, Alan Hale Jr. as the Skipper, Jim Backus as millionaire Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schafer as his posh wife, Russell Johnson as the Professor and Tina Louise as movie star Ginger.The death of Wells leaves Louise, 86, the sole survivor of these cast members. FILE – In this 1965 file photo, Dawn Wells, center, poses with fellow cast members of “Gilligan’s Island,” Bob Denver and Alan Hale Jr., in Los Angeles.The 98 episodes invariably involved their efforts in vain to get off the island, even as a parade of guest stars dropped in and had no trouble getting out. The show drew the wrath of critics, but its innocent fun caught on with viewers at a time of tumult in America after the assassination of a president and during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Wells, playing a cheerful brunette Midwestern farm girl, appeared in the series wearing short shorts, midriff tops and pigtails. Louise, playing a buxom red-haired sensation akin to Marilyn Monroe, wore slinky, form-fitting dresses. The two inspired what became an enduring pop culture question for men: “Ginger or Mary Ann?” 
 
Wells said that question was the most common topic mentioned to her by fans. “Mostly they’ll pick a favorite, Ginger or Mary Ann. For some reason, they feel they have to make a choice,” Wells told Forbes magazine in 2016. 
 
Wells had effusive praise for Denver and her other cast mates but was not especially close to Louise, who distanced herself from the Ginger character and declined to appear in various Gilligan’s Island reboots with her former co-stars. 
 
“We had nothing against each other,” Wells told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “We didn’t have much in common.” 
 Gilligan’s Island was canceled by network executives despite respectable ratings, then became ubiquitous in syndicated reruns. 
 
“A misconception is that we must be wealthy, rolling in the dough, because we got residuals. We didn’t really get a dime,” Wells told Forbes. 
 
Wells said she was paid $750 a week, adding, “Sherwood Schwartz, our producer, reportedly made $90 million on the reruns alone.” 
 
Like some of her co-stars, she suffered from typecasting in Hollywood in the years after the series ended, appearing in TV guest spots and stage work before taking roles in B-movies. 
  FILE – This Oct. 2, 1978, photo shows the cast of “Gilligan’s Island,” from left, Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Alan Hale Jr., Bob Denver, Judith Baldwin replacing original cast member Tina Louise, and Dawn Wells.In light of the show’s steady popularity in the 1970s, three made-for-TV movies were made with progressively far-fetched plots involving Soviet satellites and visiting basketball players: Rescue from Gilligan’s Island (1978), The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981). 
 
Wells also lent her voice to the animated Gilligan’s Planet (1982) in which the castaways become stranded on a faraway planet. 
 
Wells also capitalized on her fame by writing, Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook, and later, for the 50th anniversary of the series in 2014, the book, What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life. 
 
Wells was born Oct. 18, 1938, in Reno, studied theater at the University of Washington, and headed to Hollywood after her beauty pageant success. 
 
She embraced her pop culture status but said there was more to her than just being Mary Ann. 
 
“I’m deeper, smarter, more ambitious, funnier. I think if you meet me for 15 minutes, there is nothing you won’t know: what you see is what you get,” she told Forbes. 

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Britain Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine, Offering Hope Amid Surge in COVID-19 Infections 

Britain became the first country to approve the coronavirus vaccine developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Wednesday. Scientists say the vaccine could be a game changer in the global fight against the pandemic.   Regulators say the vaccine has shown around 70% effectiveness against COVID-19, a relatively high figure compared to vaccines for many other diseases.   “This vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca, has been approved for use in people aged 18 years and older, with two standard doses, four to 12 weeks apart,” said Dr. June Raine, CEO of Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).   “As I’ve said before, and I will say again today, the safety of the public always comes first. The MHRA’s approval has been reached following a thorough and scientifically rigorous review of all the evidence of safety, of quality and of effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine AstraZeneca,” Raine added, during a press conference Wednesday in London.   Earlier in December, Britain was the first of several Western nations to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is around 95% effective. However, it is more expensive at around $20 per dose and must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius.   In contrast, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine costs around $4 per dose and only needs to be stored at refrigerator temperatures.  In an interview with VOA, Dr. Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading in Britain, said those attributes make the drug particularly suitable for less well-funded health systems.  “Developing countries with a less sophisticated cold chain and with smaller budgets will be able to use this vaccine,” Clarke said. Research into the optimum dosing regimen for the AstraZeneca vaccine is ongoing. Britain plans to administer the first dose to as many people as possible, rather than focusing only on elderly and vulnerable groups. A second dose will follow up to 12 weeks later for longer-term protection. Wei Shen Lim, chair of Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, explained the decision.  “What is impressive about the vaccine studies is that after the first dose, individuals acquire a high level of protection shortly after the dose. Currently in the U.K., we know that COVID infection rates are very, very high. The immediate urgency is for rapid and high levels of vaccine uptake,” he told the press conference Wednesday.   Clarke said questions remain on the British government’s approach. “There is government pressure to increase the coverage of vaccination. And that’s understandable,” he said. “People want it done as quickly as possible. But if you end up putting more people in [the] hospital because they’re vulnerable and they didn’t get the regimen of the vaccine, then that means that our hospitals are still going to be under pressure.”   Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, said the approval was a cause for great optimism.  “I’m confident … that the NHS will be able to deliver these shots into people’s arms at the speed at which it can be manufactured,” he told Sky News. “And I’m also now, with this approval this morning, highly confident that we can get enough vulnerable people vaccinated by the spring, that we can now see our route out of this pandemic.”   The road to recovery will be difficult. Britain is struggling with a surge of infections driven by a new variant of the coronavirus that doctors say is over 50% more infectious. There are record numbers of hospitalizations, with patients being treated in ambulances as hospital beds are running short.   “Control room staff are having to make incredibly difficult decisions to decide who gets an ambulance and in what order, quite often with huge numbers of people waiting for ambulances,” said Will Broughton, a trustee at Britain’s College of Paramedics. “And they have nobody left to send.”   Several cases of the new mutant virus have been found in other countries. Scientists say its spread makes the global rollout of vaccines even more urgent.       

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Deaf Painter Uses Art to Warn Others About COVID

Born deaf into a silent world, Nancy Rourke turned long ago to painting to convey her innermost feelings. So, when the 63-year-old artist contracted COVID-19, she responded with a series of striking images intended to alert others to the dangers of the disease. Rourke tested positive on November 13. Her case was more severe than many others because she also has autoimmune disease. She had fatigue, chills, cough, congestion, sore throat, loss of taste and smell, body aches, severe headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, loss of appetite and shortness of breath. Deaf artist Nancy Rourke contracted COVID-19 in November and is currently on the road to recovery. (Courtesy photo)”Your chest gets so tight, and it hurts, and you’re wondering why is it so hard to breathe,” she said. “It’s so labor-intensive and the coughing — I never stopped coughing every single day. Now, finally I have some relief. But I still cough.”  Rourke, who spoke to VOA by phone through an interpreter using a telecommunications relay service, said she also suffered confusion, nightmares and weight loss.  Anxious to warn others who seemed not to be taking the pandemic seriously, the Colorado-based artist began producing paintings and drawings based on her experience with the disease and sharing them on social media. Nancy Rourke shared a series of drawings she did on social media to raise awareness about the dangers of COVID-19. The drawings depict all the symptoms she had when infected. (Courtesy photo)One of the drawings shows a chopped hand — a scene from a scary nightmare that Rourke had while sick. Another drawing shows a figure with a question mark on the nose or mouth, which represents her loss of taste and smell for two weeks.  Rourke, the only deaf person in her family, said she struggled as a child to explain her feelings even to her closest relatives. It was during her high school years that she found an outlet for her emotions in art. “My identity of being a deaf person — I was frustrated, and I was trying to describe to my parents and to my teacher about my experiences. And they kind of didn’t get it. And so, words weren’t explaining my frustrations well enough, so I just started drawing,” she said.  Deaf artist Nancy Rourke’s painting “Eighteen Signs” hangs on display at the Deaf Action Center in Shreveport, Louisiana. (Courtesy photo)That early beginning led to a 20-year career as a graphic designer for major corporations, including 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) and Microsoft. But in 2009, she decided to make a shift. After receiving a grant from a Philadelphia-based foundation, Rourke found herself able to focus full time on deaf art, which is based on deaf history, culture and the deaf experience. Even before getting sick, Rourke said, she found the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges for her as a deaf person. For example, some people trying to communicate with her would take off their face masks and expect her to read their lips. When Rourke asked them to keep their masks on and write their messages, they seemed to get irritated. “Expressions are really important, and I can read microexpressions,” she said.  Rourke and many others in the deaf community also found it upsetting that for a long time, the White House did not provide an American Sign Language interpreter for public briefings on COVID-19 — or anything else.  “The White House needs an interpreter,” she said. “There’s no access to communication, and we can’t understand what’s going on, especially when it comes to coronavirus when it was such a big deal.” Nancy Rourke painted a piece to express the frustration of the deaf community at the White House for not having ASL interpreters at COVID-19 briefings in the past. (Courtesy photo)She created an oil painting depicting the frustration felt by the deaf community at the time. The piece shows a group of “screaming hands” in different colors with the White House in the background. The hands symbolize deaf protesters begging for ASL access.  As a result of lobbying efforts from the National Association of the Deaf, a federal judge ruled in September that the White House has to provide interpreters for deaf people during COVID-19 press briefings.  Every year in February, Rourke undertakes a 28-day art challenge, during which she makes art the whole month. This time, she is planning a project with themes related to 2020, including her COVID-19 journey. Deaf artist Nancy Rourke is in the beginning stages of a project, which will debut in February and will include themes of 2020, including her experiences with COVID-19. (Courtesy photo)The centerpiece will be a wooden construction modeled on a 28-day Advent calendar. It will have 28 doors, with each door opening to illustrate an incident from the past year.  Rourke now believes her illness in November was her second infection. She said she suffered a milder form of the common symptoms after returning home from a business trip to New Jersey in March but did not get tested at the time.

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