• Genetic sequencing reveals how COVID-19 spread across the globe
  • Facebook is offering “free” videoconferencing technology. We know what that means…
  • How a quadriplegic was able to play Guitar Hero

Dear Reader,

I have to say, I got a kick out of this new financial metric:

EBITDAC: Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, Amortization, and Coronavirus

Source: Zazzle

I haven’t used this metric in my financial analysis yet and probably won’t, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization, and coronavirus.

Yes, it is that time of the year… first-quarter earnings season. And the two most used words on earnings calls right now are “COVID-19” and “unprecedented.” Chief financial officers are trying to provide “normalized” guidance to account for the impact of COVID-19-induced economic distress.

It’s kind of like GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) vs. non-GAAP accounting… in a humorous way. A lot of troubles are being blamed on COVID-19, even though many of those troubles have nothing to do with COVID-19.

This is one of those rare opportunities when executives can throw out underlying financial or forecasting issues, ascribe those problems to COVID-19, and write them off. After all, if a company is going to have a bad quarter, now is the time to do it.

Good companies and strong executives will use this time to make difficult decisions that have been weighing on them. It is an opportunity to refocus resources, stop doing things that don’t add much value, and double down on things that are adding value.

Companies that take these steps will come out even stronger in the second half of the year… as we witness a dramatic economic recovery.

Now let’s turn to our insights…

Tracking COVID-19’s path around the world…

One aspect of COVID-19 that few understand is that there is not just “one virus.” Like all coronaviruses, COVID-19 has mutated into several strains.

To get an idea, let’s look at how the virus has spread around the world. Here it is:

COVID-19 Transmission (December 2019 to April 2020)

Source: Nextstrain

We can see that the virus started in Wuhan, China, and spread westward through Asia and into Europe, southward into Australia, and eastward into the United States. The color purple represents the initial strain of the virus from Wuhan.

But as COVID-19 spread around the world, it mutated. The different colors represent mutated strains of the virus. This helps us further track its progression. We can “see” where and how the virus is mutating.

The red color represents the American strain of COVID-19, which mutated from the purple Wuhan strain. Then it spread into Canada, South America, and over into Europe.

The green and yellow colors represent European strains that mutated from the Wuhan and American strains. We can see that these strains spread rapidly through Europe and into North America and Australia.

The blue color represents the Australian strain, and we can see that it spread quickly as well. And the orange color represents the African strain that spread throughout the continent and into South America.

This data comes from an open-source scientific community called Nextstrain. Scientists around the world are sequencing the entire genome of COVID-19 in their region and uploading that data into an open-source repository.

That’s how we can follow the virus around the world and see how it has mutated over time.

And what’s so amazing is that this would not have been possible just a few years ago.

One of the biologists on this project also worked on the H1N1 swine flu back in 2010. He said that they had 11 partial sequences of the H1N1 virus back then.

That’s because whole genome sequencing was slow and incredibly expensive. So all they could get were 11 partial sequences, which wasn’t enough information to glean any meaningful conclusions.

Today, we have over 3,900 whole genome sequences for COVID-19. And more are coming in every day. We are witnessing the combination of low-cost sequencing of COVID-19 strains and collaboration enabled by an open-source environment.

As a result, scientists are allowing us to track these mutations in real time. This will lead to incredibly useful insights not just for COVID-19 but for future airborne viruses.

And what we have already learned is that COVID-19 has spread far more widely and effectively than previous expert predictions. This is great news because it means that the case fatality rate is very low, and it also means that the world is actively developing natural immunity.

The other revelation from this data is that COVID-19 also mutates very quickly. If we read the press, we might believe that this is a bad thing… something that we should be fearful of. And thus we should keep the world on lockdown. But that’s asinine.

Why? Because with nearly every mutation, a virus like COVID-19 gets weaker. It is very, very rare for a virus like this to become more aggressive. COVID-19’s rapid mutations tell us that it is farther along in its life cycle than what is widely believed.

That, combined with the warm, humid weather right around the corner in the northern hemisphere, is great news.

Based on the data I am reviewing, I am very optimistic that COVID-19’s second wave in the fall and winter will be minor compared to what we have experienced this spring.

Yes, the virus will still pop back up for a second run as the cool, dry weather returns in the late fall. But I’ll go on record and say that COVID-19 will be nothing but a very bad memory by next June (2021).

That won’t stop the press and the mass media from trying to extend this crisis as long as they can… After all, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

But with all the serological testing coming in each week and the evidence of non-COVID-19 deaths being reclassified as COVID-19 deaths, it will be difficult to keep the charade going for much longer.

Facebook is getting into videoconferencing…

On Monday, we talked about how Google is scrambling to catch up with Zoom when it comes to videoconferencing. It’s a sign that the tech giant believes videoconferencing will remain vital even after COVID-19 is a memory.

Not to be outdone by Google, Facebook is jumping into the fray. Facebook has developed a product called Messenger Rooms. It will launch within the next few weeks.

What’s unique about Messenger Rooms is that it is designed in a way that is a lot more informal than other videoconferencing services. Users don’t need to schedule meetings, send out invitations, and dial in.

Instead, users simply open a room within Facebook’s Messenger application, and friends can pop in and out as they please.

Each room will support up to 50 people.

Facebook Messenger Rooms

Source: Facebook

Once inside a room, videoconferencing functionality will be similar to what’s available on Zoom’s platform. In fact, Facebook is copying many features from Zoom. There’s nothing unique about the technology.

That said, Facebook is a real threat to Zoom’s business. That’s because of its massive userbase. Facebook has more than two billion active users on its platform every month.

What’s more, 700 million people are already making voice or video calls through Messenger and Facebook’s WhatsApp each day. Now these people can just as easily do group video calls.

So this is a shrewd move by Facebook considering Zoom’s rapid growth.

For context, Zoom had 10 million participants back in December last year. It now has 300 million participants. That’s how fast Zoom is growing… which is why Facebook wants in on the action.

And here’s the kicker – Messenger Rooms is “free” for Facebook users. That makes it convenient for more than two billion people around the world.

Zoom provides a lower-quality service for free, but if users want the full functionality and higher-quality video, it is a paid service.

Before we move on, you’ll notice that I say the service is “free,” in quotation marks. That simply means we don’t have to pay any money to use it.

But as we know, if a product is “free,” that means we are the product.

I probably don’t need to point out that it’s not cheap to host a video call for 50 people. Yet Facebook isn’t charging people for Messenger Rooms.

That tells me that Facebook plans to analyze and extract behavioral data from this use of Messenger Rooms. Facebook will use this data to strengthen its profile on each of us, and then it will make this data available to advertisers.

There is a reason that Facebook’s share price is trading near its all-time highs in the middle of this crisis.

It doesn’t do anything for free… nor does it do anything for the benefit of society, as it would like us to believe.

This is one of the most powerful and profitable companies in history. Facebook uses its platform to perpetuate its own political narrative. And there isn’t much the company wouldn’t do for more profits.

As consumers, we need to understand that Facebook will do anything it can to collect more behavioral data and increase its advertising revenues and profits.

The biggest brain-computer interface breakthrough yet…

We will conclude today with a topic that is familiar to regular readers – brain-computer interfaces.

As a reminder, these are devices that can read brain signals, allowing users to control a computer or other connected device with just their minds.

This is a hot area of tech right now, and nonprofit research organization Battelle, out of Columbus, Ohio, just made a breakthrough.

A team at Battelle just used a brain-computer interface to restore movement and touch to a quadriplegic. This is one of the first times that this has been demonstrated. Here’s how the team did it…

The team took a gentleman whose spinal cord was severed and implanted a small computer chip in his brain. The chip was about the size of a grain of rice. The team implanted it in the patient’s primary motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls movement.

The chip is connected to a port in the back of the patient’s head. And a cable connects that port to a small computer that fits into the back of his wheelchair. Yes, it kind of looks like the setup used in the science fiction movie The Matrix.

Battelle’s Technology

Source: Battelle

The computer decodes brain signals and uses them to stimulate a sense of touch and restore a degree of movement through a sleeve of electrodes wrapped around the patient’s arm.

Before using the brain-computer interface, the patient only had very limited use of his elbow and shoulders. But the interfaced worked so well that the patient was able to play a modified version of a video game called Guitar Hero, which requires players to press buttons on a plastic guitar.

This is a remarkable development. Battelle’s breakthrough marks a landmark in brain-computer interface research.

2020 is already proving to be a breakthrough year in this space. I’m excited to see what else develops before the end of the year.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge

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