Winter Weather Could Increase Spread of COVID-19

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As winter brings shorter days and lower temperatures to the Northern Hemisphere, there is a chance we could see more COVID-19 cases.But experts say it is still too early to know exactly how seasons will affect the virus. They emphasize that human behaviors are still the most important driver of the pandemic.“The most important factor at the moment is … the control measures that we have in place. Things such as social distancing and mask-wearing — those are really key to lowering transmission of disease at this point,” said Rachel Baker, infectious disease researcher at Princeton University.COVID and climateMany diseases, such as the flu, are seasonal, with cases spiking when the weather is cool and dry.“It’s well known that many respiratory viruses have seasonality,” said Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at Yale University. “And so, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s actually elevated transmission during the winter months from COVID.”There are three main reasons why scientists think the coronavirus could be affected by climate.“The virus doesn’t like certain seasons, or our bodies don’t like certain seasons. Or it’s just that we’re putting more of our bodies together in closed spaces,” said Ben Zaitchik, associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University.SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the virus that causes COVID-19, is spread by respiratory droplets produced when people breathe, talk, sneeze or cough. The virus survives better in cold, dry conditions typical of temperate winters. Low humidity also promotes evaporation of virus droplets into tiny aerosol particles that linger in the air, increasing the risk of airborne transmission in winter.Cold weather may further increase disease spread by driving us indoors.“The longer that household contacts are together, the more likely they are to transmit [the virus],” John Lynch, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington, said at a press conference. “When we think about the places where we’re seeing transmissions occur, it’s mostly homes. It’s mostly constrained workplaces where people don’t have the ability to separate from each other.”Winter weather can also hinder the body’s ability to fend off viral infections. A lack of sunshine may deplete vitamin D levels and weaken the immune system, and one study found a link between low vitamin D levels and COVID-19 cases.Cold, dry winter air also damages the cells in our airways that clear away virus particles. If your body can’t get rid of these virus particles, it might take fewer virus particles to make you sick, or the disease might be more severe, Iwasaki said.Iwasaki recommends that people use humidifiers to moisten the air of homes and offices. She also said that masks can help.In addition to reducing spread of the virus, “another thing [a mask] does is it warms the nose and moistens the respiratory tract. So, I think masks are a great idea for multiple reasons, just even to boost this moisture inside the respiratory tract to better fight off the infection,” Iwasaki said.How will winter affect COVID?There’s good reason to believe that COVID-19 is sensitive to the seasons, and some studies have linked cold, dry conditions with outbreaks of the disease. But researchers say that weather takes a back seat at the early stages of a pandemic because everyone is susceptible to the virus.“When you have a population with no immunity to the virus, it spreads really well, no matter the climate conditions. So it just kind of takes off,” said Princeton’s Baker.In a new study, Baker predicts that human behaviors such as mask-wearing and social distancing will be the most important factors in slowing disease spread during winter in New York and other cities, although she notes that the study has not yet undergone a formal review process.But in areas where disease cases are slightly declining, “it’s possible that climate could give you enough of a boost of transmission to cause a large outbreak,” Baker said. “So, we are a bit worried that when winter comes, if you’re in a place that gets really cold, dry winters, it might be enough to push transmission [up], and then you’d start to see a growth in cases.”COVID-19: A future seasonal disease?As more people develop immunity to the virus after overcoming an infection or through vaccination, researchers say that COVID-19 could become a seasonal disease, with numbers of cases oscillating between the seasons.“As more of the population has had the virus, more of the population develops immunity to the virus,” Baker said. “As that immunity increases, then you’ll start to see more effects of climate.”However, the future of the disease will be shaped by what this immunity looks like — a question that has not yet been answered. Researchers predict that the timing and number of COVID-19 cases will hinge on the effectiveness of potential vaccines and how long immunity lasts.Disease predictions were very different depending on whether “SARS-CoV-2 is a type of virus where you get it once and you’re done, you can never transmit it again, you can never get infected again,” compared with “if it’s a type of virus where you might have some amount of protective immunity, but you could potentially be reinfected again,” said Caroline Wagner, assistant professor of bioengineering at McGill University.Slowing the spreadExperts emphasize that the course of the pandemic is still largely in our hands.“What we know works is social distancing, wearing masks or face coverings, and practicing good hand hygiene. If we stick with those things, we’re going to have really good success with interrupting transmission,” said the University of Washington’s Lynch.Jeanne Marrazzo, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, agrees that we have the tools to deal with the potential of more cases in winter.“We know what to do. The question is, do we have the social, political and economic will? I think we have the medical will. We have the public health will. It’s just a question of, ‘Can we mobilize the community to continue to exercise the kinds of caution we need?’ ” said Marrazzo at a press conference.“As we face the coming months, I really, really hope we can pull together to recognize that we can change the trajectory if we work together,” she said. 

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Long-awaited Facebook Oversight Board to Launch in October

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Facebook’s highly anticipated independent oversight board, a group that will be empowered to overrule the company’s leadership on issues pertaining to the platform’s content moderation decisions, plans to launch in October, just in time for the November U.S. presidential election.The board was created by Facebook after the platform was criticized for its handling of problematic content, most recently a backlash over its decision to take no action in response to posts from U.S. President Donald Trump containing misinformation about mail-in voting and inflammatory language directed toward the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests that erupted over the summer.Other platforms that contain user-generated content, such as Twitter, have taken measures to combat misinformation online, including attaching fact-checking warning labels to posts.Facebook has not yet announced whether the board will hear cases related to the election. Representatives from the company said that the board did not consider cases involving Trump’s posts in its preliminary hearings.  Reviewing removed postsMembers of the oversight board will review appeals only over posts that Facebook has taken down initially, instead of taking into consideration content that the company leaves up. It will also deal only with individual posts that fall under the areas where Facebook exercises editorial control.Content that is regulated by Facebook includes algorithms that shape how much distribution a post receives, taking down or leaving up Facebook groups, pages, and events, and whether to leave specific pieces of content up on the site.The board has been harshly criticized for starting by reviewing appeals concerning posts that were taken down, which experts say will have little impact on addressing problems like misinformation and hate speech that are rampant on the platform. Critics say that the long-awaited board has not moved fast enough to curb these issues before the election.  Prioritizing casesAccording to the board’s website, the criteria for the prioritization of cases has not been decided and is being debated by the board’s 20 members. While tens of thousands of cases are expected to be presented to the board, leaders say that the board will take only a small number of cases each year, most likely in the “tens or hundreds.”Board members include lawyers, academics, journalists and policy experts from around the world, who collectively speak 27 different languages and represent having lived in 29 different countries.Preparation leading up to the board’s launch includes educating members on Facebook’s community standards, international human rights law and receiving technical training on case management rolls that will allow members to receive and consider appeals.

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Apple Critics Form Coalition to Challenge App Store Fees

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A group of Apple Inc.’s critics, including Spotify Technology SA, Match Group Inc. and “Fortnite” creator Epic Games, have joined a nonprofit group that plans to advocate for legal and regulatory action to challenge the iPhone maker’s App Store practices. Apple charges a commission of between 15% and 30% for apps that use its in-app payment system and sets out extensive rules for apps in its App Store, which is the only way Apple allows consumers to download native apps to devices such as the iPhone. Those practices have drawn criticism and formal legal complaints from some developers. FILE – Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an announcement of new products at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., June 4, 2018.The Coalition for App Fairness, structured as a nonprofit based in Washington and Brussels, said it plans to advocate legal changes that would force Apple to change. Beyond Epic, Match and Spotify, other members include smaller firms such as Basecamp, Blix, Blockchain.com, Deezer, and Tile, along with developers from Europe, including the European Publishers Council, News Media Europe and Protonmail. Epic is suing Apple over antitrust claims in a U.S. federal court in California, while Spotify has filed an antitrust complaint against Apple in the European Union. Sarah Maxwell, a representative for the group, declined to comment on how much funding the Coalition for App Fairness has raised and from whom. Apple declined to comment but on Thursday unveiled a new section of its website explaining the benefits of its approach, saying it had blocked 150,000 apps last year for privacy violations. It says App Store fees fund the creation of developer resources such as 160,000 technical documents and sample code to help developers build apps. Mike Sax, founder of The App Association, a group sponsored by Apple, said in a statement that the new coalition’s “big brands do not speak for the thousands of app makers that are the foundation of the app economy.” 

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Trump Promotes Health Care ‘Vision’ in Swing State North Carolina

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President Donald Trump signed an executive order on preexisting medical conditions Thursday, amid a global pandemic and growing uncertainty about the future of protections guaranteed by the Obama-era health law his administration is still trying to overturn.In a visit to swing state North Carolina, the president sketched out what aides called a “vision” for quality health care at affordable prices, with lower prescription drug costs, more consumer choice and greater transparency. The president also signed another executive order to try to end surprise medical bills.But while the Trump administration has made some progress on its health care goals, the sweeping changes he promised as a candidate in 2016 have eluded him. Democrats are warning Trump would turn back the clock if given another four years in the White House, and they are promising coverage for all and lower drug prices.Legislation unlikelyThe clock has all but run out in Congress for major legislation on lowering drug costs or ending surprise bills, much less replacing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.Bill-signing ceremonies on prescription drugs and medical charges were once seen as achievable goals for Trump before the election. No longer.Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said one of Trump’s executive orders would declare it the policy of the U.S. government to protect people with preexisting conditions, even if the ACA is declared unconstitutional. However, such protections are already the law, and Trump would have to go to Congress to cement a new policy.On surprise billing, Azar said the president’s order would direct him to work with Congress on legislation, and if there is no progress, move ahead with regulatory action. However, despite widespread support among lawmakers for ending surprise bills, the administration has been unable to forge a compromise that steers around determined lobbying by a slew of affected interest groups.Health care consultant and commentator Robert Laszewski said he was particularly puzzled by Trump’s order on preexisting conditions.”For more than 20 years we debated ways to protect people from preexisting conditions limitations,” said Laszewski. Former President Barack Obama’s landmark legislation finally established protections, he said.How will it work?”So, after 20 years of national public policy debate and hard-fought congressional and presidential approval, how does Trump conclude he can restore these protections, should the Republican Supreme Court suit overturn them, with a simple executive order?”Health care represents a major piece of unfinished business for Trump.Prescription drug inflation has stabilized when generics are factored in, but the dramatic price rollbacks he once teased have not materialized.And the number of uninsured Americans had started edging up even before job losses in the economic shutdown to try to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Various studies have tried to estimate the additional coverage losses this year, but the most authoritative government statistics have a lengthy time lag. Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation said his best guess was “several million.”Meanwhile, Trump is pressing the Supreme Court to invalidate the entire Obama health law, which provides coverage to more than 20 million people and protects Americans with medical problems from insurance discrimination. The case will be argued a week after Election Day.The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has added another layer of uncertainty. Without Ginsburg, there is no longer a majority of five justices who previously had voted to uphold the ACA.Democrats’ messagingDemocrats, unable to slow the Republican march to Senate confirmation of a replacement for Ginsburg, are ramping up their election-year health care messaging. It is a strategy that helped them win the House in 2018. Former Vice President Joe Biden has said he wants to expand the Obama law and add a new public program as an option.A recent Kaiser Foundation poll found Biden had an edge over Trump among registered voters as the candidate with the better approach to making sure everyone has access to health care and insurance, 52% to 40%. The gap narrowed for lowering costs of health care: 48% named Biden, while 42% picked Trump.  The scramble to deliver concrete accomplishments on health care comes as Trump is chafing under criticism that he never created a Republican alternative to Obamacare with 40 days to go before the election.Trump has repeatedly insisted his plan is coming.”We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks,” Trump said in a July 19 interview. He told reporters in August that it would be introduced “hopefully, prior to the end of the month.”During a televised town hall earlier this month in Pennsylvania, Trump again insisted he had a plan — but refused to share its details or explain why he waited more than three years to unveil it.”I have it all ready, and it’s a much better plan for you,” he said.

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Study Shows How Binge Drinking Affects Cognitive Brain Function

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A new study released this week describes how binge drinking — consuming too much alcohol, too fast — affects the brain, leading to anxieties and other cognitive issues.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as a man consuming five or more drinks in about two hours; four drinks for a woman. The CDC reports the habit is growing problem in the United States, especially among young people, with 1 in 6 adults binge drinking about four times a month.Previous research examined the long-term effects of binge drinking on the brain, but this latest study, published Tuesday in the journal Science Signaling, focused specifically on immediate effects of binge drinking on the brain.To do this, the researchers from the University of Porto in Portugal gave an alcohol solution to mice, equivalent to 10 days of binge drinking, which spurred immune cells in mice brains to destroy the synapses — or connections — between neurons, leading to anxiety and other cognitive issues.University of Porto researcher João Relvas, co-author of the study, said in an interview, “Even for a short period of time, excessive drinking is likely to affect the brain, increasing the level of anxiety, a relevant feature in alcohol abuse and addiction.”Dangers of alcohol ‘underestimated’Relvas said further studies in humans could reveal the exact drinking patterns that spark synaptic dysfunction. But for now, Relvas cautioned that people should pay attention to their intake and follow public health guidelines on drinking in moderation.”The dangers of alcohol drinking, especially amongst the younger population, have been widely underestimated and excessive alcohol drinking is socially relatively well tolerated,” Relvas said.He said studies like theirs should help increase public awareness and education among people young and perhaps change the way society looks at alcohol consumption.Dietary guidelines determined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture define moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

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Helsinki: Coronavirus-sniffing Dogs Could Provide Safer Travel

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Helsinki Airport is getting creative when it comes to operating safely in the age of COVID-19. Beginning this week, travelers arriving at Finland’s busiest international airport will have the opportunity to take a voluntary coronavirus test that takes 10 seconds and is entirely painless — but it’s not the test that is unusual, rather, it’s who is conducting it.The new state-funded pilot program uses coronavirus-sniffing canines to detect the presence of the virus within 10 seconds with shocking accuracy. Preliminary results from the trial show that the dogs, who have been used previously to detect illnesses such as cancer and malaria, were able to identify the virus with nearly 100% accuracy.FILE – Sniffer dog Miina, being trained to detect the coronavirus from the arriving passengers’ samples, works in Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland, Sept. 15, 2020.Many of the dogs were able to detect the coronavirus long before a patient developed symptoms, something even laboratory tests fail to do.After passengers arrive at Helsinki from abroad and have collected their luggage, they are invited to wipe their necks with a cloth to collect sweat samples that are then placed into an intake box. In a separate booth, a dog handler places the box alongside several cans containing various scents and the canine goes to work.Researchers have yet to identify what it is exactly the dogs sniff when they detect the virus, but a preliminary study published in June found there was “very high evidence” that the sweat odors of a COVID-19-positive person were different from those who do not have the virus. This is key, as dogs are able to detect the difference thanks to their sharp sense of smell.If the dog flags the sample as positive, the passenger is directed to the airport’s health center for a free PCR virus test.While there have been instances that an animal contracts the coronavirus, dogs do not seem to be easily infected. There is no evidence that dogs can pass the virus on to people or other animals.Sniffer dogs Valo, left, and E.T., who are trained to detect the coronavirus disease from the arriving passengers’ samples, sit next to their trainers at Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland, Sept. 22, 2020.Scientists in other countries, such as France, Germany and Britain, are engaging in similar research, but Finland is the first country in Europe to put dogs to work to sniff out the coronavirus.Finnish researchers say that if the pilot program proves to be effective, dogs could be used to quickly and efficiently screen visitors in spaces such as retirement homes or hospitals to help avoid unnecessary quarantines for health care workers.Representatives from the University of Helsinki, who are conducting the trial, said Finland would need between 700 and 1,000 specially trained coronavirus-sniffing dogs in order to cover schools, malls and retirement homes. For broader coverage, even more trained animals— and their trainers— would be required.  
 

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US Drugmaker Begins Late Stage Human Trials for COVID-19 Vaccine

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U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has begun late-stage human trials of a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. Dr. Paul Stoffels, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer, told reporters Wednesday that 60,000 participants have begun receiving the vaccine across 215 locations in the United States, as well as internationally in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and South Africa. Dr. Stoffels said Johnson & Johnson moved into the late-stage trial after seeing positive results from its combined Phase 1 and 2 trials in the U.S. and Belgium.   The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the fourth potential coronavirus vaccine undergoing large-scale Phase 3 testing in the United States, joining Moderna, AstraZeneca and a joint effort by Pfizer and German-based BioNTech. All four efforts are being developed under the Trump administration’s President Donald Trump walks past a U.S. map of reported coronavirus cases as he departs following a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) news briefing at the White House in Washington, July 23, 2020.Speaking to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Dr. Stephen Hahn said those decisions will be made by career FDA scientists following the agency’s “rigorous expectations for safety and effectiveness.”  The FDA and other federal scientific and regulatory agencies have seen their credibility diminished by constant administration efforts to revise their reports and guidelines to maintain Trump’s views about the nature of the pandemic.  The United States is leading the world in both the number of total COVID-19 cases with over 6.9 million, and fatalities, at almost 202,000.  The United States and many other nations are experiencing a surge of new coronavirus cases, prompting many to reimpose a set of strict lockdowns first ordered at the outset of the pandemic.   Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday in a televised address that the nation’s four largest provinces have entered a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.   “We’re on the brink of a Fall that could be much worse than the Spring,” Prime Minister Trudeau warned.  Canada has seen an average of 1,123 new cases daily over the past week, compared with an average of 380 new cases a day in mid-August.   In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that the country is returning to a full lockdown effective Friday, and lasting for two weeks as its infection rate spirals out of control.  Schools, entertainment venues and most businesses will be closed, while restaurants will be limited to delivering food.  Residents will be required to stay within 500-1,000 meters of their homes, except for work and shopping for food and medicine, while outdoor gatherings will be strictly limited to 20 people.  

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NASA Says Bus-Size Asteroid Narrowly Missed Earth Thursday

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Scientists at the U.S. space agency NASA say a small asteroid – roughly the size of a bus – passed close to Earth on Thursday, flying just 22,000 kilometers above the surface, within the orbit of geostationary satellites that ring the planet. While the proximity to Earth might raise alarm, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California said even if the asteroid had entered the earth’s atmosphere, it almost certainly would have broken up and become a bright meteor.The asteroid, known as 2020 SW, is about five to ten meters wide and was first discovered on September 18 by the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona. NASA Plans to Land First Woman on the Moon in 2024Lunar landing will be America’s first since 1972NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) — part of the JPL — then did follow-up observations and confirmed its orbital trajectory, ruling out any chance of impact.CNEOS director Paul Chodas says an object this size, this close to earth, is not uncommon. He says, “In fact, asteroids of this size impact our atmosphere at an average rate of about once every year or two.”After passing the Earth, the asteroid will continue its journey around the Sun, not returning to Earth’s vicinity until 2041, when NASA says it will make a much more distant flyby.The space agency says they believe there are over 100 million small asteroids like 2020 SW, but they are hard to discover unless they get very close to Earth.In 2005, Congress assigned NASA the goal of finding 90 percent of the near-Earth asteroids that are about 140 meters or larger in size. These larger asteroids pose a much greater threat if they were to impact, and they can be detected much farther away from Earth, because they’re simply much brighter than the small ones. Chodas says NASA’s asteroid surveys are getting better all the time, and the agency now expects to find asteroids the size of 2020 SW a few days before they come near Earth.

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US Drugmaker Begins Late-Stage Testing of Single-Dose COVID-19 Vaccine in US    

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U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has begun late-stage human trials of a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. Dr. Paul Stoffels, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer, told reporters Wednesday that 60,000 participants have begun receiving the vaccine across 215 locations in the United States, as well as internationally in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and South Africa. Dr. Stoffels said Johnson & Johnson moved into the late-stage trial after seeing positive results from its combined Phase 1 and 2 trials in the U.S. and Belgium.   The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the fourth potential coronavirus vaccine undergoing large-scale Phase 3 testing in the United States, joining Moderna, AstraZeneca and a joint effort by Pfizer and German-based BioNTech. All four efforts are being developed under the Trump administration’s President Donald Trump walks past a U.S. map of reported coronavirus cases as he departs following a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) news briefing at the White House in Washington, July 23, 2020.Speaking to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Dr. Stephen Hahn said those decisions will be made by career FDA scientists following the agency’s “rigorous expectations for safety and effectiveness.”  The FDA and other federal scientific and regulatory agencies have seen their credibility diminished by constant administration efforts to revise their reports and guidelines to maintain Trump’s views about the nature of the pandemic.  The United States is leading the world in both the number of total COVID-19 cases with over 6.9 million, and fatalities, at almost 202,000.  The United States and many other nations are experiencing a surge of new coronavirus cases, prompting many to reimpose a set of strict lockdowns first ordered at the outset of the pandemic.   Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday in a televised address that the nation’s four largest provinces have entered a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.   “We’re on the brink of a Fall that could be much worse than the Spring,” Prime Minister Trudeau warned.  Canada has seen an average of 1,123 new cases daily over the past week, compared with an average of 380 new cases a day in mid-August.   In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that the country is returning to a full lockdown effective Friday, and lasting for two weeks as its infection rate spirals out of control.  Schools, entertainment venues and most businesses will be closed, while restaurants will be limited to delivering food.  Residents will be required to stay within 500-1,000 meters of their homes, except for work and shopping for food and medicine, while outdoor gatherings will be strictly limited to 20 people.  

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