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US internet freedom score declines as the government use Covid-19 to increase censorship online

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us internet freedom score declines as the government use covid 19 to increase censorship online

Many governments around the world have introduced new digital surveillance and data collection tools to combat the coronavirus, but a new report says the technologies are an abuse of power.

Freedom House, a human rights watchdog group, released an internet freedom report that shows a decline in free speech and privacy online across 80 countries since the outbreak began.

The organization analyzed 192 countries and found at least 91 of them experienced restrictions on news media regarding the pandemic – and some are imprisoning those who criticize sources from officials.

China was the worst-ranked country for the sixth consecutive year and although the US ranked ‘free’, its score declined with an increase of surveillance used by law enforcement against protestors and disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump.

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Freedom House , a human rights watchdog group, released an internet freedom report that shows a decline in free speech and privacy online across 80 countries since the outbreak began

Freedom House , a human rights watchdog group, released an internet freedom report that shows a decline in free speech and privacy online across 80 countries since the outbreak began

Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said: ‘What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy.’

‘What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy.’

The coronavirus started in China around December and quickly made its way across the globe.

To limit the virus from spreading, many countries were placed in lockdowns and the internet became a go-to for finding information, children to attend school, business to conduct work and people to keep in touch with loved ones.

The organization analyzed 192 countries and found at least 91 of them experienced restrictions on news media regarding the pandemic - and some are imprisoning those who criticize sources from officials

The organization analyzed 192 countries and found at least 91 of them experienced restrictions on news media regarding the pandemic – and some are imprisoning those who criticize sources from officials

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China was the worst-ranked country for the sixth consecutive year

However, Freedom House says these authorities saw the coronavirus as an opportunity to ‘to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive.’

The group conducted its researcher from July 29 to August 15, 2020, in which 398 experts reported on the state of democracy in 105 countries and territories.

Freedom House consulted its global network of analysts, bringing the total number of countries examined to 192.

although the US ranked 'free', its score declined with an increase of surveillance used by law enforcement against protestors and disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump

although the US ranked ‘free’, its score declined with an increase of surveillance used by law enforcement against protestors and disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump

Sarah Repucci, vice president for research and analysis at Freedom House, said: ‘Our survey found that governments’ responses to the pandemic are eroding the pillars of democracy around the world.’

‘The blatant obfuscation of facts by governments is always harmful, but it is especially egregious at a time when so many people’s lives are at stake.

The report found that authorities censored independent reporting of ‘unfavorable’ coronavirus coverage in at lest 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries. 

The survey showed 62 percent of people did not trust what they were hearing about the pandemic from the national government in their country.

In China, along with other countries including Bangladesh and Belarus, governments blocked websites that contradicted official sources.

Censorship was also found in Zimbabwe, which passed a law banning information that did not line up with what authorities were saying and violators can face up to 20 years in prison. 

Some governments are using it as a way to justify tapping into citizen's devices for mass data surveillance, according to Freedom House. At least 54 countries around the world are using the technology

Some governments are using it as a way to justify tapping into citizen’s devices for mass data surveillance, according to Freedom House. At least 54 countries around the world are using the technology

However, at least 13 countries carried out a complete shutdown of the internet – this included areas of Ethiopia and Myanmar. 

Freedom house notes that governments used the outbreak as a way that would justify their use of special powers beyond what is reasonably necessary to protect public health.

As one respondent said of Turkey, ‘Coronavirus was used as an excuse for the already oppressive government to do things that it has long planned to do but had not been able to.’

Contact tracing apps are being used around the world, which claim to limit the spread of the virus by tracking people via their smartphones.

Some governments are using it as a way to justify tapping into citizen’s devices for mass data surveillance, according to Freedom House.

At least 54 countries around the world are using the technology and in China, authorities are allowed to access an individual’s personal data and health records.

The group conducted its researcher from July 29 to August 15, 2020, in which 398 experts reported on the state of democracy in 105 countries and territories. Freedom House consulted its global network of analysts, bringing the total number of countries examined to 192

The group conducted its researcher from July 29 to August 15, 2020, in which 398 experts reported on the state of democracy in 105 countries and territories. Freedom House consulted its global network of analysts, bringing the total number of countries examined to 192

Much of the world has experienced at least one quarantine session, but some governments applied the protocol in a discriminatory manner.

The report found Muslims in India and Sri Lanka were accused of being ‘superspreaders,’ while in Serbia, one respondent said, ‘migrants were portrayed as possible carriers of the virus.’

And in Kuwait, authorities imposed tighter restrictions on noncitizen neighborhoods. 

The US remains on the ‘free internet’ list, but its score declined due to increased surveillance used by law enforcement against protest movements, executive orders on social media regulations, disinformation propagated by President Donald Trump and moves to ban Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat.

The app bans were described as ‘an arbitrary and disproportionate response to the genuine risks’ from those services. 

Amy Slipowitz, research manager at Freedom House and a coauthor of the report, said: ‘The persistence of public protests, under every type of regime, shows that citizens remain willing to challenge authorities, even as governments use the crisis to try to increase their own powers.’

‘The erosion of political rights and civil liberties began long before the pandemic, but people in every region of the world are clearly committed to reclaiming their freedom.’

This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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AI is trained to ‘predict’ academic performance based on test scores and social posts

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ai is trained to predict academic performance based on test scores and social posts

It may be difficult to predict how well a student will perform academically, but a new innovation can do so just by looking at their tweets – and with more than 93 percent accuracy.

A computer model trained on thousands of test scores and one million social media posts to distinguishing between high academic achievers and lower ones based on textual features shared in posts.

The technology, powered by artificial intelligence, determined that students who discuss scientific and cultural topics, along with writing lengthy posts and words are likely to perform well.

However, those who use an abundance of emojis, words or entire phrases written in in capital letters and vocabulary related to horoscopes, driving and military service tend to receive lower grades in school.

The team notes that by ‘predict’ they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned.

The use of capitalized words, emojis and exclamations were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance. On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users' texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance

The use of capitalized words, emojis and exclamations were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance. On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users' texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance

The use of capitalized words, emojis and exclamations were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance. On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users’ texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance

The study was conducted by a team from the National Research University Higher School of Economics, which employed a prediction model that uses mathematical textual analysis capable of rating words, phrases, topics and other content in social media posts.

Ivan Smirnov, the lead researcher, is the mastermind behind the system and experiment gathered test scores from 2,468 students who took the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA), which is a testing system used to measure pupils’ performance in math, science and reading.

Along with the exam, the dataset included more than 130,00 social media posts from the European social media site VKontakte – a Facebook alternative. 

 The results were compared with the average Unified State Exam, which is the equivalent to the SAT test in the US.

Highest scores include (orange): English words; Words related to literature ; Concepts related to reading; Terms and names related to physics; Words related to thought processes. The lower scores (green) included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service, horoscope terms , and words related to driving and car accidents

Highest scores include (orange): English words; Words related to literature ; Concepts related to reading; Terms and names related to physics; Words related to thought processes. The lower scores (green) included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service, horoscope terms , and words related to driving and car accidents

Highest scores include (orange): English words; Words related to literature ; Concepts related to reading; Terms and names related to physics; Words related to thought processes. The lower scores (green) included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service, horoscope terms , and words related to driving and car accidents

In total, more than 1 million posts of almost 39,000 users were analyzed.

The team also gathered posts shared by students, with their consent, from the European social media site VKontakte – a Facebook alternative.

A total of 130,575 posts were used as the training sample for the prediction model, along with PISA tests.

When developing and testing the model from the PISA test, only students’ reading scores were used an indicator of academic aptitude.

Altogether, the system was trained on 1.9 billion words, with 2.5 million unique words – and the model went to work with ranking textual features in posts.

The use of capitalized words (-0.08), emojis (-0.06) and exclamations (-0.04) were found to be negatively correlated with academic performance.

On the other hand, using Latin characters, creating average post and word length, extensive vocabulary size, and entropy of users’ texts were found to positively correlate with academic performance (from 0.07 to 0.16, respectively).

Smirnov explored the resulting model by selecting 400 words with the highest and lowest scores that appear at least 5 times in the training sample. 

The team notes that by 'predict' they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned

The team notes that by 'predict' they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned

The team notes that by ‘predict’ they do not mean the system creates a future forecast, but rather a correlation between posts and real test scores students earned

The cluster with the highest scores include: English words (above, saying, yours, must); Words related to literature (Bradbury, Fahrenheit, Orwell, Huxley, Faulkner, Nabokov, Brodsky, Camus, Mann); Concepts related to reading (read, publish, book, volume); Terms and names related to physics (Universe, quantum, theory, Einstein, Newton, Hawking); Words related to thought processes (thinking, memorizing).

The second batch that indicated lower scores included misspelled words, names of popular computer games, concepts related to military service (army, oath, etc.), horoscope terms (Aries, Sagittarius), and words related to driving and car accidents (collision, traffic police, wheels, tuning).

‘Based on these rules, our model identified students with high and low academic performance using Vkontakte posts with an accuracy of up to 94%. We also tried to apply it to short texts on Twitter – successfully,’ says Smirnov. 

This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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Convalescent plasma therapy DOESN’T cut the risk of dying from Covid-19

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convalescent plasma therapy doesnt cut the risk of dying from covid 19

A scientific trial has poured cold water on the hope that the blood plasma of recovered Covid-19 patients is an effective treatment for the disease. 

Convalescent plasma had shown promise in early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it does not prevent death or severe symptoms.  

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. 

Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient’s prognosis.  

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Convalescent plasma had shown promise in some early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it to be ineffective.

Convalescent plasma had shown promise in some early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it to be ineffective.

Convalescent plasma had shown promise in some early observational studies but a large-scale clinical trial has found it to be ineffective.  

It had been previously believed that blood plasma, a yellowish liquid in our blood which contains the antibodies to fight off viruses, could help treat Covid-19. 

In August, US President Donald Trump announced the FDA has given an emergency use authorisation for convalescent plasma to be used as a Covid-19 treatment. 

Other countries, including Britain, have been stockpiling blood plasma so the treatment could be rolled out if it proved effective. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK’s first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma

The findings of the new study, led by Professor Aparna Mukherjee at the Indian Council of Medical Research and Dr Elizabeth Pathak at the Women’s Institute for Independent Social Enquiry, were published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Professor Mukherjee said: ‘As a potential treatment for patients with moderate Covid-19, convalescent plasma showed limited effectiveness.

‘Future research could explore using only plasma with high levels of neutralising antibodies, to see if this might be more effective.’

The study tracked how patients responded to the treatments after one, three, five and seven days. They were also checked 14 and 28 days post treatment. 

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient's prognosis

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient's prognosis

Medics in India enrolled 464 adults confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus and hospitalised by their symptoms between April and June. Half were given plasma while the others were not, and the data reveals the much-heralded therapy did nothing to improve a patient’s prognosis

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK's first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma earlier this year

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK's first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma earlier this year

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who caught the coronavirus during the UK’s first wave at the start of the year, himself donated plasma earlier this year 

At the four-week mark, 44 (19 per cent) of participants in the plasma group either died or their condition worsened and was classed as ‘severe disease’. 

For the control cohort, only 41 people (18 per cent) died or deteriorated. 

The researchers randomised the study to ensure the only difference between the two groups of people was whether or not they received the plasma of a recovered patient.   

Dr Pathak said: ‘This rigorous trial shows that convalescent plasma is ineffective for Covid-19, and its implications should be carefully considered by both safety monitoring and institutional review boards.

There was no difference among patients who had received blood plasma with high levels of antibodies, the researchers also found.

Dr Pathak said: ‘As such, they say, in settings with limited laboratory capacity, convalescent plasma does not reduce 28 day mortality or progression to severe disease in patients admitted to hospital with moderate covid-19.’

However, blood plasma transfusions did improve patients shortness of breath and fatigue, the researchers found.

There were also signs the virus was being neutralised by the plasma’s antibodies after seven days, but this did not prevent the patient’s condition from deteriorating by day 28.

WHAT IS CONVALESCENT PLASMA AND WHERE HAS IT BEEN USED?

Convalescent plasma has been used to treat infections for at least a century, dating back to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.  

It was also trialed during the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza virus pandemic, 2003 SARS epidemic, and the 2012 MERS epidemic. 

Convalescent plasma was used as a last resort to improve the survival rate of patients with SARS whose condition continued to deteriorate.

It has been proven ‘effective and life-saving’ against other infections, such as rabies and diphtheria, said Dr Mike Ryan, of the World Health Organization.

‘It is a very important area to pursue,’ Dr Ryan said.

Although promising, convalescent plasma has not been shown to be effective in every disease studied, the FDA say.

Is it already being used for COVID-19 patients?

Before it can be routinely given to patients with COVID-19, it is important to determine whether it is safe and effective through clinical trials.

The FDA said it was ‘facilitating access’ for the treatment to be used on patients with serious or immediately life-threatening COVID-19 infections’.

It came after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that plasma would be tested there to treat the sickest of the state’s coronavirus patients.  

COVID-19 patients in Beijing, Wuhan and Shanghai are being treated with this method, authorities report. 

Lu Hongzhou, professor and co-director of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre, said in February the hospital had set up a special clinic to administer plasma therapy and was selecting patients who were willing to donate. 

‘We are positive that this method can be very effective in our patients,’ he said.

Meanwhile, the head of a Wuhan hospital said plasma infusions from recovered patients had shown some encouraging preliminary results.

The MHRA has approved the use of the therapy in the UK, but it has not been revealed which hospitals have already tried it. 

How does it work? 

Blood banks take plasma donations much like they take donations of whole blood; regular plasma is used in hospitals and emergency rooms every day.

If someone’s donating only plasma, their blood is drawn through a tube, the plasma is separated and the rest infused back into the donor’s body.

Then that plasma is tested and purified to be sure it doesn’t harbor any blood-borne viruses and is safe to use.

For COVID-19 research, people who have recovered from the coronavirus would be donating.  

Scientists would measure how many antibodies are in a unit of donated plasma – tests just now being developed that aren’t available to the general public – as they figure out what’s a good dose, and how often a survivor could donate.

There is also the possibility that asymptomatic patients – those who never showed symptoms or became unwell – would be able to donate. But these ‘silent carriers’ would need to be found via testing first.

Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda is working on a drug that contains recovered patients antibodies in a pill form, Stat News reported. 

Could it work as a vaccine? 

While scientists race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, blood plasma therapy could provide temporary  protection for the most vulnerable in a similar fashion. 

A vaccine trains people’s immune systems to make their own antibodies against a target germ. The plasma infusion approach would give people a temporary shot of someone else’s antibodies that are short-lived and require repeated doses.

If US regulator the FDA agrees, a second study would give antibody-rich plasma infusions to certain people at high risk from repeated exposures to COVID-19, such as hospital workers or first responders, said Dr Liise-anne Pirofski of New York’s Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

That also might include nursing homes when a resident becomes ill, in hopes of giving the other people in the home some protection, she said.

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Alcohol: Number of Britons who gave up smoking more than DOUBLED after lockdown

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alcohol number of britons who gave up smoking more than doubled after lockdown

Twice as many people completely quit smoking after the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found. 

Researchers from University College London (UCL) analysed a series of surveys that are taken monthly to examine people’s smoking, drinking and quitting habits. 

They found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

Twice as many people quit smoking — and tried to quit — after the the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found

Twice as many people quit smoking — and tried to quit — after the the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found

Twice as many people quit smoking — and tried to quit — after the the COVID-19 lockdown began in March as did before the restrictions, a study has found

‘The fact we saw rates of quit attempts and cessation increase after the start of lockdown is encouraging,’ said paper author and behavioural scientist Sarah Jackson of University College London.

‘It may be that the pandemic has made people more concerned about the effects of smoking on their respiratory health.’

The World Health Organisation has warned that smoking — which impairs lung function — may make people more susceptible to COVID-19.

However, a number of studies have suggested that incidence rates of SARS-CoV-2 may be lower among smokers than the rest of the population.

‘Stopping smoking brings immediate benefits to health, including for people with an existing smoking-related disease. Now is a fantastic opportunity to join the hundreds of thousands of other people quitting in England,’ Dr Jackson added.

‘Quitting may also have the added benefit of reducing demands on our NHS during these difficult times,’ she noted.

In their study, Dr Jackson and colleagues compared survey data collected as part of the  ‘Smoking and Alcohol Toolkit Studies’ taken from April 2019–February 2020 with similar collected during April 2020, at which point the UK had entered lockdown.

On average, around 1,717 people participated in the monthly surveys before lockdown — while there were 1,674 respondents in April 2020.

The team found that the number of attempts to quit smoking — defined as any serious attempt to give up in the preceding 12 months — increased from an average of around 29.1 per cent before lockdown to around 39.6 per cent in April 2020.

Successful efforts to stop smoking, meanwhile, more than doubled going into lockdown — rising from 4.1 per cent before to 8.8 per cent after.

The survey result also revealed an increased uptake in remote cessation support by smokers during lockdown — with such coming in the form of apps, websites and quitting support telephone lines.

While lockdown appears to have increased the desire to quit smoking, it did not have the same kind of effect on drinking, however — with the prevalence of binge drinking having increased from 25.1 to 38.3 per cent. 

Furthermore, use of evidence-based alcohol support was seen to decrease after the pandemic began — with no counteracting increase in the use of remote support.

The researchers also found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

The researchers also found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

The researchers also found that — while twice as many adults said they were trying to cut down on alcohol — nearly 40 per cent of Britons practiced risky drinking in lockdown

‘The observed increase in high-risk drinking is a serious cause for concern and requires a public health response,’ said paper author and behavioural scientist Jamie Brown, also of University College London.

‘The recent Commission on Alcohol Harm recommended investment in services and measures to reduce affordability,’ he added.

‘These findings also have a possible implication for the pandemic: excessive alcohol consumption may reduce vigilance around social distancing and adherence to other protective behaviours.’ 

With their initial study complete, the team are looking to expand their analysis to incorporate addition months after lockdown began.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Addiction. The researchers are also recruiting smokers to take part in a larger study — more information on which can be found on their website.

SMOKING AND THE CORONAVIRUS

Many studies have shown a low prevalence of smokers in hospitals with COVID-19. 

When smokers do get diagnosed with the virus, however, they appear to be more likely to get so sick that they need ventilation, two studies in the review showed. 

If the findings are proven, scientists say it’s likely that it is not cigarettes – filled with thousands of harmful chemicals – that would offer a potential protection, but the nicotine that is beneficial. 

A theory touted by scientists is that nicotine reduces ACE-2 receptors, which are proteins in the body the virus binds to in order to infect cells.

The coronavirus enters cells inside the body via the structures, which coat the surface of some cells, including in the airways and lungs.   

If nicotine does lowers ACE-2 expression, it makes it harder for viral particles to gain entry into cells and therefore cause an infection.  

On the other hand, other studies show that nicotine enhances the action of the ACE-2 receptor, which in theory, puts smokers at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.  

Other scientists say low levels of ACE-2 expression as a result of nicotine may prevent worse damage from viral infection, and there is no evidence that says higher quantities of ACE-2 receptors increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first place.

Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, from the University of West Attica, Greece, who queried whether nicotine could be a cure for COVID-19 in a paper published on May 9, said: ‘Up-regulation of ACE2, though seemingly paradoxical, may in fact protect patients from severe disease and lung injury.’ 

A 2008 study in mice found that getting rid of ACE-2 made the animals more likely to suffer severe breathing difficulties when infected with the SARS virus, which is almost identical to COVID-19.   

Other scientists have turned their head towards nicotine’s ability to prevent inflammation, where evidence is more robust.  

Nicotine has been shown inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF, IL-1 and IL-6, which are involved in promoting an inflammatory response. 

A ‘cytokine storm’ is a phenomenon in which an abundance of cytokines are released in response to infection.   

Doctors have previously said that it’s often the body’s response to the virus, rather than the virus itself, that plays a major role in how sick a person gets. 

A cytokine storm can lead to respiratory failure and the attack of healthy tissues, causing multi-organ failure. 

Therefore, the cytokine storm is being looked at as a target for COVID-19 treatment.  

‘Nicotine has effects on the immune system that could be beneficial in reducing the intensity of the cytokine storm,’ Dr Farsalinos wrote in Internal and Emergency Medicine.

‘The potential benefits of nicotine…. could explain, at least in part, the increased severity or adverse outcome among smokers hospitalized for COVID-19 since these patients inevitably experience abrupt cessation of nicotine intake during hospitalization.

‘This may be feasible through repurposing already approved pharmaceutical nicotine products such as nicotine patches.’ 

Dr Nicola Gaibazzi, who recently published findings on MedRxiv of ‘very low’ numbers of smokers in Italian COVID-19 patients, speculates smoke exposure may bolster the immune system.

He said exposure to cigarette smoke reduces the body’s immune system over time, measured by lower inflammatory markers. 

Therefore, when smokers are infected with a virus like SARS-CoV-2, their immune system is more ‘tolerant’ and does not overreact. 

On the other hand, non-smokers may be more prone to having the sudden and deadly cytokine storm when they are infected with the virus.  

Scientists have stressed that the evidence supporting nicotine as a medicine does not mean everyone should take up smoking. 

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