Sunday, May 31, 2020


Ann Coulter

May 27, 2020

We’re all going crazy and running out of things to do during this endless shutdown. We’ve painted the dog, counted pavers in the backyard, and rearranged the spice rack alphabetically and also by color. What we really need right now is a new game!

Herewith I present the Quarantine Game that I, Ann Coulter, have invented.

The rules are simple. Imagine you’re the Democratic Party. You have a stellar opportunity to win the White House and also ensure that the opposition party never regains it as long as Homo sapiens walks the Earth.

But in a series of developments too bizarre to recall (have they finished counting the ballots in Iowa yet?), you find yourself stuck with a 77-year-old candidate whose campaign is causing no excitement anywhere in the land, even in his own brain — although, in fairness, Joe Biden is unaware that he’s running for president.

You have 12 minutes to come up with at least two (2) answers to this question: What can you do to get your party out of this mess?

Answers will be scored on rationale, probability and advantages.

Think about it. Your opposition is Donald Trump. For all the reasons Republicans salivated over running against Hillary –- she was a repugnant human being, her every calculation was based on what was good for her and her family, scandals broke out whenever she was around, half the country already hated her — you are salivating looking at Trump.

Lest we forget, in Donald Trump the Democrats have a man [partial list] …

— who got into office and, the moment two people raised an objection to his fulfilling his campaign promises, said, OK, never mind! I’ll just tell my supporters I did it;

— who is more likely to adopt policy proposals from Kim Kardashian than the Angel Moms;

— who claimed to support gun rights, then mocked the NRA from the White House, while calling for absurd gun control measures (“take the guns first, go through due process second”);

— who won the presidency with zero Wall Street money, then immediately turned the keys of the kingdom over to Wall Street;

— who thinks his daughter, whose only skill is designing shoes (allegedly), is the perfect person to sit at a table with world leaders, including the German chancellor and British prime minister;

— who brings a special counsel on himself by going on Lester Holt’s show and seemingly announcing it was his decision to fire the FBI director because of the Russia investigation — then blames Jeff Sessions;

— who created a fake Time magazine cover featuring himself to hang on the walls of his golf clubs (“DONALD TRUMP: The ‘Apprentice’ is a television smash!”);

— who tweets Michael Moore conspiracy theories about Joe Scarborough killing his intern;

— who is a very coarse and vulgar person — which could all be forgiven if only he had the little voice in his head that said No, I owe these people. I promised them. I’ll pick up the phone and call congressional Republicans.

So. Democrats have a real opportunity here. But again, you’re stuck with Biden.

When I played the Quarantine Game, here were my answers:

1) Replace Biden and [unnamed female vice presidential candidate] with Corey Booker and Kamala Harris.

Rationale: After hearing every six minutes on MSNBC that “the black vote is not monolithic!” apparently African Americans agreed this ONE TIME to make an exception and vote monolithically for Joe Biden.

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina said, We’re all voting for Biden, and black voters said, Yep, OK, done.

Even in normal circumstances, the Democrats are a little too beholden to the Al Sharptons of the party. But after black voters hauled the creaky, hole-filled Biden campaign cratered at the bottom of the sea to the surface for some quick repairs, there had better be an African American on the ticket.

How about two black Democrats?

Likelihood: I am sublimely confident that if the Democrats think they are going to lose with Biden and get four more years of Trump, they’ll make the switch. Ask Robert Torricelli.

Advantages: With two black candidates on the ticket, the media won’t have to whip up fake racist incidents like Ferguson to keep black voters interested. Together, Booker and Harris might even be able to stage a “Sister Souljah” moment to reassure backsliding white Democrats.

2) Don’t let the voters see Biden.

Rationale: Have you seen Biden?

Likelihood: Have you seen Biden?

Advantages: It’s easy! Go all Kim Jong Un. We’ll call it the Kim Jong Joe Plan. Keep Biden in the bunker, and get a body double to do all his TV interviews and public appearances. With Biden wearing a black mask these days, all they’ll need are the hair plugs.


Friday, May 29, 2020

Tyson Foods will shut US pork plant as more workers catch COVID-19

Tyson will pause 
work at the plant 
for two days

Tyson Foods Inc said on Thursday it will temporarily close an Iowa pork plant due to the coronavirus pandemic, a month after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered slaughterhouses to stay open to protect the country's food supply.

Meat processors like Tyson Foods, WH Group's Smithfield Foods and JBS USA temporarily closed about 20 slaughterhouses last month as workers fell ill with the new coronavirus, leading to shortages of certain products in grocery stores. Production remains lower than normal because of increased absenteeism and social distancing among employees.

An Iowa state official said 555 employees at Tyson's Storm Lake plant tested positive for the virus, about 22% of the workforce.

Tyson will stop slaughtering hogs at the facility and finish processing the animals over the next two days, according to a statement.
TickerSecurityLastChangeChange %TSN TYSON FOODS INC. 60.74 -1.50 -2.41%

It will resume operations next week following "additional deep cleaning and sanitizing of the entire facility," the statement said. The closure is due partly to a delay in COVID-19 testing results and employee absences, according to Tyson.

Tyson said it conducted large-scale COVID-19 testing at the plant in northwestern Iowa and implemented safety measures to protect employees like requiring them to wear masks.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union called on the Trump administration and meat companies to do more to protect workers. The union reported more than 3,000 infections and 44 deaths among U.S. meatpacking workers, up from 35 deaths as of May 12.

"Too many workers are being sent back into meatpacking plants without adequate protections in place, reigniting more outbreaks in the plants and our communities," said Nick Nemec, a South Dakota farmer who is part of an advocacy group working with the union.

The Storm Lake plant slaughters about 17,250 pigs a day when it is running at full capacity, according to industry data. That accounted for about 3.5% of U.S. production before the pandemic.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Stephen Coates)


Running Windows as Administrator with Launcher Process enabled in Firefox causes Drag and Drop errors - How to Fix
This article applies to Firefox version 67 and above, on all Windows builds. This article is also for IT Admins who want to configure Firefox on their organization's computers.

The Launcher Process is a security-related feature that was enabled for all users in the Firefox version 68 release. When running Windows as an Administrator with User Account Control (UAC) disabled and the launcher process enabled, Firefox users may experience unexpected behavior.

Table of Contents
Why the problem occurs
How to verify the problem
How to fix
Re-enable UAC
Start Firefox Using the -no-deelevate command
Partial workaround
Why the problem occurs

When the launcher process detects that it is running at a high integrity level, it will force Firefox to run at a medium integrity level. This intentional security feature is intended to prevent malicious code from gaining write access to sensitive areas of the operating system. Windows does not allow programs running at a lower integrity level to send data to programs running at a higher integrity level. As a result, users may experience errors when trying to drag and drop from Firefox to another application.
How to verify the problem

To verify this condition, make sure the user is operating Windows as a full Administrator and has disabled User Account Control (UAC) settings. Enter about:support in the address bar and look under Application Basics for the Launcher Process entry. If enabled, you may experience errors when trying to drag and drop an image or URL from Firefox to another application or to the Windows desktop (for example, when you try to create a desktop shortcut to a website).
How to fix

To fix the problem, users have two options.
Re-enable UAC

First, users can re-enable UAC on their PC. To do so, type UAC in the search field on your taskbar by right-clicking the Start button and selecting Search. Click Change User Account Control settings. To turn UAC on, drag the slider to Notify me only when apps try to make changes to my computer (default) and click OK. This option is the most secure fix available.
Start Firefox Using the -no-deelevate command

Alternatively, users can solve the issue by launching Firefox using the -no-deelevate command line option, either directly from the command line or by editing their Firefox shortcut to do so.
Partial workaround

Copy and Paste often can substitute for drag-and-drop. For example, a user can right-click on an image and choose Copy Image, then right-click on the Windows desktop and choose Paste. Where practicable, this is preferred to reducing security by using the -no-deelevate command line option.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Why Can’t We Cure the Common Cold?

Stories to fuel your mind.

After thousands of years of failure, some scientists believe a breakthrough might finally be in sight.

The Guardian
Nicola Davison

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The common cold has the twin distinction of being both the world’s most widespread infectious disease and one of the most elusive. The name is a problem, for starters. In almost every Indo-European language, one of the words for the disease relates to low temperature, yet experiments have shown that low temperature neither increases the likelihood of catching a cold, nor the severity of symptoms. Then there is the “common” part, which seems to imply that there is a single, indiscriminate pathogen at large. In reality, more than 200 viruses provoke cold-like illness, each one deploying its own peculiar chemical and genetic strategy to evade the body’s defences.

It is hard to think of another disease that inspires the same level of collective resignation. The common cold slinks through homes and schools, towns and cities, making people miserable for a few days without warranting much afterthought. Adults suffer an average of between two and four colds each year, and children up to 10, and we have come to accept this as an inevitable part of life.

Public understanding remains a jumble of folklore and false assumption. In 1984, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to investigate one of the best-known ways of catching a cold. They infected volunteers with a cold virus and instructed them to kiss healthy test subjects on the mouth for at least one minute. (The instruction for participants was to use whichever technique was “most natural”.) Sixteen healthy volunteers were kissed by people with colds. The result: just one confirmed infection.

The most common beliefs about how to treat the disease have turned out to be false. Dubious efficacy has done little to deter humankind from formulating remedies. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from ancient Egypt dated to 1550BC, advises a cold sufferer to recite an incantation, “in association with the administration of milk of one who has borne a male child, and fragrant gum”. In 1924, US President Calvin Coolidge sat down in an airtight chlorine chamber and inhaled the pungent, noxious gas for almost an hour on the advice of his physicians, who were certain that his cold would be cured quickly. (It wasn’t.)

Today, “winter remedy” sales in the UK reach £300m each year, though most over-the-counter products have not actually been proven to work. Some contain paracetamol, an effective analgesic, but the dosage is often sub-optimal. Taking vitamin C in regular doses does little to ward off disease. Hot toddies, medicated tissues and immune system “boosts” of echinacea or ginger are ineffective. Antibiotics do nothing for colds. The only failsafe means of avoiding a cold is to live in complete isolation from the rest of humanity.

Although modern science has changed the way medicine is practised in almost every field, it has so far failed to produce any radically new treatments for colds. The difficulty is that while all colds feel much the same, from a biological perspective the only common feature of the various viruses that cause colds is that they have adapted to enter and damage the cells that line the respiratory tract. Otherwise, they belong to quite different categories of organisms, each with a distinct way of infecting our cells. This makes a catch-all treatment extremely tricky to formulate.

Scientists today identify seven virus families that cause the majority of colds: rhinovirus, coronavirus, influenza and parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and, finally, metapneumovirus, which was first isolated in 2001. Each has a branch of sub-viruses, known as serotypes, of which there are about 200. Rhinovirus, the smallest cold pathogen by size, is by far the most prevalent, causing up to three-quarters of colds in adults. To vanquish the cold we will need to tackle all of these different families of virus at some stage. But, for now, rhinovirus is the biggest player.

Scientists first attempted to make a rhinovirus vaccine in the 1950s. They used a reliable method, pioneered by French biologist Louis Pasteur in the 1880s, in which a small amount of virus is introduced to a host in order to provoke a defensive immunological reaction that then protects the body from subsequent infection. Even so, those who had been vaccinated caught colds just as easily as those who had not.

Over the next decade, as the techniques for isolating cold viruses were refined, it became clear that there were many more rhinoviruses than first predicted. Researchers realised it would not be possible to make a vaccine in the traditional way. Producing dozens of single-serotype vaccines, each one targeting a different strain, would be impractical. The consensus that a rhinovirus vaccine was not possible deepened. The last human clinical trial took place in 1975.

Then, in January of 2016, an editorial appeared in the Expert Review of Vaccines that once again raised the prospect of a vaccine. The article was co-authored by a group of the world’s leading respiratory disease specialists based at Imperial College London. It was worded cautiously, yet the claim it made was striking. “Perhaps the quest for an RV [rhinovirus] vaccine has been dismissed as too difficult or even impossible,” it said, “but new developments suggest that it may be feasible to generate a significant breadth of immune protection.” The scientists were claiming to be on the way to solving a riddle that has stumped virologists for decades. One virologist told me it was as if a door that had been closed for many, many years had been re-opened.

Part of the Imperial scientists’ motivation was the notion that since we now have vaccines for many of the most dangerous viruses (measles, polio, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, and so on), it is time to tackle the disease that afflicts us most often. “Rhinovirus is by far the most common cause of illness,” says Sebastian Johnston, a professor at Imperial and one of the authors of the editorial. “Look at what people spend on ineffective over-the-counter medications. If you had a safe and effective treatment, you’d take it.”

I asked Johnston if he was optimistic. He pointed out that because their studies so far have only been in mice, they are not sure that the vaccine will work in humans. “The data is limited,” he says. “But it’s encouraging.” It was not the resounding triumphalism that I was expecting, but then cold scientists learned long ago to be careful about making grand proclamations. Theirs is an undertaking that, more than anything, has been defined by consistent disappointment.

The first scientist to try and fail to make a rhinovirus vaccine was also the first scientist to distinguish it from the jumble of other cold viruses. In 1953, an epidemiologist called Winston Price was working at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when a group of nurses in his department came down with a mild fever, a cough, sore throat and runny nose – symptoms that suggested the flu. Price took nasal washings from the nurses and grew their virus in a cell culture. What he found was too small to be influenza virus. In a 1957 paper, “The isolation of a new virus associated with respiratory clinical disease in humans”, Price initially named his discovery “JH virus”, after his employer.

Price decided to try to develop a vaccine using a bit of dead rhinovirus. When the immune system encounters an invading virus – even a dead or weakened virus – it sets out to expel it. One defence is the production of antibodies, small proteins that hang around in the blood system long after the virus is gone. If the virus is encountered a second time, the antibodies will swiftly recognise it and raise the alarm, giving the immune system the upper hand.

At first, Price was encouraged. In a trial that involved several hundred people, those vaccinated with JH virus had eight times fewer colds than the unvaccinated. Newspapers across the US wanted to know: had the common cold been cured? “The telephone by my bed kept ringing until 3 o’clock in the morning,” Price told the New York Times in November 1957. The celebration would be short-lived. Though Price’s vaccine was effective against his particular “JH” rhinovirus strain, in subsequent experiments it did nothing. This indicated that more than one rhinovirus was out there.

By the late 1960s, dozens of rhinoviruses had been discovered. Even in the alien menagerie of respiratory disease, this level of variation in one species was unusual; there are just three or four influenza viruses circulating at any one time. Scientists at the University of Virginia decided to try a different tactic. Instead of inoculating patients with a single strain of rhinovirus, they combined 10 different serotypes in one injection. But after this, too, failed to shield participants from infection, they were out of ideas.

As hope for a vaccine receded, scientists began investigating other ways to combat colds. From 1946 until it closed in 1990, most research into respiratory viruses in the UK was undertaken at the Common Cold Unit (CCU), a facility backed by the Medical Research Council that occupied a former wartime military hospital in the countryside near Salisbury. In its four decades of operation, some 20,000 volunteers passed through the doors of the CCU, many to be willingly infected with cold virus in the name of scientific progress.

An early experiment at the CCU involved a group of volunteers being made to take a bath and then to stand dripping wet and shivering in a corridor for 30 minutes. After they were allowed to get dressed, they had to wear wet socks for several hours. Despite a drop in body temperature, the group did not get any more colds than a control group of volunteers who had been kept cosy.

The CCU began focusing on cold treatments in the 1960s and 70s, when research into a substance produced by the human body called interferon was gaining momentum. Interferons are proteins that are secreted by cells when they are attacked by a virus. They act as messengers, alerting nearby cells to the invader. These cells in turn produce an antiviral protein that inhibits, or interferes with, the virus’s ability to spread, hence the name.

In 1972, researchers at the CCU decided to investigate whether interferon could be used as a treatment for colds. They infected 32 volunteers with rhinovirus and then sprayed either interferon or placebo up their noses. Of the 16 given a placebo, 13 came down with colds. But of the 16 given interferon, only three got ill. The findings, published in The Lancet, made the front page of the New York Times (below a story on Watergate). A rush of interferon research got underway. But, once again, the excitement was premature. A review by the CCU in the 1980s uncovered a fatal flaw: interferon only worked when it was given to the patient at the same time as the virus. But in real life – that is, outside the lab – a rhinovirus enters the nose between eight and 48 hours before the onset of cold symptoms. By the time you feel a cold coming on, it is already too late.

As the 20th century drew to a close, attempts to find a cure grew more desperate. At the CCU, molecules that were found in traditional Chinese medicine, Japanese tea and oranges were all seriously interrogated. In 1990, the CCU closed. The centre had done much to advance our understanding of the virology of the cold, yet it had also exposed the enormity of the task of defeating it.

In the 1990s, as many virologists focused on HIV and Aids, research into the cold tailed off. “Common acute respiratory infections were seen as less important compared with this threat of a worldwide, lethal plague,” writes David Tyrrell, the former director of the CCU, in his 2002 book Cold Wars. A cure seemed more remote than ever.

Sebastian Johnston’s lab is on the third floor of the School of Medicine, part of Imperial College’s St Mary’s Hospital campus in Paddington, west London. Opened in 1851, the original hospital building is red-brick, with high ceilings, arched colonnades and turrets, but numerous extensions, each progressively more box-like, now hem it in. A round blue plaque on the facade states that Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) discovered penicillin in a second-storey room. Entry to a recreation of Fleming’s lab is £4.

Johnston, a professor of respiratory medicine and an asthma specialist, is 58 and bespectacled, with a mop of grey curls that form a peak on his forehead. As a PhD student in 1989, he was dispatched to the CCU, not long before it closed down, to study virus detection methods. “I spent six months there,” Johnston said. “It was a strange place, basically a bunch of nissen huts connected by wooden runways, with lots of rabbits.”

For his PhD on asthma, Johnston developed a technique called polymerase chain reaction, which magnifies DNA so that viruses can be identified more precisely. To his amazement, Johnston discovered that viruses were behind 85% of asthma attacks in children; about half of those were rhinoviruses. Previously, most studies had detected viruses in fewer than 20% of asthma attacks. Johnston went on to find that rhinovirus also exacerbates symptoms in 95% of cases of smoker’s cough (formally known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD).

It wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists fighting rhinovirus properly understood what they were up against. By that time, electron microscopy had advanced and it was possible to see the organism up close. For a pathogen so spectacularly good at infecting our nasal passages – the “rhin” of the name is from the Greek for “nose” – rhinoviruses are astonishingly simple, being little more than strands of ribonucleic acid (RNA) surrounded by a shell: “a piece of bad news wrapped in a protein coat”, as the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar once observed. Under an electron microscope, they are spherical with a shaggy surface like the bobble on a knitted hat.

Though all the rhinoviruses are pretty much the same internally, a subtle alteration to the pattern of proteins on their outer shell means that, to the immune system, they all look different. It’s a cloak-and-dagger strategy, and the reason why early vaccines such as Winston Price’s failed. Antibodies produced for one rhinovirus serotype do not detect the rest. Until recently, it was believed that there were around 100 different strains, and these were grouped into the “A” and “B” families. Then, in 2007, a new cache of viruses was discovered, the “C” group, making the total more like 160.

In 2003, Johnston, who was then working at Imperial, contacted Jeffrey Almond, a former professor of virology at Reading University who had been recently appointed as head of vaccine development at the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. The company was already manufacturing a jab for influenza and was interested in tackling the common cold. Having bumped into Johnston at academic conferences, Almond felt that their ambitions were aligned. “I said: ‘Let’s think about whether we can do something dramatic,’” Almond told me. “Let’s think about how we can make a vaccine against rhino.”

For doctors, vaccines are preferable to drugs because they shield the host from invasive organisms before they cause any damage. For pharmaceutical companies, vaccines are significantly less attractive. Not only do they take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, even if that process is successful – which it often isn’t – it can still be hard to make much money. Vaccines are usually injections administered on a single occasion, while drugs are taken for prolonged periods. And people don’t want to pay much for vaccines. “Everybody wants vaccines for pennies rather than pounds because you get them when you’re healthy,” Almond said. “Nobody wants to pay anything when they’re healthy. It’s like car insurance, right? But when you’re sick you will empty your wallet, whatever it takes.”

Still, Almond thought there might be a commercial case for a rhinovirus vaccine. Totting up the days off school and work, plus the secondary infections such as sinusitis that require supplementary treatment and even hospitalisation, rhinovirus places a huge burden on health systems. Last year, in the UK, coughs and colds accounted for almost a quarter of the total number of days lost to sickness, about 34m. In the US, a survey carried out in 2002 calculated that each cold experienced by an adult causes an average loss of 8.7 working hours, while a further 1.2 hours are lost attending to cold-ridden children, making the total cost of lost productivity almost $25bn (£19bn) each year. Almond convinced his bosses that, if it were possible to make one, a rhinovirus vaccination would be financially viable. “Our back-of-the-envelope calculations on what we could charge, and what the numbers of sales could be, mean that it’s likely to be quite profitable and quite interesting for a company to develop,” Almond says.

Reviewing the approaches taken in the 1960s and 70s, Almond and Johnston dismissed the idea of a mega-vaccine of all the 160 rhinovirus serotypes, believing it would be too heavy, too complex and too expensive to make. They wondered instead if there was a tiny part of the structure of viruses that is identical, or “conserved”, across the entire species that could form the basis of what is called a subunit vaccine, an approach that has had success with hepatitis B and the human papilloma virus, or HPV.

After comparing the genetic sequences of the different rhinovirus serotypes, the researchers honed in on a particular protein on the virus shell that seemed to recur across many of the serotypes. They took a piece of the conserved shell from a single rhinovirus, number 16, and mixed it with an adjuvant – a stimulus that mimics the danger signals that trigger an immune response – and injected it into mice as a vaccine. The hope was that the immune system would be jolted into recognising the shell protein as an invasive pathogen, conferring immunity against the entire rhinovirus family.

In petri dishes, the scientists mixed the immunised mouse blood with three other rhinovirus serotypes, numbers 1, 14 and 29. An immunological response to rhinovirus 1 was likely because its genetic sequence is similar to 16, but serotypes 14 and 29 are unalike. The mice’s white blood cells responded vigorously against all three strains. “Seeing responses against those two [different serotypes] was very encouraging,” Johnston said. This gave hope that the vaccine might protect against the full gamut of rhinoviruses.

The scientists gathered a group of respiratory medicine specialists to review the findings. The reviewers agreed that the results looked promising. But just as the scientists were ready to take the vaccine forward, there was a setback at Sanofi. “There was a change of direction, a change of guys at the top,” Almond said. “I took early retirement for different reasons. My boss retired as well.”

In 2013, the new management decided that the company’s priorities were elsewhere, handing back to Imperial College the patent that protects the vaccine idea from being developed by other groups. Imperial did not have the resources to develop the vaccine without outside investment. For Johnston, it was frustrating – years of research and toil in the lab had seemed to be finally yielding results. But there was little he could do. The vaccine was shelved.

Across the Atlantic, as Imperial began to search for new backers, Martin Moore, a paediatrician at Emory University in Atlanta, was working on a rival approach to the same problem. A specialist in children’s respiratory disease, for the past three years Moore has been working on a solution so straightforward that when he presented the results of his paper, published in Nature Communications last year, his colleagues struggled to accept them. “But if I pushed them, I couldn’t get a good reason for that other than, just: it hadn’t been done before,” he says.

Moore first resolved to do something about the common cold in 2014, while on holiday with his family in Florida. Shortly after they had arrived, his son, then a toddler, came down with a cold. “He wanted me to hold him day and night,” Moore said. The pair hunkered down in the hotel room watching movies while the rest of the family went to the beach. “It was frustrating because, as a virologist, we can go into the lab and slice and dice these viruses. But what are we really doing about them?”

Moore reviewed the papers from the 1960s and 70s that described the early attempts at a vaccine. He saw that the scientists had demonstrated that if they took one rhinovirus, killed it and then injected it, it would protect people against that same strain. “People actually made decent vaccines against rhinovirus in the 1960s,” Moore told me. What scientists did not account for at the time was that there were so many different serotypes. But where the scientists of the past had seen defeat, Moore saw promise. Why not simply make a vaccine made up of all the rhinoviruses? There was nothing to suggest that it would not work. The problem was not with the science, but with logistics. “I thought, the only thing between us and doing this is manufacturing and economics.”

Moore secured funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and applied for samples of the different serotypes from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Type Culture Collection, a biological material repository headquartered in Virginia. He stopped short of calling in all 160 serotypes, reasoning that 50 would be enough to support his hypothesis.

After developing the vaccine, composed of these 50 serotypes, Moore tested it on a number of rhesus macaque monkeys. When their blood was later mixed with viruses in petri dishes, there was a strong antibody response to 49 of the 50 serotypes. It was not possible to see whether the vaccinated monkeys themselves would be protected from colds, since human rhinoviruses do not infect monkeys. But the ability to induce antibodies in monkey blood does correlate with protection in people.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I never had a doubt that it would produce antibodies,” Moore told me. “Our paper was about showing it can be done.” There is still a long way to go before Moore’s dream becomes reality. For the vaccine to be tested in a clinical trial, it will need to be made under good manufacturing practice (GMP) conditions – regulations that companies must adhere to for licensing. Under these regulations, substances need to be kept separate to avoid cross-contamination – a substantial challenge for a vaccine that potentially encompasses 160 serotypes (currently, the largest number of serotypes in a single vaccine, for pneumonia, is 23).

For a manufacturing model, Moore is looking to the polio vaccine, since polio and rhinovirus are biologically related. The scale of production would be many times greater, but the basic processes would be alike. In May, Moore’s start-up, Meissa Vaccines, received a $225,000 (£170,000) grant from the NIH for work on rhinovirus. He is taking leave from academia to work on the vaccines.

At this point in time, perhaps the biggest barrier to us curing the common cold is commercial. Researchers at universities can only go so far; the most generous grants from bodies such as the UK Medical Research Council are around £2m. It falls to pharmaceutical companies to carry out development beyond the initial proof of concept. “You’re looking at 10-15 years’ work, minimum, with teams of people, and you’re going to spend $1bn (£760m) at least,” Almond told me.

Successes have been rare, and there have been spectacular flops. Last year, shares in US firm Novavax fell by 83% after its vaccine for RSV, one of the virus families responsible for colds, failed in a late-stage clinical trial. While it is less common than rhinovirus, RSV can cause great harm and even death in those with weakened immunity, including infants and the elderly. An effective vaccine presented an estimated $1bn opportunity for Novavax in the US alone. Before the results came through, chief executive Stanley Erck said it could be “the largest-selling vaccine in the history of vaccines”. But in the phase III trial of elderly patients, it did little to protect against infection. In the hours after the news broke, Novavax share prices fell from $8.34 to $1.40.

Episodes such as this have made pharmaceutical companies wary. Today, vaccines constitute less than 5% of the overall pharmaceutical market, and development is consolidated in a handful of companies: Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Merck and Johnson & Johnson, among a few other smaller players.

After the $1bn or so spent on development, there are also manufacturing and distribution costs to consider. There needs to be a return on the initial investment. “You sure as hell can’t do it if there’s not a market at the end, you’re wasting the company’s money, and if you do that too often, you’ll bankrupt the company,” Almond says. “There isn’t a conspiracy out there that says, ‘Let’s not do vaccines so people can get ill and we charge them a lot’, nothing like that. It genuinely isn’t easy.”

In August, I called Sebastian Johnston to see if there was any news on his vaccine. He told me that he had just received confirmation of further funding from Apollo Therapeutics, a startup backed by AstraZeneca, GSK and Johnson & Johnson. This would allow his lab to test the vaccine on more strains of rhinovirus. Johnston believes that if the vaccine proves to be protective against, say, 20 serotypes, there is a good chance it will protect against all the rhinoviruses. Beginning in October, the research should take about a year and a half. “At that point, I think we’ll be at a stage where we’ll be able to go to major vaccine companies.”

If the vaccine were to make it through the clinical trials, and was approved by regulators, it would first be rolled out to high-risk groups – those with asthma and COPD, and perhaps the elderly, as the flu jab is in the UK – and then to the rest of the population. In time, as the proportion of vaccinated individuals reach a critical mass, the viruses would cease to circulate because the chain of infection will be broken – a phenomenon called herd immunity.

From where we are today, this scenario is still distant: about 80% of drugs that make it into clinical trials because they worked in mice do not go on to work in humans. Still, for the first time in decades there are now major pharmaceutical companies with rhinovirus vaccine programmes, as well as smaller university research groups like Johnston’s which, through different approaches, are all pursuing the same goal of a cure. Once again, Johnston said, “people are starting to believe it may be possible.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Bombshell Bandit

Stories to fuel your mind.

For two months an unusual bank robber shocked, mystified and captivated the US. She was a woman, she was short, young and well-dressed, and she held up a string of banks in quick succession.
BBC News
Jeff Maysh

Photo from KABC.

Sandeep Kaur pulled on a wig and adjusted her designer sunglasses in her rear-view mirror. June 6, 2014 was a typically sunny afternoon in California's Santa Clarita Valley and a quiet one, except for the screams of passengers on a nearby roller coaster. Thirty-eight miles northwest of Los Angeles, the First Bank sits in a hamlet of Spanish-style shops just off Magic Mountain Parkway. The busy road leads to Six Flags, a theme park billed as the Thrill Capital of the World.

Kaur, 24, had been using her iPhone to research bank robberies. It was clearly a high-stakes pursuit. Some robbers escaped with fortunes, while others were captured or even killed by police. She opened the car door and stepped out into the mid-afternoon heat. At just five feet three inches tall, the slender Indian nurse did not boast the muscle of typical bank robbers. She had no weapon or getaway driver. Instead she gripped a hurriedly written note that read:


If Kaur didn't look like a criminal, she certainly didn't fit the profile of a bank-robbing desperado. Kaur and her family are devoted Sikhs, a religion that steers followers away from the selfish pursuit of wealth. A prodigious student, she graduated from nursing college several years early, while still a teenager. She had three jobs, tirelessly caring for elderly cancer sufferers, for patients at a Sacramento hospital, and ironically, for inmates at a jail. But as she walked towards the bank, she prepared to do the unthinkable and join their number as a violent criminal.

At 2.30pm, Kaur arrived before the bank's faux-Roman pillars. White lettering on its glass doors read: "Please remove hats and sunglasses before entering." Her reflection looked like she might be going to a costume party as Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Inside, a greeter jumped out and said: "Hey, how can I help you?" This technique is called SafeCatch, and it's taught by the FBI to put potential robbers off their stride. Kaur panicked, and fled.

Back in her car, Kaur sipped a bottle of water she had stolen from a nearby grocery store. Across the square of terracotta-coloured businesses, she spotted the logo of the Bank of the West, a bear walking on all fours - like the bear on the Californian flag, supposed to have been modelled on a grizzly captured in 1889 at the behest of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Kaur pulled open the green doors, her heart racing as she felt the icy blast of conditioned air. A stuffed toy bear stared down from a shelf. She approached the cashier, and told herself: "I just have to do this. It's this or nothing." She slid the note over the counter. 

Bank robbers are becoming an extinct species. The rise of electronic payments is creating a cashless society, and since 2003, bank robberies have fallen 47%. The crime is also an overwhelmingly male activity. According to the latest FBI figures, just 8% of America's 4,347 bank robberies last year were committed by a woman. "Traditionally women have been involved in bank robberies only as getaway drivers, or accomplices to male robbers," says Dr Richard Schmitt, a US criminal psychologist who has evaluated more than 50 bank robbers. Schmitt says that a robber who is an educated professional female, and a Sikh, is, "a highly unusual case… in the history of the United States you will not find another bank robber with this profile."

When Sandeep Kaur ran from the Bank of the West in Valencia, she had risked her life and liberty for little more than $21,200. Yet she then embarked on a one-woman, five-week crime spree, robbing banks in Arizona, California, and Utah. Inspired by Kaur's bomb threats and glamorous disguises, the FBI named her "the Bombshell Bandit", and appealed for help from the public. The bureau prides itself on its catchy robber nicknames, like the "Bad Rug Bandit," "Attila the Bun," and "The Boom Boom Bandit," (his note read, "No drama, no boom boom.") A good nickname creates notoriety and gets people talking, says the FBI's Laura Eimiller. And with the Bombshell Bandit, she says, "The press just ran with it."

Last summer I watched the Bombshell Bandit story unfold like a bizarre crime drama, never sure when the next episode would air. It was a spectacle that culminated in Kaur's arrest on 31 July 2014, after a desperate police pursuit. The 65-mile chase crossed three states and two time zones, reaching speeds of 130mph. Finally unmasked in the press, Kaur created headlines across the United States, and in her native India. Reporters besieged the Kaur family asking why an educated young woman would turn to bank robbery. But no-one in the tight-knit Indian community would talk.

Then on 28 January 2015, she responded to my letter, asking for answers. Her attorney wrote: "Ms Kaur would like to meet with you."

Sandeep Kaur, now 25, rests her thin hands on a table in the visiting room of the Iron County Jail in Cedar City, Utah. A prisoner has etched the word "BONES" into the wood. "My mom is still under the delusion that people don't know about it," she says, in a disarming Indian-American accent. Her olive-coloured prison uniform catches a flood of tears. "People ask about me, and she says, she's working," Kaur says, laughing and sobbing at once. "She wanted to die out of the embarrassment." Over the next four hours, Kaur will tell a tragic story that a federal judge will later call "complex", before describing the nurse as "one of the criminal minds that the court does not understand". 

Her story begins in Punjab, north-west of Delhi on the Pakistan border. It is one of the smallest but most prosperous states of India. Sandeep Kaur was born on 11 November 1989, in Chandigarh - India's first planned city, sometimes called "the city beautiful". She says her name means the "first ray of sunlight". Aged seven, she moved with her mother and brother, Jatinder, to join her father in America. They arrived in San Jose, California, as the area's Indian population was exploding. But for as long as she can remember, Kaur says she felt like an outsider.

"My mom would go to the store and if the guys' clothes were on sale, she got all of us the same thing. My little brother would be wearing Pocahontas sandals. She didn't understand." The children were bullied relentlessly and after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, racial tensions developed. "I was called a terrorist at school. They were like, 'Did your Dad do this?'" Kaur and her brother skipped school to escape their tormentors, but were suspended and sent away to a boarding school in the Eastern Himalayas, as punishment.

She lived with her mom, so she had no bills… her money was piling up.
—Amundeep Kaur

Back in America, Kaur says her parents banned mobile phones, television, and friends, isolating the children. "We would have to stand there with a chair up in our hands for like an hour until our arms hurt," she recalls. "That was how [we] were raised, we knew not to go tell the school, we were beaten with a stick. This is how parenting is."

Kaur's closest confidante became her cousin, Amundeep Kaur, 27, whom I interviewed at length on the telephone. Their mothers are sisters, and though Kaur was two years younger, she played the role of older sister. Amundeep admits she was the naughtier of the pair. She sneaked Kaur to the movies, and in return, Kaur covered for her cousin's illicit teenaged romances. She liked to joke that trouble was Amundeep's middle name, as in, "I'm-in-deep trouble".

When her mother fell ill and went into hospital, the 14-year-old Kaur was inspired by a friendly nursing manager to take up nursing. "She even gave me some nursing textbooks," Kaur says. Galvanised, she graduated from high school early, starting college at the remarkable age of 15. By 19 she was a Licensed Vocational Nurse, eager to escape the family home she describes as "a prison". Quickly, Kaur earned up to $6,000 a month, working for a health care agency, nursing a terminally ill businessman, and back-to-back shifts at various Bay area hospitals. "She lived with her mom, so she had no bills, she had a very used, beat-up car… her money was piling up," says Amundeep.

It was 2008, and the American economy crashed. Kaur says she started investing in the stock market. "I was really into it. I put all the money I had saved up, and [some] from my parents… the stocks [were] really low, these are the biggest banks of America there are. It can't get any lower than this, Bank of America was at two dollars fifty-three cents." It is a topic I was not expecting from this jail visit. Kaur gambled on America, and won. "I invested in the insurance banks, AIG and Prudential," she says. "I ended up making $200,000."

Then, like any college-aged American girl she started to enjoy parties, boys, and everything forbidden by her parents. She wore party dresses under her hospital scrubs, to fool her mother, and began leading a double life. Aged 20, Kaur left home and moved to Sacramento, where she studied for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. "I even worked at… Sacramento County Jail. [Taking inmates'] blood pressure, giving them pills… the diabetic inmates, getting their blood sugars." With a glance at her current surroundings, she says: "It's kind of weird now I'm on the other side." 

Kaur says her 21st birthday in November 2010 was the turning point. This is the legal drinking age in the US and her cousin planned a celebration holiday. The girls lied to their mothers and fled to Sacramento airport - but before Kaur told the story, I had already guessed where they went. Back when the Bombshell Bandit was a fugitive on the run, I plotted her bank robberies on a map, and noticed how her heists circumnavigated America's city of sin.

Like a flotilla of metallic icebergs, the Crystals shopping mall towers above the souvenir shops on Las Vegas Boulevard like a giant geometric puzzle. It claims to be the world's largest collection of designer fashion stores under one roof, boasting a Balenciaga, Christian Dior, and a Jimmy Choo. To Kaur, it was a retail heaven full of daring, Western styles that would boil her mother's blood. Inside the Gucci store, the designer clothes seemed to transform her. 

Photo from Getty Images.

"It was my favourite brand, it had the style I liked. Louis Vuitton was too flashy… Gucci is more forever lasting." She says the girls bought "killer outfits" - heels and short dresses they had never been allowed to wear. The cousins click-clacked towards the casinos and clubs in their expensive new shoes. Kaur had found freedom.

"I gambled. I won a couple of thousand and it was pretty fun. I played blackjack and I kept winning," she says. "Everyone else at the table was getting mad." With a dizzying streak of beginner's luck, Kaur says she won $4,000, and was "instantly hooked". That first trip became two, then three, and soon she was flying to Vegas monthly, accompanied by her brother and a revolving cast of friends. "After a few trips, they started comp-ing everything," says Kaur, of the free hotel rooms and perks. Then she discovered baccarat, and suddenly nothing else in the world mattered. "I can walk past roulette," she says. "But if I even see baccarat, my heart leaps."

When I gambled it was like an escape from everything.
—Sandeep Kaur

For decades, the game of baccarat was played privately, in lavish high-roller pits for the enjoyment of millionaires, and James Bond in the movies. In this simple card game, players bet on which of two hands will add up closest to nine. "Baccarat is not beatable… it's a lottery," says US gambling journalist Michael Kaplan. "When you see these people writing down the progress of the game… it's idiotic." Kaur played a progressive game, doubling her bet after each loss to earn her money back. It is this type of aggressive play that has seen baccarat revenue in Nevada triple since 2002. Today it earns $1.4bn a year, more than blackjack, craps, and poker combined. "When I gambled it was like an escape from everything," Kaur says. "The pressure from my mom to do this and that, she wanted me to buy a house… I would go there for an escape."

Inside Kaur's penthouse suite at the Bellagio hotel and casino, RnB music throbbed from a sleek Bose stereo. The two-bedroom, five-bathroom luxury suite became a private club, strewn with bottles of Patron tequila, Don Julio, and Hennessy. Downstairs, she played behind the frosted windows of the Baccarat Bar, a ballroom-style gaming lounge with chandeliers the size of a family car. Kaur had grown a reputation as a fearless but fortunate gambler: She was known to play until she had chips worth $10,000, before spending it all in the designer stores. 

Photo from Getty Images.

"I had a weakness for designer sunglasses," she admits. "I would first go and see how much the pricing is... then I would go make a bet for that same amount. If I win, I'll go buy it, if not then I'm not meant to have it." The casino treated her like royalty, and she played next to foreign dignitaries and celebrities. Kaur says she decided to get a credit line at the casino. "So that way I don't have to bring the money there."

"A marker is a fancy word for a cheque," explains casino super-host Steve Cyr, 51. "If a cheque bounces in Nevada, it's a criminal offence." Yet Kaur still kept to a strict lunch budget of $15, and enjoyed her winnings. Soon, the casino agreed to raise her marker to $20,000, and her bets increased.

Kaur was on a roll. She was making money almost out of thin air, and had gained entry to the inner sanctum of the seductive nightlife of Las Vegas. But then things started to go wrong.

A year after her first gamble, in November 2011, Kaur confided to Amundeep that she had lost $60,000. She said she had lost it on the stock market but her brother revealed the truth. "She gambled it all in like three hands on the table, I saw her," he told his cousin. After that, Amundeep says, "I knew she had a problem."

Kaur says she quit nursing and left her studies at Sacramento State to concentrate on gambling. "I stopped working. I can't focus and be going to work for this little amount of money," she says. She wired more and more money from her investment account. "It started off at like $250,000," she says. And all of it dripped away. In late March 2012 she was seen walking the casino floor in a daze. Outside the Baccarat Bar, she walked past the banks of slot machines like "The Jewel of India", and "Bollywood Babes", as their discordant sirens sounded an internal alarm: her life savings were gone - and she was in debt to the casino.

That was when a stranger approached, Kaur says. The man had watched her gambling from afar, and was impressed with her talent. She says he told her: "I can get you some money." The man, she says, was not a member of casino staff, just one of the game's many hangers-on. "I've seen you win before, you can win your money back," he told her. Kaur says he led her outside and introduced her to more men. "I told them I need $20,000. He said, 'I can get that for you.' I wanted to win… I got sucked into it. They were really big guys, but at the time I thought I could pay it back. They said it would be a high interest rate... and I agreed." Kaur describes the men as, "a Mexican guy, and the other guy was like a mix maybe… Puerto Rican, he had braids." She gave them her details, and in the casino's parking garage they handed her the cash. "OK I'll pay you back, it'll probably be a couple of hours," she said. Then she marched back through the casino's monogrammed doors, ready to win. 

Photo from AP.

The heels and expensive dress were gone. Kaur wore a sweat suit, as she played to pay off her debt to the Bellagio and the loan sharks. She says she needed $45,000. "I ate at that table. I only took bathroom breaks… I was sitting at the table for 16 hours." But the cards were cruel, and her chips quickly depleted. The host encouraged her to try a lucky drink, perhaps a Louis XIII cognac, or an expensive cigar, which she accepted. "I'm sitting there…hoping it'll all change," she recalls. Puffing on a cigar in her sportswear, Kaur cut an unlikely figure in the mahogany-panelled Baccarat Bar, with its modern art and exotic flowers, but soon her pile of chips began to grow. "At one point I had $38,000," she says - just a few thousand dollars from safety. In a few more hands, she might be up - perhaps she'd even win enough for a shopping spree?

Indian parents are very nosy, they like to look at your bank statements.
—Sandeep Kaur

"Then it all just went down the drain," she says of the last few hands that wiped her out. "I can't believe that I've done this," she told herself. Then Kaur says she fled Las Vegas and her creditors, vowing to give up gambling. In May 2012, she moved with her mother to Union City, California, for a new address and new start, always with one eye out for her creditors. Kaur maxed out her credit cards to pay the deposit for a family home, and to cover for her losses, told her mother she bought the house outright. She worked 96-hour weeks as a nurse to pay her secret mortgage. But by 11 December 2012, there was a warrant for her arrest, for failing to pay her casino marker and it wasn't long before Kaur's mother discovered the truth.

"Indian parents are very nosy, they like to look at your bank statements," Kaur says. "She went ballistic on me. 'Where is the money? Why did you do this? How bad does this look, you being a girl?'"

There were other secrets in the Kaur household. Kaur says her parents had divorced, which is unusual in the Indian community. She says her father, who travelled to and fro to India, still attended family functions and pretended nothing had happened. "I just felt like my whole life I've been living a lie," she says. "Just an image for people." Kaur describes her father as "not involved" in their lives. She says he is "retired" and that "he used to work for companies". Amundeep tells me he is actually a taxi driver in Union City.

Kaur says she stayed far away from Las Vegas "for a year" to dodge the loan sharks and casino debts, but Amundeep's account is different. She told me that Kaur was "back and forward to Las Vegas" until July 2013, and she even boasted of turning "$1,100 into $25,000". Whatever the real timeline, it is clear that Kaur did not repay her debts. And at this point, Kaur's mother began to arrange her marriage.

Potential suitors were invited to the family home, but Kaur was not impressed. "What guy doesn't have the balls to tell their family they want to get married on their own?" she says. And anyway, her parents' own arranged marriage was a charade. By September 2013, Kaur had eloped with a man of her own choice. When we talk in the jail, she will not discuss her husband, other than to say: "I was a prisoner in my own home." Amundeep tells me that Kaur was given a $1,000-a-week allowance from her husband, but gambled it in Las Vegas. Her cousin also says that in January of 2014, Kaur's car was impounded for unpaid bills, and in April, her marriage was over. Amundeep says her husband stopped paying her allowance in May. Then Kaur's mortgage, heavy gambling debts, and web of lies became a ticking time bomb.

Ever since we were kids we had to lie.
—Sandeep Kaur

Memorial Day, Monday 26 May 2014. Kaur says she noticed a mysterious black vehicle following her car, during a trip to visit friends in Freemont, California. "I thought my father had hired someone to follow me," she says. When she paid for gas, she says she returned to find two strange men sitting in her car.

"Oh, you're in the wrong car," she told them.

"We need to talk to you. You're Sandeep," she recalls one of them saying. "You owe us $25,000 but that's not enough, we need more."

Kaur says these were not the men who had loaned her the cash. It is not unusual for so-called "bad debt" to be bought for pennies on the dollar, by unscrupulous collectors. I asked who they were. "One was darker… one guy was black. Medium size… they called him by some nickname, I forgot what it was." Kaur says they demanded $35,000 and that she had two days to get it. "My family still doesn't know any of this."

"They said, 'Where are you gonna get the money from?'"

Kaur pulled out her phone. "I'm gonna make some phone calls," she said. "They said, 'Why don't you make those phone calls right now.'"

When no-one would lend Kaur money, the men threatened her family, she says. They told her she had a choice - to pay the money, or work for them. "I didn't know what working for them meant. I was thinking some drug stuff, I don't know, prostitution… They said, 'You can rob a bank. Go rob a house, do this do that, we need the money.' They tried to give me a gun."

When they suggested bank robbery, Kaur says the idea didn't seem ludicrous. "It's do or die. If I did this, and anything did happen then at least the police would be involved," she reasons. "Or you know, I could just kill myself." But why didn't she just tell the police? "Ever since we were kids we had to lie," she says. From the punishment she suffered at the hands of her parents, to partying, and her parents' divorce, anything shameful had to be hidden.

Eleven days later, Kaur escaped from her first bank robbery in Valencia, on to Magic Mountain Parkway and on to the I-5 freeway towards Los Angeles. As she tossed away her wig, a police car flew past in the opposite direction. "I kept looking backwards, thinking, 'They're gonna be here now… Or now?... Now?'" But after a six-hour drive, Kaur realised she had got away. She arrived outside a restaurant near the pier at Santa Monica, where she says her creditors were waiting.

"I met them in Santa Monica like I was supposed to, the day after. I told them what I'd done." Kaur says she handed them the cash. "They said, 'This is not enough.'" The men gave her a week to come up with another $20,000, she says. With the interest increasing at an extortionate rate, Kaur says she scraped together $5,000. Then she drove to Las Vegas on 20 June, 2014, to make another payment. But the moment she arrived, the familiar flutter of excitement rose in her stomach. She parked at the Aria casino, a sister hotel of the Bellagio. What if she could turn that $5,000 into a larger amount, she thought, and solve her problems forever? 

Photo from Getty Images.

There is nothing more intoxicating than a lucky run on baccarat. Her $5,000 became almost $10,000 in a matter of minutes. The buzz was back. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder, perhaps a congratulatory friend, she thought. But it was a huge security guard, who told her: "Can you come with us? You have a warrant out for you." Soon Kaur was staring into the camera at the Clark County Detention Center, on Casino Center Blvd. Her marker had finally caught up with her. "I thought, the bank robbery is gonna come back on me too now… this is it for me," she says. But luckily for her, they didn't connect the dots. On 26 June, Amundeep helped find $15,000 bail money, and Kaur was free - but deeper in debt than ever. And with a "felony" charge on her record, Kaur knew she would not be allowed to work as a nurse again.

Soon Kaur was looking at her iPhone again for directions to another bank. "What are the chances of me getting away with another robbery?" she thought. "Maybe I should just kill myself, end it all… no they'd go to my family. I have to do this. I was very close to [suicide]. I kept thinking… pills. But no, there's a chance of surviving. But then… if I'm already thinking of ending my life, why not go rob the bank? The debt was increasing every day. It's gonna keep going on for life. If I got another $20,000 from this one, I'm done."

The Lake Havasu City branch of Wells Fargo is 58 miles past the Nevada state line, in Arizona. It was 8 July 2014. Sandeep Kaur walked into the bank wearing a skin-tight black dress, a flower-print scarf, her trademark sunglasses, and unusually for bank robbery, open-toe sandals. It was 5.30pm when she handed a bank employee a note which said she had a bomb and that she wanted $100,000. According to investigators, the note also claimed five men were making her rob the bank, and that she didn't want to do it. The cashier handed over the cash, and Kaur sprinted to her car. "I'd parked by [sandwich shop] Jersey Mikes," she recalls. "There's people that even saw me running from there. That day I just got lucky."

A terrific rainstorm hampered her getaway, she says, forcing drivers to pull over and wait it out. As the rain crashed against her windscreen, she counted the money and was frustrated to find it amounted to just under $2,000. She turned on the radio, and in the car parked next to hers, a man smiled at her. She politely smiled back. "I'm normal to the rest of the world," she says. "My mind just tells me it's OK."

The next day, Sgt Troy Stirling of the Lake Havasu City Police Department told the press he was comparing notes with other law enforcement agencies: "Typically some of these bad guys like to do the same thing in other areas," he suggested. The net was closing on the Bombshell Bandit.

The day after that, on 10 July, the Kaur cousins met for dinner. Amundeep was astonished at her cousin's weight loss. They often dieted together, sharing meal plans and encouragement. "How do you do it?" she asked, enviously. "She was 150 [pounds]… in a month she had gone [to] 115." Kaur said nothing about robbing banks and was clearly broke, Amundeep says. She couldn't even afford to pay for dinner.

But Kaur was already planning her third robbery, this time in San Diego. "I looked it up and there were already so many robberies there that people had gotten away with. They had this one guy called 'the Geezer' that had never been caught or anything. The people in San Diego were kinda for it," she reasons, because "nobody was telling on him."

The Geezer Bandit is San Diego's number one serial bank robber. Some believe he is a younger man wearing a Hollywood special-effects mask to disguise his age. After 11 successful heists, he has never been stopped, and Kaur was catching up on him. But was bank robbery getting easier, now that she was experienced? "Each one's like… different," she says. July 14 2014 was a Monday, the most popular day for bank robberies, according to FBI statistics. At approximately 2.50pm, she held up a Comerica Bank in San Diego's Midway District, her second robbery in six days. Again, she handed the teller a folded piece of paper, which demanded money and threatened a bomb. This time her disguise was a colourful headscarf.

"I got $8,000, and the next day I go see [the creditors] at the same place in Santa Monica," she says. "I gave them the money, but it was still not enough… They said 'You're running out of time. By 1 August, if you don't have the money, we are gonna take you. You're gonna work for us.' So then I said, 'OK, I'll go rob this last bank, and give them this money by the first of the month, get this over with.' I decided on Utah, I guess. I started to feel like they were going to keep increasing the money. The hole kept getting bigger and bigger." 

The US Bank in St George boasts a drive-thru teller, so few customers actually walk into the branch. Inside, the friendly staff keep bowls of sweets at the front desk. At 4.50pm on 31 July 2014, Sandeep Kaur entered the bank with a hoodie pulled over her head. Wearing sunglasses and a surgical mask, the manager's first thought was that she was a germaphobe. But quickly that thought turned to, "This is not good." Kaur passed the female cashier a note that read: "YOU HAVE TWO MINUTES TO GIVE ME 50K OF CASH OR I WILL SHOOT YOU. THIS IS NOT A JOKE." She did not have a gun.

The manager watched Kaur run to her car carrying the cash, and telephoned 911, with a description of her silver Nissan. The Bombshell Bandit was on the run, peeling out of the parking lot at top speed. Officer Mark Biehl of the St George Police Department was at a nearby fire station when the bank robbery call came in. His Dodge Charger patrol car roared towards the freeway. "Suspect possibly armed," said the dispatcher. Biehl staged his car at Exit 2 of the freeway, just as the promised silver car sped past, the driver too short to identify. "As soon as he was following me, I knew," Kaur says. "It was like, 'OK. It's the end of it.'" But she still didn't stop.

The police car followed her patiently across the state line into Arizona. Then two white local police Ford Explorers joined the chase, their blue and red lights flashing. The orange desert here turns almost Martian, as St George disappears, before the road is swallowed by the massive vermilion rocks of the Virgin River Gorge. The police radios died, and the caravan of vehicles became toy cars, dwarfed by the enormity of the canyon. "I thought about going off the side," says Kaur. "But I didn't know if I'd hurt others." 

When the pursuit raced through the dusty city of Mesquite, local officer Brad Swanson joined the chase. Three police departments were on Kaur's tail now, lights blazing. They sped past the casinos that line the freeway, offering "$10,000 LUCKIEST SLOTS IN TOWN," as Las Vegas approached. At 4.26pm, Kaur's car flew over the time zone into Nevada, travelling at 130mph. Officer Swanson alerted a police officer waiting ahead to deploy his spike strips. But Kaur swerved, and her tires survived. Then 25 miles later, the road narrowed to one lane, and a waiting Nevada Highway Patrol trooper slid out his spike strip to greater effect. At 4.48pm, Kaur's spree was over. Officer Swanson ordered her out of the car.

"Just shoot me," she begged.

More police cars arrived and a TV news helicopter buzzed overhead. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officer Troy Benson shouted instructions at Kaur through the PA system in Swanson's patrol vehicle. The stand-off lasted two hours until the police persuaded the robber she was going to hospital, not to jail. But they lied.

Amundeep Kaur was on a treadmill when her phone buzzed with the text message:


She stepped off the treadmill and stared at the screen. Another green speech bubble appeared:


Transported to the Clark County Detention Center, Kaur sat in a bleak prison cell. "I'm back in this hellhole. I thought, I can't do this." She decided to slit her wrists. "I try... but my roommate told on me," she says, crying. "I got put in this psych [cell] where they strip away all your clothes, and you're just sitting there naked."

Special Agent Seth Footlik of the FBI interviewed a sullen Sandeep Kaur on 14 August. "Kaur was neither remorseful, nor completely honest in her interview," he told me. I asked if she told him about the loan sharks, and Footlik said: "Kaur has proven to be dishonest and could not provide corroborating information for her claims. This office has not conducted any further investigation into Kaur's claims of violent loan sharks." Because Kaur readily admits to living a life "full of lies", her story is hard to verify. However, I discovered that both her Arizona and Utah robberies coincided with the court's demands for restitution for her gambling debts. Whatever her real motives, this is a story of a woman desperately trying to hide her shame.

The Punjabi newspaper, Ajit, is read on the steps of the Sikh temple in Union City, California, before service. As her trial approached, it speculated that she faced up to 20 years in federal prison on each of the four charges against her, and fines of $250,000. Kaur says her mother read the story and collapsed. 

Court document - scan of notes recovered from Kaur.

Not one member of her family attends the Fifth District Court in St George, for her sentencing on 7 April 2015. Emotional letters from her brother Jatinder and cousin Amundeep are handed to the judge, begging for leniency. Moments before Kaur arrives, I hear the jangling of her arm and leg shackles. Then she shuffles into the small courthouse, wearing a bright orange prison jumpsuit with "small" printed on its back. She shoots me a nervous smile. At 2pm, her attorney, Jay Winward, a tall, court-appointed defence attorney, tells District Judge Ted Stewart, "There are good criminals and bad."

She was willing to gamble not only her money and money she won at the casino - she was willing to gamble other people's safety.
—Paul Kohler, Prosecuting attorney

He describes Kaur as educated and of "great worth to society", and says she was "trapped" by her culture. "Trapped?" returns prosecuting attorney Paul Kohler, who is wearing the snappier of the two suits. "Speak to those who were really trapped… The families travelling on the freeway when Kaur sped at 130mph… the bank employees... These are crimes of a violent, serial nature." Yet at times Kaur's actions were almost comical. The court hears how she robbed the bank in St George by pretending her finger was a gun. And then there was that ridiculous wig.

Next, the real courtroom drama begins. In an unusual move, the judge seals the courtroom and orders the press to leave. It is reported that "sensitive" evidence was heard relating to her treatment at the hands of loan sharks. If the FBI agent in charge of her case did not believe her, it appeared the judge did. "She amassed a large gambling debt and, in order to repay a loan shark, she robbed the banks," he concludes. "That conduct explains why she did what she did, but by no means justifies what she did... It cannot be used as an excuse in the court's mind." The irritated journalists are allowed back in time for the prosecutor's closing argument. "She was willing to gamble," Kohler says, "not only her money and money she won at the casino. She was willing to gamble other people's safety."

The judge sentences Sandeep Kaur to 66 months in jail, and orders her to pay back every dollar of the money she stole. Kaur wipes her eyes and thanks the judge, saying her arrest was "a relief".

During our prison interview, just before our time is up, Kaur tells me she has been helping other prisoners. Some are "in and out", often for the same small crimes, and Kaur says she urges them to change their lives while they still can. She also says she has rekindled her interest in religion - and that she had an epiphany that night in solitary confinement in the Las Vegas jail. "That's when I stopped the thinking of killing myself," she says. "OK, I did it to myself… Now, it's like, what can I do to help others? That's my motivation now."

And as the heavy door slams shut, and I watch through the reinforced window as Kaur shuffles back to her cell, I find myself wanting to believe her.