Forge Friday Roundup - January 15, 2020

January 15, 2021

In today’s Roundup: entangled photons enable quantum internet; COVID toll surges to alarming heights; building a better digital public square; Twitter shuts down Sci-Hub account; red tape hobbles some vaccine rollouts; incoming administration staffing key public health posts; “Z-codes” for improving healthcare; recommendation for bipartisan misinformation commission; scope of crowdfunding for medical expenses; coping with a flood of preprint articles; sea shanties make a big comeback; much more:

Archival black and white photograph from the State Library of Victoria showing a sailing ship, the Imperator Alexander, heeling sharply while sailors brace themselves against the lean on a wet deck.
Public Domain image courtesy State Library of Victoria
  • O for a life on the rolling sea: we don’t suppose that in March of 2020 as the COVID pandemic was shutting down everyday life across the US, anyone actually expected that one indirect consequence of this upheaval would be…a revival in the popularity of the sea shanty? Just roll with it, I guess. The Washington Post explains, or tries to. In the meantime, the bass on this TikTok version will rattle the screws right out of your bulkheads (H/T @Peter_Fries).

  • "…’Z-codes’ can be used to inform individual treatment plans and improve patient outcomes, as well as to understand challenges faced by entire populations. They are numerous and far-ranging, encompassing everything from employment problems and family conflict to housing instability and social isolation….Health care providers' adoption of Z-codes has been slow, however, and data on social determinants of health has remained sparse and unstandardized as a result…” At US News and World Report, Sarah True examines the untapped potential of “Z-codes” for improving patient care – as well as the roadblocks standing in the way of their wider use.
  • “With vaccine data, the United States has the opportunity for a do-over. The national vaccination effort itself is fragmented and inconsistent, guided by state and county policies in the absence of a comprehensive federal system of support—but the data about vaccinations need not mirror this incoherence. Tracking the distribution of vaccines and the pace of vaccination can provide meaningful insights into the volume of future cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.” At The Atlantic, Erin Kissane and Alice Goldfarb, contributors to the magazine’s COVID Tracking Project, make an urgent plea for access to federal-level data on where COVID vaccines are being distributed and to whom.
  • “Our goal with this research is to support engineers, designers and builders who want to create more flourishing, inclusive digital public spaces — and to create the start of a measurement framework for externally evaluating how platforms are doing. This framework should evolve as a growing community engages with it, tests it, and improves it.” A project undertaken by Civic Signals’ New Public reimagines a better kind of digital public space and lays out a framework for achieving it.
  • “Entangled quantum particles can retain their interconnected properties even when separated by long distances. Such counterintuitive behavior can be harnessed to allow new types of communication. Eventually, scientists aim to build a global quantum internet that relies on transmitting quantum particles to enable ultrasecure communications by using the particles to create secret codes to encrypt messages. A quantum internet could also allow distant quantum computers to work together, or perform experiments that test the limits of quantum physics.” For a real living-in-the-future-type-story, consider this story from Science News’ Emily Conover, which includes photon entanglement, drone fleets, and a proof-of-concept version of a quantum internet.
  • “Kidney transplants, especially from living donors, confer superior outcomes for individuals with kidney failure. Yet Black individuals in the United States, who are 2- to 4-fold more likely to develop kidney failure than White individuals, have been less likely to receive transplants during the last 3 decades. There is an urgent need to eliminate multilevel causes of this profound inequity.” A commentary appearing this week in JAMA Network Open by Boulware and colleagues explores the dangers of racial bias encoded by ubiquitous equations used to estimate kidney function as part of standard medical practice – dangers brought into sharper focus by the cohort study by Zelnick and colleagues that the commentary accompanies.
  • “At this point, we must recognize that such emerging communications are happening but are not closely related to the current established journal publishing scheme. Current established scholarly communication seems to be too slow to fit current emerging communications on emergency situations such as a global pandemic.” An opinion article by Kazuhiro Hayashi at Cell Press’ Patterns journal poses the question of how the COVID pandemic may be transforming long-standing approaches to scholarly communication and dissemination of findings.

  • At In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe corrals the latest updates on other COVID vaccine candidates, including offerings by J&J and SinoVac, as well as the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
  • “A spike in infections — on top of the existing caseloads — could force hospital leaders to consider how to surge capacity, staff, and resources — and weigh what happens if they have too many patients to care for. It could force schools to close again or delay plans to reopen. The variants are also ramping up the pressure on the country’s sputtering vaccine rollout, to try to protect more people and snuff out transmission before the variants become dominant.” A report by STAT News’ Andrew Joseph strikes an ominous note as it describes the current trajectory of the COVID pandemic – and the potential role a new, more infectious variant could play in worsening an already perilous situation.
  • “Buggy websites, multiple sign-up systems that act in parallel but do not link together and a lack of outreach are causing exasperation and exhaustion among older New Yorkers and others trying to set up vaccination appointments. It is also stymying New York’s early efforts to get the vaccine to many of the city’s most vulnerable, creating a situation that elected officials say risks exacerbating the inequalities that Covid-19 has already laid painfully bare.” The New York Times’ Sharon Otterman reports on the parlous state of New York City’s vaccination rollout and the technical and bureaucratic burdens it is imposing – particularly on the older residents who are currently a priority for vaccination efforts.
    A husky puppy with paws hooked over the edge of a container while water spray flies through the air. Image credit: Michal Czyz via Unsplash
    Image credit: Michal Czyz via Unsplash
  • “…the mismatch may hint that something deeper is missing from cosmologists’ picture of reality. Connecting the CMB to the present day involves assumptions about the poorly understood dark matter and dark energy that appear to dominate our universe, for instance, and the fact that the Hubble constant measurements aren’t lining up could indicate that calculating the true age of the universe will involve more than just rewinding the tape.” At Popular Science, Charlie Wood provides a primer on the age of the universe and just how scientists arrived at the current estimate of nearly 14 billion years – an estimate that is now being refined as new observations clash with existing theory – or seem to.
  • “Omitting covid-19 on death certificates threatens to undercount the toll of the pandemic nationwide. For Davis’ family and others, it can pile financial hardship onto emotional despair, as death benefits and other covid-19 relief programs are withheld. Interviews with families across the U.S. shed light on reasons covid deaths are being undercounted — and the consequences loved ones have endured.” A wrenching story at Kaiser Health News by Melissa Baily and Eli Cahan lays bare the human dimensions of undercounting COVID deaths.
  • A retrospective study of convalescent plasma to treat COVID patients has been published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine by Joyner and colleagues: “…convalescent plasma was identified as a potentially beneficial therapy in hospitalized patients with Covid-19. Our principal finding was that among patients with Covid-19 who were not receiving mechanical ventilation, the transfusion of plasma with high antibody levels was associated with a lower risk of death than the transfusion of plasma with low antibody levels.”
  • The Los Angeles Times’  Luke Money and Rong-Gong Lin II report a deeply alarming statistic: local public health officials estimate that one out of every three persons living in Los Angeles County has been infected with COVID-19: “Surpassing 15,000 new coronavirus cases a day takes the county to a level that officials have warned may tip L.A. County’s overwhelmed hospitals into a worse catastrophe, straining resources and stretching staffing to a point that healthcare officials may have to choose which patients receive the attention of critical care nurses and respiratory therapists and access to ventilators and which patients receive palliative care.”
  • “Dog puppies were more attracted to humans, read human gestures more skillfully and made more eye contact with humans than wolf puppies. The two species were similarly attracted to objects and performed similarly on nonsocial measures of memory and inhibitory control. These results demonstrate the role of domestication in enhancing the cooperative communication skills of dogs through selection on attraction to humans, which altered developmental pathways.” A preprint by Salomons and colleagues (including Duke’s Brian Hare) available from BioRxiv presents evidence that the process of domestication of dogs may have altered their cognitive development with respect to that of their wolf ancestors.
  • “’In general, the kids thought bullying was not acceptable,’ says Kelly Lynn Mulvey, co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at NC State. ‘But non-immigrant youth thought bullying immigrant peers was more acceptable than bullying of other non-immigrant peers. Immigrant origin youth thought bullying any of the kids was equally wrong.’”An article at NC State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences website highlights research by Gönültaş and Mulvey, recently published in Child Development, into how non-immigrant children react when they witness their immigrant peers being bullied.
  • “Over a six-week period straddling the start of those terms, counties that were home to large colleges that opened for in-person instruction saw a 56-percent increase in coronavirus-case rates, the analysis found. In contrast, during the same period, counties that were home to large colleges that went primarily online saw their case rates fall, by 18 percent. Counties not home to a large university — enrolling at least 20,000 students — had case declines of 6 percent.” The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Francie Diep covers the implications of a CDC MMWR paper that suggests the opening of college campuses to in-person instruction may have played a role in driving the spread of COVID earlier this year.

  • “From the moment we wake to the moment we drift off to sleep at night, we make dozens and dozens of decisions that are based, to lesser or greater extents, on misinformation. Finding a path to the objective truth on any topic, from toothpaste to toilet seats to, yes, skydiving, can be difficult. But the path does exist, and finding it can be liberating.” At The Walrus, science writer Tim Caulfield leaps out of an airplane to make a point about risk assessment, cognitive biases, and “post-decision dissonance.”
  • “Sci-Hub started its Twitter account 9 years ago, and it had attracted more than 180,000 followers. That number pales in comparison with the more than 3 million unique internet addresses people used to download scholarly articles from Sci-Hub during a 6-month period in 2016, according to a news article in Science. The website now claims to offer more than 85 million papers for download—a large chunk of the world’s scientific literature.” At Science, Jeffrey Brainard reports that Sci-Hub, the famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) clearinghouse for scholarly publications that’s devoted to evading paywalls and copyright restrictions, has seen its Twitter account permanently suspended.
  • At The Hill, an opinion article co-authored by Duke Sanford School professors and misinformation experts Bill Adair and Phillip M. Napoli recommends the creation of a bipartisan commission devoted to plumbing the problem of misinformation and explore ways to combat it: “The new commission is needed because efforts so far haven’t worked. The tech platforms have tried a variety of strategies with limited success. Google and Facebook have funded research to combat misinformation and highlight fact-checking, including some by us at Duke. But it’s clear the tech companies’ efforts have not come close to putting a dent in the problem.”
  • “While this surge in preprint media coverage could benefit publics by connecting them with timely and relevant public health information, it could prove problematic if the uncertainties associated with the research are not made transparent.” A paper recently published in Health Communication by Fleerackers and colleagues outlines the challenges of accurately communicating research findings – particularly the degree of uncertainty surrounding them – as not-yet-peer-reviewed article preprints have become an important stream of information during the COVID pandemic.

A selective focus photograph of a stack of coins in the foreground with a ceramic piggy bank, out of focus in the background and appearing to be staring at the coins. Image credit: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels
Image credit: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels
  • “From May 2010 through December 2018, more than $10 billion was sought through online medical fundraisers in the US, with more than $3 billion raised. Cancer represented the most common medical condition for which funding was sought, followed by trauma/injury.” A research article published in JAMA Network Open by Angraal and colleagues provides a sharper picture of just how much Americans are relying on crowdfunding to cover medical expenses.
  • “Public health is an enterprise that requires the engagement of the global public health community. As such, countering the corruption of science with politics will require a community effort. The stakeholders in public health—scientists, clinicians and, most importantly, the public—must push back against political interference in essential, objective scientific investigations.” As teams of investigators arrive in China to probe the origins of SARS-CoV-2, virologist Angela Rasmussen shares her perspective on the importance of such work in an article in Nature Medicine.
  • “Long-term care workforce challenges affect a predominantly voiceless group of US workersrecent immigrants, women of color, women with little education, and women who have substantial informal caregiving duties in addition to their paid care work.” In an opinion article in the January issue of Milbank Quarterly, Courtney Harold Van Houten and Walter D. Dawson argue that an essential component of any effort to improve the provision of long-term care in the U.S. should include improving the pay and working conditions for the people who provide that care.
  • The New York Times reports that former FDA Commissioner David Kessler will be helming the federal vaccination push under the incoming Biden administration, which has also tapped former acting CMS chief Andy Slavitt to assist with the effort: “In addition to working to speed delivery of vaccines throughout the country, Dr. Kessler is expected to increase the emphasis on development of treatments, and he plans to begin a major antiviral development program for treatment of Covid-19, according to transition officials. He also wants to build U.S. capacity for manufacturing vaccines against the coronavirus as well as leading known pathogens.”
  • “With former FDA commissioner David Kessler now out of the race — he’ll reportedly lead up Operation Warp Speed instead — the choice boils down to one between a veteran who’s been hugely influential in shaping a more drugmaker-friendly agency, where hard rules make way for a collaborative approach, and a one-time insider who is keen to uphold, if not raise, the traditional gold standards.” Endpoints News editor Amber Tong has some inside baseball on the Biden administration’s likely pick to head up the US Food and Drug Administration.
  • “Remarkably substandard systems of medical care may explain ICE’s history of vaccine failures. The spread of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases, such as influenza, varicella, and mumps, among people in ICE detention centers has grown in the last few years. The additional failure to provide access to a Covid-19 vaccine would severely compound the disease burden already faced by detainees.” An editorial published in STAT News by Nishant Uppal, Parsa Erfani, and Raquel Sofia Sandoval makes a blunt case for ensuring that persons detained by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are given expedited access to COVID vaccination.