Forge Wednesday Roundup - January 13, 2021

January 13, 2021

In today’s Roundup: additional evidence for benefit from masking, distancing; FTC settlement has implications for algorithms; disproportionate disease burdens on rural areas; huge volume of Parler data being analyzed in wake of US Capitol insurrection; CRISPR meets conservation biology; review of first 9 weeks of in-person schooling in NC schools shows limited COVID transmission; reported success of amyloid drug for Alzheimer prompts interest, caution; mRNA vaccines didn’t happen overnight; “John Henryism” and the health burdens of African American men; building better patents for biosimilars; much more:

Deep Breaths
Brown tree snake, photographed among green foliage on Guam, where it is an invasive species. Public Domain image credit: Gordon H. Rodda for US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Image credit: Gordon H. Rodda via US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • “Among mammals, the platypus is the most fascinating species of all. They represent the ancestral state of what terrestrial mammal genomes could have been before adapting to various environments... What other animal has a rubbery bill, ankle spikes full of venom, luxurious fur that glows under black light and a tendency to lay eggs?” The New York Times’ Cara Giaimo reports on a new Nature study where researchers present the most complete platypus genome assembled to date, which is helping scientists better understand mammalian evolution.
  • Behold a new form of snake locomotion: the “Lasso.” In a cool (read chilling) new video accompanying a new study published in Current Biology, scientists at Colorado State University and the University of Cincinnati have discovered that the brown tree snake native to the Island of Guam uses a never-before-seen lasso-like gripping technique to climb objects and trees. Science News’ Maria Temming reports the details.

AI, Statistics & Data Science
  • Using only a limited stream of online search data, and incorporating human behaviors, researchers have developed a new algorithm that predicts the prevalence of influenza-like-illnesses, beating out traditional methods. Led by researchers from Microsoft, the findings were published in Nature Communications
  • In a move that may have significant reverberations across industries that rely on user data as the substrate for algorithms, a settlement between the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Protection Division and California-based Everalbum will require the company to delete not only images that were used to develop facial recognition applications without explicit consent from users, but will also require Everalbum to delete the models and algorithms developed with that data.
  • “The susceptibility of current deep-learning systems to being fooled undermines the safety of self-driving cars and poses dangerous possibilities for autonomous weapons. The inability of systems to distinguish between correlation and causation is also at the root of algorithmic discrimination. In 2021, I hope the field will realign its incentives to prioritize comprehension over prediction.” MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao lists five ways that artificial intelligence can be put to use for the greater good in 2021.
  • “It’s pretty magical… The learning algorithm is building a very complex black box that extracts the essence of what the images are about, and it just works.” In a technology feature for Nature, Amber Dance reports on how machine learning algorithms trained to reduce noise in micrographs are helping scientists and researchers clean up microscopy images. 
  • The New York Times’ Steve Lohr reports on how Tim Berners-Lee—the inventor of the World Wide Web—is seeking to reinvent what he had created with the help of a tech start-up, which is developing an open-source platform that aims to give people control over their own data (H/T @eperakslis).  

Basic Science, Clinical Research & Public Health
  • “In a world of synthetic gene drives, the border between the human and the natural, between the laboratory and the wild, already deeply blurred, all but dissolves. In such a world, not only do people determine the conditions under which evolution is taking place, people can—again, in principle—determine the outcome.” In a fascinating piece for The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert narrates how she learned to use CRISPR gene-editing technology and underlines the potential and dilemmas of using CRISPR gene drives in conservation biology.
  • “While the virus runs rampant, hospitals will struggle to keep up, which potentially endangers medical staffers and anyone needing hospital care — and the virus will continue to spread as long as people refuse to wear masks and disregard scientifically sound guidelines.” As the federal government and its supporters continue to slam public health departments and pandemic guidelines, Kaiser Health News’ Sandy West reports on the excessive burden that medical centers are facing across the country in both urban and rural communities alike as COVID-19 cases increase at an alarming pace.
  • “The John Henry of contemporary social theory is a man striving to get ahead in an unequal society. The effort of confronting that machine, day in and day out, leads to stress so corrosive that it physically changes bodies, causing Black men to age quicker, become sicker and die younger than nearly any other U.S. demographic group.” This ProPublica feature introduces the theory of John Henryism, coined in the 1970s by Black epidemiologist and public health researcher Sherman James while investigating racial health disparities in North Carolina, and how it might help explain why Black men in America have some of the shortest lifespans.
    Statue of African American folk hero John Henry outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia. Image credit: Ken Thomas via Wikipedi
    Image credit: Ken Thomas via Wikipedia
  • “[For people with OCD], the virus is the encapsulation of every fear they had ever experienced. Invisible. Seemingly on every surface. No treatment. Potentially fatal, with long-term effects that could last months or years. Before COVID-19, patients would work for months in therapy to overcome the discomfort of entering a public restroom or boarding a grimy train. Now, every single aspect of ordinary life, from a visit to a grocery store to the arrival of a package, posed the same threat as the bus terminal’s toilets.” STAT News’ Gabrielle Glaser reports on how the COVID-19 pandemic has not only made a majority of Americans feel fearful and anxious over the past 12 months but has wreaked havoc in the lives of many living with obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, causing them to regress and back track on years of intervention and therapy.
  • “The rising toll of chronic disease in rural America is not a failure of medical technology — it is a failure of social and economic policy that makes it difficult for many people to access quality healthcare” In an essay for the Washington Post, Drs. Robert Califf, Haider Warraich, and  Sarah Cross provide context to their research showing rising death rates from chronic conditions of the heart and lung. Their analysis points to a need to transform rural healthcare to prepare it for the rising tide of chronic disease in rural America.
  • Duke pediatrician and researcher Kanecia Zimmerman and colleagues used contact tracing to assess 11 North Carolina school districts during the first nine weeks of in-person instruction in the 2020–2021 academic school year, and found extremely limited in-school secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2, with no instances of child-to-adult transmission of the coronavirus within the schools. Their findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.
  • A perspective in PNAS provides substantial evidence that the use of facemasks and face coverings reduces the transmission of COVID-19 – protection that can be amplified by good hand hygiene and social distancing – and calls on governments and public officials to “strongly encourage” and regulate the widespread use of facemasks in public.
  • STAT News’ Matthew Herper reports on new results from a randomized controlled trial of drug maker Eli Lilly’s experimental Alzheimer’s therapy (donanemab), which appears to slow the decline of patients with early symptoms of Alzheimer disease. The results may resuscitate debate and discussions about the “amyloid hypothesis,” which has been cast in doubt after the failure of many candidate therapies targeting the protein – but for that same reason, the news is being received with a great deal of caution in the scientific community.
  • “One theme that will show up many times in this post is that these vaccines were not invented from scratch. There’s a long list of things that had to be worked on in order for the field to be in the shape it was in at the beginning of 2020, and that’s why things ran so quickly. ‘RNA as a therapeutic agent’ is an idea that has had billions of dollars of work poured into it over the last twenty or thirty years, so when you hear about these vaccines as something new, remember that’s only for certain definitions of ‘new’.” In his In the Pipeline blog at Science Translational Medicine, Derek Lowe goes deep into the science of the mRNA vaccines that currently offer the best promise for overcoming the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. He writes about the years of preparation that allowed these vaccines to be developed at breakneck pace. 
  • “I don’t feel like I’m an apples-to-apples comparison with another healthy 36-year-old because another healthy 36-year-old, if they get a stomach virus, it doesn’t wind them up in the ER, but for me, it always has. There’s thousands of decisions made in a day by somebody with type 1 diabetes that could either kill them or keep them healthy.” STAT News’ Elizabeth Cooney quotes Laura Woerner, who has had type 1 diabetes since she was 11, while making a case for why people with type 1 diabetes need not be so low on the CDC’s vaccine priority list.
  • In a new paper out in Nature, researchers from Northwestern University demonstrate how the immune reaction to SARS-CoV-2 unfolds in the lungs, and how it differs from reactions to other pathogens (H/T @EricTopol).
  • In Academic Medicine, Haider Warraich, a Harvard cardiologist and researcher, along with medical student Sharon Pang, make the case for medicine’s oldest conference – the morbidity and mortality conference – to evolve into a platform that allows for physicians to be reflective and human. The need for such a space has become even more pressing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  
  • “People are less likely to chance receiving a placebo when they could get one of the various vaccines now authorized, two of which prevent COVID-19 with about 95% efficacy… The window is closing.” Nature’s Elie Dolgin reports on why scientists and clinicians around the world are finding it challenging to recruit participants for placebo-controlled clinical trials to find a less expensive alternative to the preexisting COVID-19 vaccines, one with fewer side effects and ease of storage.
  • NPR’s Greg Rosalsky explains the concept of post-pandemic “pent-up demand,” a trend that suffering businesses across the world are awaiting anxiously for in the wake of a host of newly approved and highly effective vaccines against COVID-19. However, as vaccines roll out, there are lessons the world can learn from a post-Spanish-flu-pandemic world in 1919, which crashed as fast as it rose in the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic.
  • “The behavioral health toll of the Covid-19 pandemic and systemic racism has increased attention on the potential of digital health to increase access and quality of behavioral healthcare. However, as the pandemic continues to widen health disparities in racial and ethnic minoritized groups, concerns arise around an increased reliance on digital health technologies exacerbating the digital divide and reinforcing systemic health inequities in communities of color.” In a preprint available from JMIR Mental Health, Duke’s Elsa Friis-Healy, Gabriela Nagy and Scott Kollins offer five key recommendations on how the fields of mental healthcare and technology can ensure the development of approaches that increase health equity.
  • The adoption of an eco-friendly universal Free School Meal Program (FSMP) – in other words, free lunch for all students, not just a needs-based program – was associated with a roughly 35 percent reduction in the number of behavioral incidents, especially physical fights, between students in South Korean primary and secondary schools that adopted the program, according to a study published in the journal Economics of Education Review.
  • “The extraordinary climate events of 2020 show us we have no time to lose. It will be difficult, but the cost of inaction is too great.” The Guardian’s environment editor Damian Carrington reports on 2020 being the hottest year in global history despite COVID-19 lockdowns, confirming that climate change continued its relentless march through the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
  • Medicine runs in the family, especially if that family is Swedish. Evidence from a retrospective observational study of three generations of physicians in Sweden by a group of American researchers found that for physicians in Sweden, “medicine might increasingly run in families,” as one in five physicians also had a parent who was a physician. Comparable heritability of profession, interestingly, was not observed in other high-paying, high-status professions.

Communications & Digital Society
A photograph of chaotic and violent crowd storming the US Capitol, as seen from the side of the Capitol steps, while a cloud of teargas drifts through the air. Image credit: Tyler Merbler via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Image credit: Tyler Merbler via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
  • At Nature Index, Gemma Conroy reports on how Jean-François Doherty, a PhD student at the University of Otago in New Zealand studying host manipulation by hairworms, traced the beginning of the use of “sensationalistic,” exaggerated buzz words in scientific literature back to the late 1990s – a trend creating hype amid the COVID-19 pandemic and leading to medical misinformation.
  • “In a tweet early Sunday, @donk_enby said she was crawling some 1.1 million Parler video URLs. ‘These are the original, unprocessed, raw files as uploaded to Parler with all associated metadata,’ she said. Included in this data tranche, now more than 56 terabytes in size, @donk_enby confirmed that the raw video files include GPS metadata pointing to exact locations of where the videos were taken.” In the aftermath of the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob of insurrectionists, an enterprising researcher who had noticed that planning and discussion related to the event had been occurring across the Parler social media platform began methodically downloading terabytes of potentially incriminating evidence. Gizmodo’s Dell Cameron reports the story.
  • New York Times’ Jack Nicas and Davey Alba report on Google, Amazon and Apple withdrawing support for American microblogging and social networking app Parler, popular in right-wing and "QAnon" conspiracy-theory circles as an "alternative" to Twitter, in the wake of the recent Capitol insurrection. The large tech companies are "deplatforming" the app due to concerns over misinformation and the threatening content.

  • “As a scientist and mother, I envision a future for my children in which the country is prepared for the next public health emergency... Our nation’s health hinges on good science. Our national security cannot afford another Covid-19. We must turn away from darkness and once again embrace scientific truths. Our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.” In a First Opinion for STAT, Melissa Perry, Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health calls for the much-needed return of federal scientific advisory committees, which were reduced substantially in the wake of Donald Trump’s Executive Order in June last year.
  • “The NYC Health site has a multi-step verification process just to set up an account, and then a six-step process to set up an appointment. Along the way, there are as many as 51 questions or fields, in addition to uploading images of your insurance card... All of this will be particularly challenging for populations that struggle with digital literacy and digital access—who have been hit hardest by this pandemic and who need the vaccine most.” In a recent Twitter thread, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a candidate in the 2021 New York City Mayoral election, draws attention to the unnecessarily complex COVID-19 vaccination sign-up on the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website and calls for an urgent fix in order to fill hundreds of empty vaccination slots available in the area. “We should be #1 in vaccinations in the nation from day one… Instead we’ve set up a gauntlet that requires tech support.”
  • The New York Times provides an interactive overview of how the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is going state by state as federal health official acknowledge the slower-than-expected start to people receiving shipped doses across the country. In North Carolina, only 26% of the 820,825 doses distributed have been used as compared to North Dakota, which has administrated 73% of its shipped doses.
  • “I’m feeling a little stupid right now. Each state was left to figure this out. The state handed the operations piece on to the county. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people saying: “You’ve known for nine months that this was coming, and you should have had a plan in place.” But the truth is, nobody told us what to be ready for. I had no idea this would be our responsibility. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t.” In conversation with The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow, Florida’s Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais laments being handed over the unprecedented challenge of laying down vaccination plans for a county, unexpectedly. “I’m not very popular right now. I’ve been called incompetent more times in the last month than I have in my whole career.”
  • Duke Law professor Arti Rai and Nicholson Price of the University of Michigan Law School take a deep dive into litigation involving biosimilar patent applications, making the case that while the patent process is necessary to drive competition and innovation, but that it shouldn’t be used to stifle competitors. They published their findings in Nature Biotechnology and advocate for greater coordination between the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the FDA to streamline the process.