• Lab-Grown ‘Mini-Brains’ Suggest COVID-19 Virus Can Infect Human Brain Cells

    A multidisciplinary team from two Johns Hopkins University institutions, including neurotoxicologists and virologists from the Bloomberg School of Public Health and infectious disease specialists from the School of Medicine, has found that organoids (tiny tissue cultures that simulate whole organs) made from human cells (known as “mini-brains”) can be infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The results were published online today, June 26, in the journal ALTEX: Alternatives to Animal Experimentation. Johns Hopkins notes that Early reports from Wuhan, China, have suggested that 36% of COVID-19 patients show neurological symptoms, but until now it was not clear whether the virus infects human brain cells. The Johns Hopkins researchers have now demonstrated that certain human neurons express a receptor, ACE2, that the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses for entering the lungs — and possibly the brain.

  • Decisions: Relying on the Correct Information, Finding the Right Balance

    The reopening of the economies and the resulting – and expected – increase in the number of reported infections, have intensified, and deepened, the discussion over the economic and social lockdowns of the past three months, and the right approach in the face of more infections, let alone a second wave later in the year.

    Juliet Samuel writes that the enormous costs of the lockdown so far do not mean that lockdowns will not be re-imposed – especially if a better approach to containing the more serious effects of the virus is not offered. Sweden has offered a better, “light touch” alternative, but has now come under criticism for having a higher deaths-per-million ratio relative to its Scandinavian neighbors, which opted for strict lockdowns. Carl-Johan Karlsson writes that a close examination of the Swedish case shows that it was not that the “light touch” approach was wrong, but rather that its architects have overlooked a major problem: changes made to the Swedish senior care system in the last decade left Swedish elderly exposed (3,200 of Sweden’s 5,000 deaths are over 70 years old).

    There are terminological issues (does “infection” equal “sickness”?) and measurement issues (How do you find, with precision, what the R0 is?), and Ross Clark (also see here) addresses these issues.

    Have political leaders got the balance right between listening to scientists and medical experts, and respectfully taking additional issues – say, the economic, social, psychological, and medical consequences of a lockdown — into account when formulating a response to the epidemic, issues beyond the scientists’ and medical experts’ remit? Because if these leaders have not done so, then they have abdicated their leadership responsibility. Alistair Haimes and Greg Weiner discuss these issues (note: keeping scientific advice and expertise in the proper perspective does not mean boorishly dismissing science and denigrating experts, as Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro has been in the habit of doing, with grave consequences for his country).

    Finally, this question: Are governments and societies set up properly to deal with overlapping crises and costly catastrophes, both the low-probability, high-impact events (say, a meteorite hitting Earth; a new virus), or the slower moving but predictable (say, climate change). Arnold Kling, Philip Wallach, and the Economist argue that governments must fundamentally change the way they assess risks, prepare for them, and fashion policies to cope with and recover from them.

  • Chinese, Russian COVID-19 Disinformation More Influential than Domestic European News Sources

    Chinese, Russia, Turkish, and Iranian state-backed propaganda outlets disseminate COVID-19-related disinformation throughout Europe in French, German, and Spanish, and this professionally presented disinformation is generating greater engagement across Facebook and Twitter than prominent domestic news media such as Le Monde in France or El Pais in Spain. Russian outlets producing fake coronavirus content in French and German consistently emphasized weak democratic institutions and civil disorder in Europe.

  • America's COVID Spike Shows How a Second Wave Could Bring a Second Lockdown

    So far, we have found only two ways to contain fresh outbreaks.The first, and by far the least costly, is contact-tracing and isolation. It can be done manually without a tracing app, but it requires lightning-fast reactions and extreme efficiency. The second containment method: lockdowns. But lockdowns are destructive for the economy, and they carry with them an exceedingly high cost in personal, social, and medical terms. Juliet Samuel write in The Telegraphthat in the face of a possible second wave, “the stage is set for the great experiment. The top priority must be to get the tracing system working. But even if our Government is somehow incapable of that, it may yet find a set of distancing policies that keeps virus deaths at a low enough level without shutting everything down. Perhaps there is a balance to be struck, involving a mix of mask-wearing, better care-home procedures, loosening rules for the young before the old, keeping people outdoors and planning ways to do so in winter.”

  • 43% of U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Are Linked to Nursing Homes

    At least 54,000 residents and workers have died from the coronavirus at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults in the United States, according to a New York Times database. As of June 26, the virus has infected more than 282,000 people at some 12,000 facilities. While 11 percent of the country’s cases have occurred in long-term care facilities, deaths related to Covid-19 in these facilities account for more than 43 percent of the country’s pandemic fatalities.

  • Crisis Government

    Henry Kissinger once quipped: “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” That was back in the 1960s, when it appeared that responding to crises required the government to take a break from its ongoing work. Philip Wallach writes in National Affairs that when we step back and regard 21st-century American politics, we ought to see that the crisis responses are not “anomalous,” but rather that they vastly exceed the “normal” actions of the government in terms of importance. “This change of perspective compels us to reject the idea that polarization is the defining feature of our era, and we must reassess our understanding of the American political system’s capacities and infirmities accordingly. The overall picture is still a negative one, of course, but for reasons that differ from those we are used to hearing about.”

  • Politicians Ignore Far-Out Risks: They Need to Up Their Game

    Asteroid strikes are an extreme example of the world’s willful ignorance of the need to prepare for catastrophes — but not an atypical one. Low-probability, high-impact events are a fact of life. Individual humans look for protection from them to governments and, if they can afford it, insurers. Humanity, at least as represented by the world’s governments, reveals instead a preference to ignore them until forced to react—even when foresight’s price-tag is small. It is an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of the future. The Economist writes that COVID-19 offers a tragic example. Virologists, epidemiologists and ecologists have warned for decades of the dangers of a flu-like disease spilling over from wild animals. But when sars-cov-2 began to spread very few countries had the winning combination of practical plans, the kit those plans required in place and the bureaucratic capacity to enact them. Those that did benefited greatly. Taiwan has, to date, seen just seven COVID-19 deaths; its economy has suffered correspondingly less. Pandemics are disasters that governments have experience of. What therefore of truly novel threats?

  • Sweden’s Coronavirus Failure Started Long Before the Pandemic

    Many countries have criticized the Swedish government’s lax lockdown, but the deadly mistakes of defunding elder care and decentralizing public health oversight were made before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Carl-Johan Karlsson writes in Foreign Policy that Sweden has become a global outlier in ignoring calls for coronavirus lockdowns, with the government’s public health agency issuing recommendations rather than mandating certain behaviors, what’s considered a “light-touch strategy.” Critics of the Swedish approach point to the fact that Sweden has a higher death rate relative to its Scandinavian strict-lockdown neighbors (Denmark, Norway, and Finland). But Karlsson notes that a closer look reveals a more complex reality: the overwhelming majority of Swedish COVID-19-related deaths occurred in senior citizens care centers, so some criticisms of the Swedish COVID-19 response may still be premature, and others should rather be directed at mistakes made long before the current health crisis—namely the decline of central government oversight and, especially, a decadelong neglect of Sweden’s elderly population.

  • Coronavirus opens door to company surveillance of workers

    Employers are rushing to use digital tracking technology to reduce virus transmission in the workplace. Mohana Ravindranath writes in Politico that privacy experts worry that businesses will start using their newfound surveillance capabilities for purposes far beyond public health. The data could be used to evaluate workers’ productivity, see which colleagues are holding meetings or even flag an employee who unexpectedly ducks out of the office during work hours.

  • How the Coronavirus Short-Circuits the Immune System

    At the beginning of the pandemic, the coronavirus looked to be another respiratory illness. But the virus has turned out to affect not just the lungs, but the kidneys, the heart and the circulatory system — even, somehow, our senses of smell and taste. Gina Kolata writes in the New York Times that now researchers have discovered yet another unpleasant surprise. In many patients hospitalized with the coronavirus, the immune system is threatened by a depletion of certain essential cells, suggesting eerie parallels with HIV. The findings suggest that a popular treatment to tamp down the immune system in severely ill patients may help a few, but could harm many others.

  • A Coronavirus Vaccine Is Still Months Away, but an Antibody Treatment Could Be Closer

    Vaccines have gotten all the attention in the race to fight Covid-19, but there is a major push in the United States to develop antibody therapies to treat coronavirus. Jen Christensen writes for CNN that there’s so much of a push that some scientists think these treatments may be available this year, even before a vaccine.

  • We Ran the CDC. Here’s How to Talk to the Public in a Health Crisis.

    With just a few words uttered during a media briefing in Geneva on Monday, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for coronavirus response sent a lightning bolt of doubt around the globe as to how transmission might occur during this pandemic. Jeffrey P. Koplan and Richard E. Besser — they each ran the CDC during a public health emergency – write in Barron’sthat when Maria Van Kerkhove walked back her statement about asymptomatic transmission a day later, noting that how often people without symptoms spread the disease “is a major unknown,” the damage already had been done. Communication failures like this, and the muted voice and ignored expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during this pandemic, undermine the institutions we need and can have a dramatic impact on people’s health. Without trust, transparency, and truth, public health officials and government leaders will struggle to inform people and drive behaviors to serve the greater good.

  • Proper Perspective, and a New, Post-Pandemic Economic Paradigm

    Governments around the world have imposed economic and social lockdown in their countries in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. These decisions were driven by dire predictions of several influential epidemiological models. Three months into the lockdowns and shutdowns, these decisions are subject to renewed examination and criticism.
    Ross Clark (also see here) questions the usefulness of variables such as “R”-naught (R0), and the underlying figures used in calculating them. Alistair Haimes and Greg Weiner raise more fundamental questions: were government leaders, facing a complex situation requiring costly decisions, too willing – indeed, eager — to accept the recommendations of scientists and modelers, without subjecting these recommendations to searching critiques and thorough examinations? “[I]t is already clear that there has been an unexampled disregard for the foundational pillars of the scientific method even as governments trumpet that they are ‘following the science’,” Haimes writes. Weiner writes that in tough situations, leaders should not outsource decisions to others. Exercising judgment – seasoned by experience, evenness of temperament, and due regard for expertise – “as the means of making political decisions is not only correct; it is unavoidable.”
    And judgment leavened by experience, Dr. Waqar Rashid writes, would help us keep this epidemic in perspective. He tells the story of the 1996 mad cow disease (BSE) scare to show that with a better perspective, an initial panicky reaction to a scary new outbreak is often found to have been unjustified.
    On 1 December 1862, President Abraham Lincoln sent a message to Congress, proposing the compensated emancipation of slaves. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” he wrote. “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” This is also Arnold Kling’s argument. The novel virus has created a novel economic predicament. “What is clear, however, is that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the deterioration of the concepts that underpin contemporary macroeconomic-policy thinking in America,” he writes. “The time has come to jettison both the Keynesian and monetarist paradigms that macroeconomic policymakers employ and to pursue an alternative paradigm more suitable to the conditions prevailing in today’s economy.”

  • Ignoring the COVID Evidence

    There is no need to wait for history books to analyze and dissect every aspect of the disease and the U.K. governments’ response to it, Alistair Haimes writes in The Critic, “but it is already clear that there has been an unexampled disregard for the foundational pillars of the scientific method even as governments trumpet that they are ‘following the science’.” He argues that at every stage, the U.K. government has failed to apply scrutiny where it is due, or even to stop and check that it was on the right ladder before it carried on climbing. He adds: “I have no idea whether there will be either a second wave or a totally different epidemic in the next few years. But we urgently need to repair the infrastructure not just of our healthcare and procurement systems but also of the decision-making processes underpinning our scientific advice, our policy response and our legislative safeguards, ready for the next crisis that comes along. It should start with ensuring that the right questions will be asked, and that scrutiny is maintained and sustained when the going gets tough. We did not have to get this wrong the way we did: we must not repeat the fatal steps that brought us to where we are now.”

  • Controversy on COVID-19 Mask Study Spotlights Messiness of Science during a Pandemic

    Late last week, a group of researchers posted a letter that they had sent to the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNASrequesting the retraction of a study published the week before that purportedly showed mask use was the most effective intervention in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in New York City. Stephanie Soucheray writes for CIDRAP that though PNAS editors have yet to respond to the request, scientists have roundly criticized the study’s methodology, and the entire kerfuffle has highlighted the difficulty of “doing science” amid a full-blown pandemic.