Heat is the poor man’s altitude

Sunday, July 12th, 2020

This is the time of year, Alex Hutchinson reminds us, when fitness journalists write articles about how the miserable heat that’s ruining your workouts is actually doing you a big favor:

You’re lucky to be dripping buckets of sweat and chafing up a storm, because heat is the “poor man’s altitude,” ramping up the physiological demands of your workout and triggering a series of adaptations that enhance your endurance.

[...]

Heat training works differently [from altitude training]. The most notable change, after just a few days, is a dramatic increase—of up to 20 percent—in the volume of plasma coursing through your veins. That’s the part of the blood that doesn’t include hemoglobin-rich red blood cells, so it’s not immediately obvious whether more plasma will enhance your endurance under moderate weather conditions.

[...]

If heat training causes your plasma volume to increase, that will lower your hematocrit.

Lundby’s hypothesis is based on the idea that your kidneys are constantly monitoring hematocrit, trying to keep it in a normal range. If your hematocrit has a sustained decrease, the kidney responds by producing EPO to trigger the production of more hemoglobin-rich red blood cells. Unlike the rapid increase in plasma volume, this is a slower process. Lundby and his colleagues figure it could take about five weeks.

[...]

The 11 cyclists in the heat group did those sessions in about 100 degrees and 65 percent humidity; the 12 cyclists in the control group did the same sessions at 60 degrees and 25 percent humidity, aiming for the same subjective effort level. During the heat sessions, the cyclists were limited to half a liter of water to ensure mild dehydration, which is thought to be one of the triggers for plasma volume expansion.

The key outcome measure: total hemoglobin mass increased 893 to 935 grams in the heat group, a significant 4.7 percent increase. In the control group, hemoglobin mass stayed essentially unchanged, edging up by just 0.5 percent.

Army halts SERE course after 90 soldiers test positive for coronavirus

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020

Out of the 110 students participating in the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 82 — along with eight instructors — tested positive for COVID-19:

The course was terminated and all 110 soldiers are being quarantined for 14 days, Burton said.

Seven reasons why police are disliked

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

Randall Collins casts his sociological eye at why police are disliked and finds seven reasons:

  1. Police are used for collecting fines for municipal budgets.
  2. Police are used for enforcing unpopular regulations.
  3. Police dislike defiance.
  4. Police dislike property destruction.
  5. Adrenaline overload and forward-panic attacks on unresisting targets.
  6. Police training for extreme situations.
  7. Racism among police.

Explosive volcanic eruptions triggered by cosmic rays

Saturday, June 20th, 2020

Japanese researchers suggest that explosive volcanic eruptions are triggered by cosmic rays:

Volcanoes with silica-rich and highly viscous magma tend to produce violent explosive eruptions that result in disasters in local communities and that strongly affect the global environment. We examined the timing of 11 eruptive events that produced silica-rich magma from four volcanoes in Japan (Mt. Fuji, Mt. Usu, Myojin-sho, and Satsuma-Iwo-jima) over the past 306 years (from AD 1700 to AD 2005). Nine of the 11 events occurred during inactive phases of solar magnetic activity (solar minimum), which is well indexed by the group sunspot number. This strong association between eruption timing and the solar minimum is statistically significant to a confidence level of 96.7%. This relationship is not observed for eruptions from volcanoes with relatively silica-poor magma, such as Izu-Ohshima.

It is well known that the cosmic-ray flux is negatively correlated with solar magnetic activity, as the strong magnetic field in the solar wind repels charged particles such as galactic cosmic rays that originate from outside of the solar system. The strong negative correlation observed between the timing of silica-rich eruptions and solar activity can be explained by variations in cosmic-ray flux arising from solar modulation.

Because silica-rich magma has relatively high surface tension (~ 0.1 Nm?1), the homogeneous nucleation rate is so low that such magma exists in a highly supersaturated state without considerable exsolution, even when located relatively close to the surface, within the penetration range of cosmic-ray muons (1–10 GeV). These muons can contribute to nucleation in supersaturated magma, as documented by many authors studying a bubble chamber, via ionization loss. This radiation-induced nucleation can lead to the pre-eruptive exsolution of H2O in the silica-rich magma. We note the possibility that the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption was triggered by the same mechanism: an increase in cosmic-ray flux triggered by Typhoon Yunya, as a decrease in atmospheric pressure results in an increase in cosmic-ray flux.

We also speculate that the snowball Earth event was triggered by successive large-scale volcanic eruptions triggered by increased cosmic-ray flux due to nearby supernova explosions.

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz.)

A little bit of pandemic risk was just the thing

Friday, June 19th, 2020

Analysts at Munich Re realized that a pandemic could overwhelm life insurance companies — and reinsurance companies, too:

To tackle Munich Re’s exposure, Kraut’s team began attempting to quantify and price this incredibly remote, unpredictable risk. If they managed to do that, they would then need to sell part of that risk—to find someone willing to insure the reinsurer. “No one really had tried to do a transaction at a one-in-500-year return period,” Kraut said. His boss gave it a 50–50 chance of success.

But over the course of two years, the group gradually built up a list of potential buyers. It turned out that there were a few large institutional investors looking to diversify their own portfolios, and a little bit of pandemic risk was just the thing. Munich Re would provide them with annual payments, year after year. In the rare event of a pandemic, they would have to cover Munich Re’s losses. One interested class of investor—if a macabre one—was pension funds, which typically grapple with something called longevity risk: the chance that people will live longer than expected.

“It’s not really good terminology to call it a ‘risk,’ ” Kraut said. “It’s a good thing, technically! But if people live a lot longer than expected, then a pension fund needs to pay out a lot more pensions than they originally calculated.” A deadly pandemic that takes the lives of pensioners, to put it in the most clinical terms, means fewer years of pension payouts, canceling some of the longevity risk. Should no pandemic arise, they would pocket payments from Munich Re.

By 2013, Kraut and his team had put together enough investors—starting with a large Australian pension fund—to take some of the pandemic problem off of Munich Re’s books. But he soon encountered an unexpected hitch: The mechanisms written to trigger the deal relied on a series of “pandemic phases” monitored by the World Health Organization. (Phase 1: Virus is circulating in animals. Phase 2: Reports of human infection. Phase 3: Human-to-human transmission. And so on up to Phase 6: Sustained outbreaks in multiple regions.) Sometime in 2013, however, the WHO abandoned this system for a less specific four phases. Kraut suddenly needed some other organization to delineate the stages of epidemics reliably enough to write into an insurance policy. And he needed someone to monitor epidemics closely, to know when they hit agreed upon triggers—illnesses, deaths, spread. “But you can’t just hire the WHO,” he said.

In studying up on the world of epidemiology, Kraut happened to have picked up a book called The Viral Storm. It was written by Nathan Wolfe. Part memoir, part prescription, the book laid out a vision for how to counter the threat that novel viruses represent to humans. Kraut looked up Wolfe and saw that he’d formed a company.

[...]

Kraut, however, had an even more ambitious idea in mind. What if, instead of simply hedging its own life insurance business in the case of a pandemic, Munich Re could use the same concept to insure other businesses against them? Business interruption insurance, the policies that protect companies against income losses from disasters like fires or hurricanes, often explicitly excluded disease. (And when it didn’t, insurers could still use the ambiguity to deny claims.) The risk was thought to be too large, too unpredictable to quantify. But Munich Re had already proven it could cover its own life insurance risk in pandemics, and now it had a partner in Metabiota that specialized in seemingly unpredictable outbreaks. What if they could create and sell a business interruption insurance policy that covered epidemics, starting with acutely vulnerable industries like travel and hospitality? They could then pass on the payout risk from those policies to the same types of investors who had bought their life risk.

[...]

Where Munich Re’s epidemic solutions division had been struggling to get traction with potential customers, now, in early January, buyers were banging at the door. “That’s just the nature of human psychology,” he said. “Whenever a catastrophe arrives, people immediately want insurance for that catastrophe.” The virus was still confined to China and Kraut faced a grim calculation: Should the company write business interruption policies that would cover SARS-CoV-2, outside of Asia? “You clearly have the human tragedy,” he said. “On the other hand you are in charge of the business unit.” But there were too many warning signs—too much risk for Munich Re. It would have been like selling fire insurance for a house already in flames. Kraut made the decision not to sell.

In a sense, Munich Re had dodged a bullet: Had the company succeeded at selling pandemic protection to corporate giants starting 19 months before, it would have collected almost no premiums and now be paying out on every single one. Kraut acknowledged as much, but offered that if insurers never pay out, “then you lose the reason of existence.”

By March, Metabiota had closed its offices in downtown San Francisco, and its employees joined the legions of new remote workers. “It is painful to see loss of livelihoods, insecurity, fear,” Oppenheim said, “when potentially we would have had tools to prevent that.”

Only you can figure out what your stomach can tolerate

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

As Patrick Wilson points out in his new book The Athlete’s Gut: The Inside Science of Digestion, Nutrition, and Stomach Distress, the path to a happy gut is nuanced and context specific:

One study found that roughly 70 per cent of athletes experience at least one severe side stitch in a given year. Another study found that 40 per cent of marathoners get an uncomfortable urge to defecate during hard runs. “It’s fair to say,” Wilson writes, “that most athletes occasionally experience gut problems during training or competition.”

There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that your muscles demand oxygen-rich blood during exercise, which diverts blood away from the gut. The oxygen-starved digestive organs then struggle to deal with whatever partially digested food remains there.

For that reason, hard exercise is a more potent trigger than easy exercise. Activities with lots of jostling, such as running and horseback riding, increase your risk. Women report more gut problems than men, for reasons that aren’t understood. The bottom line: Most symptoms have more than one contributing factor, which means you’ll need to experiment with several possible countermeasures.

[...]

Is it the lactose that’s messing up your workout? For a few people, yes; for most people, no. Same goes for the gluten, the fructose, the fibre, the too-big or too-small meals, the underdrinking or overdrinking. Only you can figure out what your stomach can tolerate.

But once you figure it out, you can change it. Just like your muscles, your digestive tract adapts to the stresses you put on it. If you carb load, your intestine will develop more transporters to ferry those carbohydrates into your bloodstream more quickly. If you practise drinking on the run, your stomach will adapt to feel less full with a bellyful of liquid.

Heat is now hot

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

Heat is now hot, in the world of athletic training:

Maybe the sauna-loving Finns — who, in addition to topping the rankings in this year’s World Happiness Report, have racked up more than 100 Olympic track and field medals — have been onto something all along.

The origins of the current boom in heat research can be traced back to the 2008 Olympics. University of Oregon physiologist Chris Minson was helping marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein prepare for what was expected to be a sweltering summer in Beijing. Heat-acclimation protocols, which usually involve a week or two of sweaty workouts, are a well-established way of triggering adaptations — increased blood-plasma volume, lower core temperature, higher perspiration rate — that help you perform in the heat. “But I had this niggling fear,” Minson recalls. “What if the race wasn’t hot? What if it was cooler?”

No one knew for sure whether being well-adapted to heat might come with trade-offs, like performing worse in cool conditions. So Minson set up a study with 20 cyclists to find out. The results, published in 2010, sparked a frenzy among sports scientists. Ten days of training in 104-degree heat boosted the cyclists’ VO2 max by 5 percent and improved their one-hour time-trial performance by 6 percent — even when the testing room was kept at a brisk 55 degrees. Suddenly, hot rooms and nonbreathable track suits were being hyped as the poor man’s altitude training.

The initial thinking was that, whereas working out in thin air triggers the formation of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, a main benefit of heat training was an increased volume of blood plasma to ferry red blood cells to your muscles. Whether that plasma boost actually translates to improved athletic performance remains contentious. Carsten Lundby, an endurance expert at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark who has studied heat training, is skeptical that simply increasing plasma volume improves performance after just a week or two. However, the resulting dilution of your blood might trigger a natural EPO response to produce new red blood cells, just like altitude training — an idea he’s currently testing with a six-week protocol.

But plasma volume isn’t the only parameter that heat changes. According to Meylan, psychological resilience and altered perception of high temperatures are among the key benefits his players received from heat training. That, in part, is why Canada’s women’s soccer team will likely head to southern Spain or Portugal right before next summer’s World Cup, which will take place in France.

More generally, heat is a shock to the system, generating some of the same cellular responses that exercise and altitude do. For that reason, scientists are now studying its therapeutic benefits, as well as cross-adaptation, the idea that heat training might prepare you for a trip to high elevations, or help you maintain an edge when you return.

A practical example: Last year, three elite steeplechasers visited Minson’s lab three or four times a week to soak in a 105-degree hot tub for roughly 40 minutes, hoping the heat would help sustain the elevated red-blood-cell levels they’d developed during altitude training in Flagstaff, Arizona. Blood tests suggested the approach worked.

2,750 years of achievement by the top tier of homo sapiens

Monday, June 8th, 2020

Ethan Morse opens his “detailedreview of Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment with this warning:

There are reasons to read this book and not to read this book.

First, the not-reason. From the title, Human Accomplishment details the successes of humans from 800 BCE to 1950 — 2750 years of achievement by the top-tier of homo sapiens. Statistically speaking, the average person will neither contribute nor perform anything absolutely significant to society. (They may contribute some relatively significant, but nothing absolute.) This book serves as a stark reminder of this fact. Some are uncomfortable with this and prefer to live thinking that they have or eventually will have a profound impact on the world, which is perfectly fine. Don’t read this book nor this review. Done.

Now, the more compelling to-reason from another perspective. From the title, Human Accomplishment details the successes of humans from 800 BCE to 1950 — 2750 years of achievement by the top-tier of homo sapiens. Conveniently compiled in a single 668-page book (which includes the main body chapter, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index), Murray objectively (more on the use of this term later) lays out the crowning moments of the human race in science and the arts. No need to go through volumes of text wondering if your favorite author is considered among the best ever (hint: they’re probably not). Instead, consult this book and find out who the best ever are among sciences, philosophy, art, technology, and literature.

Seismic technology to probe the Earth adapted to probe the brain

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

For decades, geologists have used sound waves travelling through the Earth to search for oil, image fault lines and attempt to predict earthquakes:

But in recent years seismology has been supercharged by a computational technique called full waveform inversion (FWI), which uses complex computer algorithms to scavenge ever more information from seismic data, and make much more detailed and accurate 3D maps of the Earth’s crust.

Now scientists at Imperial College London have adapted the same technology into a prototype head-mounted scanner that produced imaging information they say could be used in the future to produce high-resolution 3D images of the brain.

synthesized-wavefield-crossing-the-head

The device uses a helmet fitted with an array of acoustic transducers that act as both sound transmitters and receivers. The system uses low frequency sound waves that are able to penetrate the skull and pass through the brain without harming brain tissue. The sound waves are altered as they pass through different brain structures, then the signals are read and run through the FWI algorithm. In simulations the team got results that make them confident they can produce high-resolution 3D images that may be as good, if not better, than more traditional approaches.

Such a device, because of its simplicity and presumably lower cost, could make brain imaging much more widely available.

If developed into a small, portable version, it could have a powerful impact on the diagnosis of brain injury. For example, doctors in emergency rooms or paramedics would be able to do instant brain scans of accident victims with head injuries, or stroke victims.

Current brain scanning technology is very expensive so its use is effectively rationed, with long wait times for non-emergency appointments. It’s also cumbersome, not very well suited to some emergency situations, and can’t be used on some patients. MRI, for example, can’t be used on patients with metallic medical implants or victims of accidents who might have metallic foreign bodies in them. They’re also huge, loud and confining, which can be a big issue for some patients.

Abu Hureyra had another story to tell

Monday, May 25th, 2020

Before the Taqba Dam impounded the Euphrates River in northern Syria in the 1970s, an archaeological site named Abu Hureyra bore witness to the moment ancient nomadic people first settled down and started cultivating crops — but Abu Hureyra had another story to tell:

A large mound marks the settlement, which now lies under Lake Assad.

But before the lake formed, archaeologists were able to carefully extract and describe much material, including parts of houses, food and tools — an abundance of evidence that allowed them to identify the transition to agriculture nearly 12,800 years ago. It was one of the most significant events in our Earth’s cultural and environmental history.

Abu Hureyra, it turns out, has another story to tell. Found among the cereals and grains and splashed on early building material and animal bones was meltglass, some features of which suggest it was formed at extremely high temperatures — far higher than what humans could achieve at the time — or that could be attributed to fire, lighting or volcanism.

“To help with perspective, such high temperatures would completely melt an automobile in less than a minute,” said James Kennett, a UC Santa Barbara emeritus professor of geology. Such intensity, he added, could only have resulted from an extremely violent, high-energy, high-velocity phenomenon, something on the order of a cosmic impact.

Based on materials collected before the site was flooded, Kennett and his colleagues contend Abu Hureyra is the first site to document the direct effects of a fragmented comet on a human settlement. These fragments are all part of the same comet that likely slammed into Earth and exploded in the atmosphere at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, according to Kennett. This impact contributed to the extinction of most large animals, including mammoths, and American horses and camels; the disappearance of the North American Clovis culture; and to the abrupt onset of the end-glacial Younger Dryas cooling episode.

The team’s findings are highlighted in a paper published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

“Our new discoveries represent much more powerful evidence for very high temperatures that could only be associated with a cosmic impact,” said Kennett, who with his colleagues first reported evidence of such an event in the region in 2012.

Abu Hureyra lies at the easternmost sector of what is known as the Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) strewnfield, which encompasses about 30 other sites in the Americas, Europe and parts of the Middle East. These sites hold evidence of massive burning, including a widespread carbon-rich “black mat” layer that contains millions of nanodiamonds, high concentrations of platinum and tiny metallic spherules formed at very high temperatures. The YDB impact hypothesis has gained more traction in recent years because of many new discoveries, including a very young impact crater beneath the Hiawatha Glacier of the Greenland ice sheet, and high-temperature meltglass and other similar evidence at an archaeological site in Pilauco, located in southern Chile.

Researchers at Cardiff University have discovered a new type of killer T-cell

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020

Researchers at Cardiff University have discovered a new type of killer T-cell that offers hope of a “one-size-fits-all” cancer therapy:

T-cell therapies for cancer — where immune cells are removed, modified and returned to the patient’s blood to seek and destroy cancer cells — are the latest paradigm in cancer treatments.

The most widely-used therapy, known as CAR-T, is personalised to each patient but targets only a few types of cancers and has not been successful for solid tumours, which make up the vast majority of cancers.

Cardiff researchers have now discovered T-cells equipped with a new type of T-cell receptor (TCR) which recognises and kills most human cancer types, while ignoring healthy cells.

[...]

Conventional T-cells scan the surface of other cells to find anomalies and eliminate cancerous cells — which express abnormal proteins — but ignore cells that contain only “normal” proteins.

The scanning system recognises small parts of cellular proteins that are bound to cell-surface molecules called human leukocyte antigen (HLA), allowing killer T-cells to see what’s occurring inside cells by scanning their surface.

HLA varies widely between individuals, which has previously prevented scientists from creating a single T-cell-based treatment that targets most cancers in all people.

But the Cardiff study, published today in Nature Immunology, describes a unique TCR that can recognise many types of cancer via a single HLA-like molecule called MR1.

Unlike HLA, MR1 does not vary in the human population — meaning it is a hugely attractive new target for immunotherapies.

T-cells equipped with the new TCR were shown, in the lab, to kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer cells, while ignoring healthy cells.

To test the therapeutic potential of these cells in vivo, the researchers injected T-cells able to recognise MR1 into mice bearing human cancer and with a human immune system.

This showed “encouraging” cancer-clearing results which the researchers said was comparable to the now NHS-approved CAR-T therapy in a similar animal model.

The Cardiff group were further able to show that T-cells of melanoma patients modified to express this new TCR could destroy not only the patient’s own cancer cells, but also other patients’ cancer cells in the laboratory, regardless of the patient’s HLA type.

Some innovation is speeding up, but some is slowing down

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic reveals that far from living in an age of incessant technological change, we have been neglecting innovation, Matt Ridley says, in exactly the areas where we most need it:

Faced with a 17th-century plague, we are left to fall back mainly on the 17th-century response of quarantine and closing the theaters.

It is commonplace today to say that innovation is speeding up, but like much conventional wisdom, it is wrong. Some innovation is speeding up, certainly, but some is slowing down. Take speed itself. In my lifetime of more than sixty years, I have seen little or no improvement in the average speed of travel. Congestion on the roads and at airports has in many cases increased the scheduled travel time between two points. A modern airliner, with its high-bypass engines and less-swept wings, is designed to save fuel by going more slowly than a Boeing 707 did in the 1960s. The record for the fastest manned plane, 4,520 miles an hour, was set by the X-15 rocket plane in 1967 and remains unbroken. Boeing 747s are still flying half a century after they were launched. Concorde, the only supersonic passenger plane, is history.

Moreover, recent decades have seen innovation stalled or rejected in a number of technologies. Nuclear power has been unable to roll out plans for new reactor designs. Genetic modification of crops was effectively rejected by Europe. The flow of new pharmaceutical drugs has slowed to a trickle. Ride-sharing apps have been banned in many cities. As the investor Peter Thiel has pointed out, innovation is now largely a digital phenomenon, because bits are lightly regulated and atoms heavily regulated. On all sides we hear arguments that innovation threatens jobs, the environment, privacy and democracy.

Of immediate relevance to the current emergency, the development of vaccines has languished in the 21st century as an orphan technology, insufficiently encouraged by governments and ignored by the private sector. New vaccines are rarely profitable. By the time a company develops one for a new epidemic, the worst may be over. Last year Wayne Koff, president of the Human Vaccines Project, warned that the world was poorly prepared for a pandemic because vaccine development “is an expensive, slow and laborious process, costing billions of dollars, taking decades, with less than a 10% rate of success.”

It is not just vaccines. Throughout the economy, with the exception of the digital industry, the West is experiencing an innovation famine. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “perennial gale of creative destruction” has been replaced by the gentle breezes of rent-seeking. Two recent books argue that big companies in cozy cahoots with big government increasingly shy away from change, sheltered against competition by regulation and intellectual property rights. In “The Captured Economy” (2017), Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles make the case that to the extent that incomes have been stagnating and opportunities for social mobility drying up, the cause is not too much innovation but too little. In “The Innovation Illusion” (2016), Fredrik Erixon and Bjorn Weigel argue that Western economies have “developed a near obsession with precautions that simply cannot be married to a culture of experimentation.”

Innovation relies upon freedom to experiment and try new things, which requires sensible regulation that is permissive, encouraging and quick to give decisions. By far the surest way to rediscover rapid economic growth when the pandemic is over will be to study the regulatory delays and hurdles that have now been hastily swept aside to help innovators in medical devices and therapies, and to see whether such reforms could be applied to other parts of the economy too.

[...]

Surprisingly, there is no good evidence that patents are helpful, let alone necessary, in encouraging innovation. A 2002 study by Josh Lerner, an economist at Harvard Business School, looked at 177 cases of strengthened patent policy in 60 countries over more than a century, finding that “these policy changes did not spur innovation.” James Watt, Samuel Morse, Guglielmo Marconi, the Wright brothers and many others wasted the best years of their lives in court defending their intellectual property, when they might have been busy developing new devices.

The expiration of patents often results in a burst of innovation, as with 3-D printing, where the recent lapse of three key patents has resulted in notable improvements in quality and a drop in price. The historian Anton Howes, of the Royal Society of Arts in London, points out that the French government bought out Louis Daguerre’s patent for photography in 1839 and made the technology freely available, unleashing a burst of creative innovation. Dr. Howes argues, “As we look to fight coronavirus and any future pandemics, we should perhaps consider which patents—for antivirals, vaccines, ventilators and other hygienic equipment—might be bought out in order to remove…innovation bottlenecks.”

Execution matters as much as the creative idea:

Charles Townes, who won the Nobel Prize for the physics behind the laser in 1964, was fond of telling the story of a beaver and a rabbit looking up at the Hoover Dam. “No, I didn’t build it myself,” says the beaver. “But it’s based on an idea of mine.”

That’s adapted from Ridley’s new book, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom. I have some catching up to do on his previous books, but I’ve been a fan since I read The Red Queen.

Scientists have discovered a microbe that completely protects mosquitoes from being infected with malaria

Sunday, May 17th, 2020

Scientists have discovered a microbe that completely protects mosquitoes from being infected with malaria:

The malaria-blocking bug, Microsporidia MB, was discovered by studying mosquitoes on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. It lives in the gut and genitals of the insects.

The researchers could not find a single mosquito carrying the Microsporidia that was harbouring the malaria parasite. And lab experiments, published in Nature Communications, confirmed the microbe gave the mosquitoes protection.

Microsporidias are fungi, or at least closely related to them, and most are parasites.

However, this new species may be beneficial to the mosquito and was naturally found in around 5% of the insects studied.

There is no reason for concern

Friday, May 15th, 2020

Governments aggravated the horrors of the 1918 flu:

For instance, the U.S. military took roughly half of all physicians under 45—and most of the best ones.

What proved even more deadly was the government policy toward the truth. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” So he created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an adviser who wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State…or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things…necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories…cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”

Against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.

Early in September, a Navy ship from Boston carried influenza to Philadelphia, where the disease erupted in the Navy Yard. The city’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, declared that he would “confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatever is felt.”

The next day two sailors died of influenza. Krusen stated they died of “old-fashioned influenza or grip,” not Spanish flu. Another health official declared, “From now on the disease will decrease.”

The next day 14 sailors died—and the first civilian. Each day the disease accelerated. Each day newspapers assured readers that influenza posed no danger. Krusen assured the city he would “nip the epidemic in the bud.”

By September 26, influenza had spread across the country, and so many military training camps were beginning to look like Devens that the Army canceled its nationwide draft call.

Philadelphia had scheduled a big Liberty Loan parade for September 28. Doctors urged Krusen to cancel it, fearful that hundreds of thousands jamming the route, crushing against each other for a better view, would spread disease. They convinced reporters to write stories about the danger. But editors refused to run them, and refused to print letters from doctors. The largest parade in Philadelphia’s history proceeded on schedule.

The incubation period of influenza is two to three days. Two days after the parade, Krusen conceded that the epidemic “now present in the civilian population was…assuming the type found in” Army camps. Still, he cautioned not to be “panic stricken over exaggerated reports.”

He needn’t have worried about exaggeration; the newspapers were on his side. “Scientific Nursing Halting Epidemic,” an Inquirer headline blared. In truth, nurses had no impact because none were available: Out of 3,100 urgent requests for nurses submitted to one dispatcher, only 193 were provided. Krusen finally and belatedly ordered all schools closed and banned all public gatherings—yet a newspaper nonsensically said the order was not “a public health measure” and “there is no cause for panic or alarm.”

There was plenty of cause. At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people…in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 Philadelphians died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza…[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers. Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots …with influenza patients…There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes. And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

In most disasters, people come together, help each other, as we saw recently with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But in 1918, without leadership, without the truth, trust evaporated. And people looked after only themselves.

In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come. The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied. Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing. Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”

Philadelphia’s misery was not unique. In Luce County, Michigan, a couple and three children were all sick together, but, a Red Cross worker reported, “Not one of the neighbors would come in and help. I …telephoned the woman’s sister. She came and tapped on the window, but refused to talk to me until she had gotten a safe distance away.” In New Haven, Connecticut, John Delano recalled, “Normally when someone was sick in those days [people] would bring food over to other families but…Nobody was coming in, nobody would bring food in, nobody came to visit.” In Perry County, Kentucky, the Red Cross chapter chairman begged for help, pleaded that there were “hundreds of cases…[of] people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.”

[...]

Prompted by the re-emergence of avian influenza, governments, NGOs and major businesses around the world have poured resources into preparing for a pandemic. Because of my history of the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, I was asked to participate in some of those efforts.

[...]

Then there are the less glamorous measures, known as nonpharmaceutical interventions: hand-washing, telecommuting, covering coughs, staying home when sick instead of going to work and, if the pandemic is severe enough, widespread school closings and possibly more extreme controls. The hope is that “layering” such actions one atop another will reduce the impact of an outbreak on public health and on resources in today’s just-in-time economy. But the effectiveness of such interventions will depend on public compliance, and the public will have to trust what it is being told.

That is why, in my view, the most important lesson from 1918 is to tell the truth. Though that idea is incorporated into every preparedness plan I know of, its actual implementation will depend on the character and leadership of the people in charge when a crisis erupts.

I recall participating in a pandemic “war game” in Los Angeles involving area public health officials. Before the exercise began, I gave a talk about what happened in 1918, how society broke down, and emphasized that to retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid. “You don’t manage the truth,” I said. “You tell the truth.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement.

Next, the people running the game revealed the day’s challenge to the participants: A severe pandemic influenza virus was spreading around the world. It had not officially reached California, but a suspected case—the severity of the symptoms made it seem so—had just surfaced in Los Angeles. The news media had learned of it and were demanding a press conference.

The participant with the first move was a top-ranking public health official. What did he do? He declined to hold a press conference, and instead just released a statement: More tests are required. The patient might not have pandemic influenza. There is no reason for concern.

I was stunned. This official had not actually told a lie, but he had deliberately minimized the danger; whether or not this particular patient had the disease, a pandemic was coming. The official’s unwillingness to answer questions from the press or even acknowledge the pandemic’s inevitability meant that citizens would look elsewhere for answers, and probably find a lot of bad ones. Instead of taking the lead in providing credible information he instantly fell behind the pace of events. He would find it almost impossible to get ahead of them again. He had, in short, shirked his duty to the public, risking countless lives.

And that was only a game.

We can now estimate the effect of blood doping

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

We can now estimate the effect of blood doping, Alex Hutchinson notes, following the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport in 2012:

The design of the study was straightforward. Iljukov and his colleagues looked at the top eight times from the Russian National Championships between 2008 and 2017 in the women’s 800, 1,500, 3,000 steeplechase, 5,000, and 10,000-meters. Anti-doping authorities started collecting longitudinal data to assemble biological passports in 2009, and began formally using the technique and applying sanctions sometime around 2011. Figuring that the deterrent effect of the ABP program started after the first bans were handed out, the researchers divided the results into two categories: 2008 to 2012, and 2013 to 2017.

There are a few different ways you can slice and dice the data, and the researchers also looked at other metrics like the number of athletes caught doping in these events and the number of Russian women hitting the Olympic qualifying standard. But the simplest outcome is the average of those top-eight times before and after the ABP. Here’s what that looks like for each of the five events analyzed:

doping-test-blood_h_0

For four of the five events, there’s a significant slowdown, ranging between 1.9 percent in the 800 and 3.4 percent in the 5,000. The only exception is the steeplechase, which was still a relatively new event for women in 2008, when it made its first appearance at the Olympics. The steeplechase also involves hurdling over barriers, which introduces an additional performance variable beyond pure endurance capacity.

One way of interpreting these findings, Iljukov says, is to conclude that for elite athletes, “a significant amount of blood transfusion could improve running times by 1 to 4 percent, depending on the distance, but on average 2 to 3 percent.” The paper compares this estimate with early studies of blood doping in elite athletes, including some old Soviet studies that don’t show up in the usual PubMed searches, which support the idea of a 1 to 4 percent range of improvement from a transfusion of 750 to 1,200 milliliters of blood.

These days, the ABP program makes it difficult to get away with adding that much blood to your system. Instead, would-be cheaters are limited to microdosing with small amounts of blood. Iljukov guesses that this might still give a one-second edge to an elite 800-meter runner—far from fair, but much better than the previous situation. Of course, this deterrent only works if the athletes in question are being regularly tested to generate sufficient data for a biological passport.