On Monday, July 19, the country is ditching all of its remaining pandemic-related restrictions. People will be able to go to nightclubs, or gather in groups as large as they like. They will not be legally compelled to wear masks at all, and can stop social distancing. The government, with an eye on media coverage, has dubbed it “Freedom Day,” and said the lifting of safety measures will be irreversible.
At the same time, coronavirus cases are rapidly rising in the UK. It recorded over 50,000 new cases on Friday, and its health minister says that the daily figure of new infections could climb to over 100,000 over the summer.
The UK’s vaccination program is still under way, but it has been broadly successful so far. In all, 68% of the adult population is fully vaccinated, and about 88% of adults have received their first dose (this includes the 68% who have had both doses). Just 6% of Brits are hesitant about getting a shot, according to the Office for National Statistics.
But the government seems to be betting that not all numbers are equally scary. It hopes that hospitalizations will stay low enough to stop the National Health Service from being completely overwhelmed. It is making the assumption that the link between cases and hospitalization rates has been weakened, if not broken.
“This wave is very different to previous ones,” says Oliver Geffen Obregon, an epidemiologist based in the UK, who has worked with the World Health Organization. “The proportion of hospitalization is way lower compared to similar points on the epidemic curve before the vaccination program.”
Chan started emailing authors and journals to get the raw data she needed to more fully analyze what they had done. Making such data available is usually a condition of publication, but it can still be hard to obtain. After what she calls months of stonewalling, Chan finally lost her cool and blasted an accusation out from her browser. “I need the scientists + editors who are directly or indirectly covering up severe research integrity issues surrounding some of the key SARS-2-like viruses to stop and think for a bit,” she posted to Twitter. “If your actions obscure SARS2 origins, you’re playing a hand in the death of millions of people.”
Eddie Holmes, a prominent Australian virologist and coauthor of one of those papers (as well as “Proximal Origins”), called the tweet “one of most despicable things I read on the origins issue.” He felt accused, but he wondered what he was being accused of, since his paper had correctly accounted for its pangolin data sources. Holmes then circulated an intricate time line prepared by Chan of the publication dates and past connections between the authors. The chart’s dense web of arrows and connections bore an unmistakable resemblance to an obsessive’s cork board covered with red string and thumbtacks.
But in the biggest ever study of real-world mortgage data, economists Laura Blattner at Stanford University and Scott Nelson at the University of Chicago show that differences in mortgage approval between minority and majority groups is not just down to bias, but to the fact that minority and low-income groups have less data in their credit histories.
This means that when this data is used to calculate a credit score and this credit score used to make a prediction on loan default, then that prediction will be less precise. It is this lack of precision that leads to inequality, not just bias.
But Blattner and Nelson show that adjusting for bias had no effect. They found that a minority applicant’s score of 620 was indeed a poor proxy for her creditworthiness but that this was because the error could go both ways: a 620 might be 625, or it might be 615.
The good news? Vaccines still sharply reduce the risk of being admitted to hospital with the Delta variant. The Scottish study found that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine provided 79% protection, two weeks on from the second dose, while the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offered 60% protection. That lower rate may be due to the fact that it takes longer for immunity to develop with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, researchers said.
However, research released shortly after by Public Health England was even more promising. It found that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine provides 96% protection from hospitalization after two doses, while the Oxford/AstraZeneca is 92% effective at preventing hospitalization after both shots. The conclusion? It’s yet more evidence of the importance of making sure as many people as possible get vaccinated, and that they get both shots.
The Illinois program gives people recovering from covid-19 a take-home kit that includes a pulse oximeter, a disposable Bluetooth-enabled sensor patch, and a paired smartphone. The software takes data from the wearable patch and uses machine learning to develop a profile of each person’s vital signs. The monitoring system alerts clinicians remotely when a patient’s vitals— such as heart rate—shift away from their usual levels.
Typically, patients recovering from covid might get sent home with a pulse oximeter. PhysIQ’s developers say their system is much more sensitive because it uses AI to understand each patient’s body, and its creators claim it is much more likely to anticipate important changes.
“It’s an enormous benefit,” says Terry Vanden Hoek, the chief medical officer and head of emergency medicine at University of Illinois Health, which is hosting the pilot. Working with covid cases is hard, he says: “When you work in the emergency department it’s sad to see patients who waited too long to come in for help. They would require intensive care on a ventilator. You couldn’t help but ask, ‘If we could have warned them four days before, could we have prevented all this?’”
One success story took place in Philadelphia, thanks to an effective collaboration between two health systems and Black community leaders. Recognizing that the largely online signup process was hard for older people or those without internet access, Penn Medicine and Mercy Catholic Medical Center created a text-message-based signup system as well as a 24/7 interactive voice recording option that could be used from a land line, with doctors answering patients’ questions before appointments. Working with community leaders, the program held its first clinic at a church and vaccinated 550 people.
In Alabama, for example, National Guard mobile vaccination units were set up with the ultra-cold freezers needed to transport and store mRNA-based covid-19 vaccines. “Why not, when this particular push is over, leave those freezer units with the federally qualified health centers that are already in those communities?” McClure says. “You’re starting to build the infrastructure for being able to deliver vaccination on a consistent basis.”
Since that experiment, have you seen this phenomenon replicated in the real world?
Every time I see a Tesla accident. Especially the earlier ones. I was like, “Yep, there it is.” People are trusting these systems too much. And I remember after the very first one, what did they do? They were like, now you’re required to hold the steering wheel for something like five-second increments. If you don’t have your hand on the wheel, the system will deactivate.
But, you know, they never came and talked to me or my group, because that’s not going to work. And why that doesn’t work is because it’s very easy to game the system. If you’re looking at your cell phone and then you hear the beep, you just put your hand up, right? It’s subconscious. You’re still not paying attention. And it’s because you think the system’s okay and that you can still do whatever it was you were doing—reading a book, watching TV, or looking at your phone. So it doesn’t work because they did not increase the level of risk or uncertainty, or disbelief, or mistrust. They didn’t increase that enough for someone to re-engage.
Now, in a letter in the journal Science, 18 prominent biologists—including the world’s foremost coronavirus researcher—are lending their weight to calls for a new investigation of all possible origins of the virus, and calling on China’s laboratories and agencies to “open their records” to independent analysis.
“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” the scientists write.
The letter, which was organized by the Stanford University microbiologist David Relman and the University of Washington virologist Jesse Bloom, takes aim at a recent joint study of covid origins undertaken by the World Health Organization and China, which concluded that a bat virus likely reached humans via an intermediate animal and that a lab accident was “extremely unlikely.”
Ring’s autoantibody tests showed that in some patients—even some with mild cases of covid—the rogue immune proteins were marking blood cells for attack. Others were on the hunt for proteins associated with the heart and liver. Some patients appeared to have autoantibodies primed to attack the central nervous system and the brain. This was far more ominous than anything identified by the Rockefeller scientists. Ring’s findings seemed to suggest a potentially systemic problem; these patients seemed to be cranking out multiple varieties of new autoantibodies in response to covid, until the body appeared to be at war with itself.
What scared Ring the most was that autoantibodies have the potential to last a lifetime. This raised a series of chilling questions: What are the long-term consequences for these patients if these powerful assassins outlive the infection? How much destruction could they cause? And for how long?
Yes, but: In recent years, studies have found that these data sets can contain serious flaws. ImageNet, for example, contains racist and sexist labels as well as photos of people’s faces obtained without consent. The latest study now looks at another problem: many of the labels are just flat-out wrong. A mushroom is labeled a spoon, a frog is labeled a cat, and a high note from Ariana Grande is labeled a whistle. The ImageNet test set has an estimated label error rate of 5.8%. Meanwhile, the test set for QuickDraw, a compilation of hand drawings, has an estimated error rate of 10.1%.
That’s a reasonable theory: other bat coronaviruses have jumped to humans the same way. In fact, it was the origin of SARS, a similar coronavirus that panicked the world in 2003 when it spread out of southern China and sickened 8,000 people. With SARS, researchers tested caged market animals and quickly found a nearly identical virus in Himalayan palm civet cats and raccoon dogs, which are also eaten locally.
This time, though, the intermediate-host hypothesis has one big problem. More than a year after covid-19 began, no food animal has been identified as a reservoir for the pandemic virus. That’s despite efforts by China to test tens of thousands of animals, including pigs, goats, and geese, according to Liang Wannian, who leads the Chinese side of the research team. No one has found a “direct progenitor” of the virus, he says, and therefore the pandemic “remains an unsolved mystery.”
At first the Chinese hackers ran a careful campaign. For two months, they exploited weaknesses in Microsoft Exchange email servers, picked their targets carefully, and stealthily stole entire mailboxes. When investigators eventually caught on, it looked like typical online espionage—but then things accelerated dramatically.
Around February 26, the narrow operation turned into something much bigger and much more chaotic. Just days later, Microsoft publicly disclosed the hacks—the hackers are now known as Hafnium—and issued a security fix. But by then attackers were looking for targets across the entire internet: in addition to tens of thousands of reported victims in the US, governments around the world are announcing that they were compromised too. Now at least 10 hacking groups, most of them government-backed cyber-espionage teams, are exploiting the vulnerabilities on thousands of servers in over 115 countries, according to the security firm ESET.