15 June 2021

Coronavirus in Romania: an end in sight?

In the two months since my last update, the situation in Romania has improved significantly. Week after week, cases have declined at a steady pace of 20–30%, down to only 100–200 daily, a level not seen since late May and early June of last year. The number of tests has remained relatively stable, so we can be reasonably certain these case numbers reflect reality. In parallel, the number of patients in ICU is considerably lower as well, confirming this trend: it declined under 900 on May 9th for the first time in six months, and is now already under 300. Authorities have lifted several restrictions on May 15th, starting with the curfew in large cities and mask mandates in open spaces, but masks are still required inside stores, public transportation, and crowded places like bus stations.

As expected, the reported deaths have continued to increase in the first half of April, reaching a record of 237 on April 20th, and then steadily declined at a rate of around 20% each week. On the other hand, the new increases in June, topping 200 daily deaths again on 8th and 9th, is only a reporting artifact. Looking into the detailed daily accounts reveals that many of these deaths occurred in previous months and are just now being added to the official statistic for COVID-related deaths. As an example, on June 8th the official death count was 277, but 256 took place in prior months, going back to June 2020, so the actual death toll for the day was 21. This follows the discovery of inconsistencies between deaths reported by individual hospitals and central government, so I guess this is the solution chosen by authorities to update the number of deceased because of the pandemic. It is a rather odd way of correcting statistics, as it skews both the old reports and the current ones for June and makes it difficult to correlate current mortality with the case numbers.

13 June 2021

‘Brave New World’ (Peacock, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania
Brave New World TV series poster

Classic science-fiction novels do not have the greatest track record when it comes to movie adaptations. The most successful was arguably Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his work is far more extensive. I, Robot converted Asimov’s nuanced ideas about robotics into a blunt Hollywood action movie; the upcoming Foundation series on Apple TV seems completely divorced from the source material. Dune’s adaptations so far have struggled to accurately reproduce the complexity of the novels; I have serious doubts whether Denis Villeneuve will achieve something better with his much-delayed movie. And nobody dared to touch the gut-wrenching 1984. The SF writer with the most successful film adaptations is likely Philip K. Dick, whose works inspired Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau.

Having said that, the resurgence of TV has allowed longer and more complex stories to be shown onscreen, and I think Brave New World makes a good example of successful adaption from a book that is almost a century old. The setup and plot follow the novel closely, while adding new elements that complement it rather well.

In a distant future, New London is a shining oasis of order and advanced technology in a desolated world. Each citizen has a well-defined place in the social hierarchy, predetermined at birth by his genetic makeup: Alphas at the top, enjoying the most privileges and occupying the positions of leadership; then Betas as knowledge workers and sexual companions for the Alphas; Gammas serving as house-staff for the upper casts; Epsilons doing repetitive, menial work like gardening, cleaning, and maintenance. As in the novel, despite their distinct roles, everyone is content to play their part for the greater harmony because negative emotions and thoughts are actively suppressed by the regular use of soma, a mood-altering drug that comes in many flavors for each of humans’ many feelings.

11 June 2021

The Guardian: “The endless hunt for the perfect flu vaccine”

One way to better protect older people is to vaccinate an entirely different demographic: schoolchildren. This notion was elegantly demonstrated in a natural experiment in Japan. From 1962 to 1987 most Japanese schoolchildren were vaccinated against influenza; at one point the vaccine was mandatory for a solid decade. The vaccination rate grew to around 85%, but the mandatory vaccination programme was discontinued in 1994. Over the next several years, there was an increase in the number of deaths in elderly people during the flu seasons. In the US, where there had been no change in the vaccination policy, deaths of elderly people over the same flu seasons remained unchanged. Vaccinating one part of the population, in other words, benefits another.

Jeremy Brown

This topic has lost much of its urgency with a far deadlier virus causing worldwide havoc, but some of the findings can prove insightful for dealing with this pandemic. The debate around school closures was fierce in many countries. Many claimed that young children do not spread the virus, based on the fact that they rarely develop symptoms; some countries even failed to test children to obscure results that would contradict those assumptions. This has been disproven whenever actual studies were performed, and a parallel with influenza further reinforces this often neglected point: protecting children from infection indirectly protects their families and social contacts, including old relatives who are most vulnerable to both influenza and COVID-19.

10 June 2021

The Guardian: “Dirty lies: how the car industry hid the truth about diesel emissions”

And, as it turned out, Volkswagen wasn’t the only one evading the law. Less flagrantly, but to similar effect, the vast majority of diesel cars were making a mockery of emissions rules. In the wake of the revelations in the US, European governments road-tested other big brands too. In Germany, testers found all but three of 53 models exceeded NOx limits, the worst by a factor of 18. In London, the testing firm Emissions Analytics found 97% of more than 250 diesel models were in violation; a quarter produced NOx at six times the limit. As the data kept coming in, our jaws just kept dropping. Because it is just so systematic, and so widespread, German says. VW isn’t even in the worst half of the manufacturers. With a few honourable exceptions, everybody’s doing it.

As Mock spoke, I began to absorb the particulars of Europe’s stunning failure. It starts with an enforcement structure that almost seems designed to let violators through. The European commission sets the rules on how much pollution a car is allowed to produce. But the job of enforcing them falls not to Brussels, but to national governments. And a car company preparing to release a new model can choose which country certifies it; every EU nation must then honour the approval. A savvy carmaker opts for a place where it provides lots of jobs, where officials are likely to be pliant.

The national enforcement agencies, for their part, are generally understaffed, poorly funded and lacking in technical expertise. Britain is an exception, but in most nations these weak agencies don’t even test cars themselves. About a dozen individual vehicles must be checked before a new model is approved, and the tests are often run by outside contractors. When they are done, the manufacturers hand the paperwork to regulators, and the results, says Mock, are usually accepted with little question.

Beth Gardiner

An older story, but exemplary to how big corporations can act against public interest if left unsupervised by government regulations and proper enforcement. The drive of senior management towards generating profits incentivizes them to search for shortcuts, to circumvent inconvenient rules and discard alarm signals from within the organization. And sooner or later this leads to negative outcomes, from the many toxic consequences of Facebook’s influence on public information, to unnecessary deaths, as it was the case with Boeing and even NASA.

05 June 2021

Wired: “Ex Machina has a Serious Fembot Problem”

Ex Machina poster

While interviewing Garland for a magazine piece, I asked him about the roles of men and women in his film; his response was that Ava is not a woman, she is literally genderless. Despite using female pronouns, he said, the things that would define gender in a man and a woman, she lacks them, except in external terms. … I’m not even sure consciousness itself has a gender.

In a way, Garland is right; pure intelligence wouldn’t have a gender any more than it would have a race. But to say that and then place that consciousness into a body that it will immediately recognize its likeness as female negates that point. If Ava has truly been educated about the human race, then she knows her face and form appeal to certain segments of the population. But even thornier is the fact that Ava falls squarely into so many of the tropes of women in film. She’s a femme fatale, a seductress posing as a damsel in distress, using her wiles to get Caleb to save her from Nathan and his Dr.-Frankenstein-with-tech-money quest to build a perfect woman. (Women: So much better when you can construct them out of bespoke parts and switch them off if they’re not working properly, amirite?)

Angela Watercutter

I have recently watched Ex Machina as it became available on Netflix, and I have to say, it has way bigger issues than fembots. This article captures them reasonably well, but at the end of the day, I found the movie utterly boring, lacking in action and original ideas. To call it ‘thought-provoking’ is a massive overstatement and I seriously cannot comprehend why so many people are so enthusiastic about this movie – then again, I had the same reaction to Her. Man building docile wife is a concept as old as ancient Greece at least, if we count the myth of Pygmalion, though I doubt the director had that in mind when he made the movie. Human-created artificial intelligence rebelling against its maker is a common SF trope at this point, so no points for originality here either.

04 June 2021

mBio: “The Reemergent 1977 H1N1 Strain and the Gain-of-Function Debate”

The 1977-1978 influenza epidemic was probably not a natural event, as the genetic sequence of the virus was nearly identical to the sequences of decades-old strains. While there are several hypotheses that could explain its origin, the possibility that the 1977 epidemic resulted from a laboratory accident has recently gained popularity in discussions about the biosafety risks of gain-of-function (GOF) influenza virus research, as an argument for why this research should not be performed. There is now a moratorium in the United States on funding GOF research while the benefits and risks, including the potential for accident, are analyzed. Given the importance of this historical epidemic to ongoing policy debates, we revisit the evidence that the 1977 epidemic was not natural and examine three potential origins: a laboratory accident, a live-vaccine trial escape, or deliberate release as a biological weapon. Based on available evidence, the 1977 strain was indeed too closely matched to decades-old strains to likely be a natural occurrence.

While the use of the 1977 influenza epidemic as a cautionary tale for potential laboratory accidents is expedient, the relevance to GOF research is greatly diminished if the 1977 epidemic was the result of a vaccine trial or vaccine development gone awry; these are both more plausible explanations than a single laboratory accident. In addition, in 1977, influenza research was performed without modern biosafety regulations and protective equipment, making the lab accident hypothesis much less relevant to the modern GOF debate. While the events that led to the 1977 influenza epidemic cannot preclude a future consequential accident stemming from the laboratory, it remains likely that to this date, there has been no real-world example of a laboratory accident that has led to a global epidemic.

Michelle Rozo & Gigi Kwik Gronvall

Interesting research into the origins of another pandemic, much less severe than the current one. The authors conclude the more likely explanation is a faulty vaccine trial that allowed the virus to spread again among the general population. While this is only circumstantially related to the ongoing, and growing, discussion about the possibility of a coronavirus lab leak, it provides another solid reason why human challenge trials are a bad idea: if the vaccine on trial is ineffective, you risk spreading the very pathogen you were trying to combat.

01 June 2021

The Guardian: “Haiti and the failed promise of US aid”

But what worked for the US’s interests worked less well for Haiti. By the 1950s, neither Haiti’s agricultural economy, nor the dollars spent by thousands of American tourists every year, was enough to pay back those debts. By 1961, the US was sending $13m in aid to Haiti – half Haiti’s national budget – in part to help the nation bolster industry. Much of this early US aid to Haiti was looted or wasted by Haiti’s autocratic leaders, especially François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude, who spent it on personal militias that terrorised Haiti’s citizenry. Since 1946, the United States has poured about $100m in economic aid … into Haiti without much to show for the money, the New York Times reported in 1963.

The most pernicious part of this programme was the agricultural policies that the US imposed on Haiti beginning in the 70s. The US pressured Haiti to reduce its tariffs on imported crops, then shipped surplus American crops into Haiti’s ports under the guise of “food aid”. Haitian farmers could not compete with all the artificially cheap rice and other food crops from abroad, which was part of the point. The strategy was to create another market for American farmers while pushing Haiti’s labour force away from the fields and into factories. As president, Bill Clinton furthered this programme, creating massive surpluses of crops such as rice by extending hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to US farmers. In Haiti, the result was that thousands upon thousands of farmers lost their land, but industrialisation never moved fast enough to replace their livelihoods.

Jacob Kushner

This older story about the failures of US-funded reconstruction programs in Haiti shows some parallels to the situation in Afghanistan: Unites States has invested heavily in both countries, but restructuring projects failed to become viable because they were mimicking the US model, without considering the local economy and the needs of the population.