Science

Is the Earth hanging by cosmic ropes inside a magnetic tunnel?

It sounds like the premise of an early science fiction novel: What if Earth actually exists inside a giant magnetic tunnel?

According to a preprint study published in the scientific magazine Astrophysical Journal, that fanciful concept may be less absurd than it seems. Indeed, the researchers' idea is one that could literally redraw the map of our universe.

Scientists have known since the 1960s that there are two seemingly separate radio structures — which are defined in astronomy as any object that emits strong radio waves — that can be definitively detected by Earth's technology. Known as the North Polar Spur and the Fan Region, the new study posits that these radio structures resemble long ropes and are approximately 1,000 light-years long, as well as roughly 350 light-years from our planet.

The research by scientists at Penn State University also suggests that, in addition to being near-Earth (relatively speaking), the two structures are connected to each other and, as a result, essentially surround us.

Imagine a giant tube composed of massive, magnetized tendrils that may look a bit like long and slender ropes. These tendrils include a magnetic field and charged particles which manage to link the two radio structures, effectively creating a tunnel-like structure that includes Earth as well as a small section of the Milky Way — that's the idea, at least.

The scientists' findings could help future researchers as they try to create a holistic model of magnetic fields in other galaxies, and understand similar structures uncovered through astronomical observations. They also predict that when scholars are able to observe these radio structures in higher resolution, they will discover additional features, including "a much more complex filamentary structure," among other things. As one of the scientists told Salon, these structures would be quite awe-inspiring if we could detect them with our own eyes. (The North Polar Spur, for instance, appears in one X-ray map as a sort of massive yellowish bubble.)

"If we could see radio light, then we (in the Northern hemisphere) would see several bright patches extending across a very large distance on the sky," Dr. Jennifer L. West, co-author of the paper and astronomer at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, told Salon by email. "These patches are fixed on the sky and they would change their position and orientation over a night and over the seasons, just like the stars and constellations." West added that people who ventured outside shortly after sunset in the autumn, as well as in cities at mid-Northern latitudes, would see the Fan Region apparent in one part of the sky.

"The Fan Region would extend from the Northern horizon right up to the point overhead," West explained. "It would pass through the constellations of Cameloparladis, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. The North Polar Spur would extend up from the Western horizon and also reach nearly overhead. It would pass through the constellations of Bootes, Corona Borealis, and Hercules. Another, somewhat fainter patch would extend up from the South-East."

This new scientific research about the magnificent structures, West explained, "tried to take into account all of the different kinds of observations" from astronomers over the years. It also offers more than aesthetic gratification. As West told Salon, she is fascinated by magnetism in both the universe and our galaxy. Scientists are only beginning to learn more about these magnetic fields, and West is determined to understand as much as possible about why they exist and how they influence star and planet formation.

"One theory of magnetism in galaxies is called Dynamo theory - it's the theory that explains the magnetic field in the Earth and in our Sun, and that they are generated from rotating, charged particles," West said. "We think it is also responsible for generating the magnetic fields in galaxies, but we need more evidence to support this hypothesis."

She added, "In this study we are trying to map the local environment so that when we build models of the whole Galactic magnetic field we can take the local contribution into account. The saying that we can't see the forest for the trees really applies here. We need to understand what we're looking at close-up in order to get a sense of the bigger picture. I hope this is a step towards understanding the magnetic field of our whole Galaxy, and of the Universe."

This might even, West noted hopefully, someday include our own solar system.

There's a new strain of the delta variant flourishing in the UK — should we be worried?

by Matthew Bashton, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Darren Smith, Northumbria University, Newcastle

No sooner than you thought all the talk of new COVID variants was over, there's news of yet another one: AY.4.2. But what is it, where did it come from, and should we be concerned?

AY.4.2 is what's termed a “lineage". These are labels given to branches of the COVID evolutionary tree to illustrate their relatedness. They are overseen by the diligent Pango network, a joint team of researchers from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, who act as the custodians of lineages and handle the assignment of new ones.

If we go back to April of this year, we can trace the origins of AY.4.2. Our team in Northumbria, working as part of Cog-UK – the British consortium that sequences the genomes of COVID samples to see how the virus is changing – had just sequenced two samples connected via travel history to India.

At the time we knew the lineage circulating in India was B.1.617, but the cases we had sampled didn't match this. Variants are distinguished by the different mutations they have in their genetic material and, looking at the mutations in our samples, it appeared our cases were missing some of the commonly accepted mutations of B.1.617 but also had some additional ones.

What we were reporting to colleagues in Cog-UK was classified the following week as B.1.617.2, one of three main sub-lineages of B.1.617, and which was later named delta by the World Health Organization.

AY is a further evolutionary step forward from here. Once a lineage's labelling gets five levels deep, a new letter combination is started to avoid the name getting too long. So the AY forms of the virus aren't vastly different from what's come before, even though their labelling is different. They are all sub-lineages of delta.

There are now 75 AY lineages identified, each with different additional defining mutations in their genome. One of these – AY.4 – has been steadily growing in proportion in the UK over the last few months, accounting for 63% of new UK cases in the last 28 days.

Does AY.4 have an advantage?

We're still not sure if AY.4's mutations confer a genuine advantage or if the increasing frequency of the lineage is simply down to what's called a “founder effect". This is when a subset of viruses get separated from the overall viral population, and then reproduce in isolation. In the area where the separated viruses are, all subsequent viruses will therefore be descendants of this subset.

With COVID, this might have happened by there being a single case at a large event. This lone virus would have been the “founder", the only virus spreading at the event. If it infected a sizeable number of people, who later infected others, this may have quickly built up a large amount of virus all from the same origin. Sometimes, for a certain form of a virus to dominate, it doesn't have to be better than others – it simply needs to be in the right place at the right time.

But, given its rise to dominance in the UK, AY.4 might well have a selective advantage. The defining change in AY.4 is the mutation A1711V, which affects the virus's Nsp3 protein, which plays a number of roles in viral replication. However, the impact of this mutation is unknown.

This brings us to AY.4.2 – a sub-lineage of AY.4 – which was first noted at the end of September, though it appears it surfaced in the UK around June. It's defined by two additional genetic mutations, Y145H and A222V, that affect the spike protein. The spike protein is a key part of the virus's outer surface, and is the part of its structure that it uses to get inside cells.

AY.4.2 has grown steadily in volume to the point where it now accounts for about 9% of UK cases in the last 28 days. It has also been observed in a few European nations: Denmark, Germany and Ireland, to name a few.

But whether its two mutations offer the virus a selective advantage is unclear as well. A222V was previously seen last year in the B.1.177 lineage that probably emerged in Spain and was then spread across northern Europe, most likely by holidaymakers. At the time, many were sceptical that A222V conferred an advantage. Indeed, the increase in the form of the virus that's become known as AY.4.2 seems to have only occurred since it acquired its Y145H mutation.

This mutation is within an “antigenic supersite" of the spike protein – a part of the protein that antibodies frequently recognise and target. We know that this part of the spike protein has already been modified once before by a mutation in delta's genetic material, and that this possibly contributes to delta's greater ability to escape immunity, as antibodies have a harder time targeting it as a result. However, the research exploring this is still in preprint, meaning it is yet to be formally reviewed – so we need to treat its findings with caution.

But it's therefore possible the Y145H mutation could give the virus an even greater ability to escape immunity by making this supersite less recognisable to antibodies.

The counterargument is that, despite introduction into several European countries, AY.4.2 has failed to take hold, dropping off the radar in Germany and Ireland – though it is lingering in Denmark. This would suggest its ability to get around immunity isn't any greater than delta's. Equally, it might just be that there wasn't enough of AY.4.2 arriving in these places for it to take hold.

Really, it's too early to tell if this is the beginning of the next dominant lineage. Any ability it might have to escape immunity needs to be confirmed by experimental work. Clearly, though, it's emergence shows that there's a continued need for genomic surveillance of the virus.The Conversation

Matthew Bashton, Senior Fellow in Computational Biology, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Darren Smith, Professor of Bacteriophage Biology, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The truth about ExxonMobil's campaign to fund climate science denial

In a secret video recording made public in late June, a top ExxonMobil lobbyist—Keith McCoy, who was fired soon afterward—not only conceded that the oil giant's support for a carbon tax is a sham, but he also admitted that the company quietly financed climate science denier groups to stave off government action and maximize its profits—a fact that my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others revealed more than a decade ago.

"Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes," McCoy, then ExxonMobil's senior director of federal relations, said during the interview. "Did we join some of these 'shadow groups' to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that's true. But there's nothing illegal about that. We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders."

For all his candor, McCoy got at least one thing wrong. ExxonMobil did "join"—in other words, pay—denier groups to spread disinformation to blunt initial government attempts to curb carbon emissions. But McCoy inaccurately used the past tense. In fact, the company continues to fund them.

That videotaped interview caused some major heartburn for McCoy's boss, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, especially since the House Committee on Oversight and Reform has invited Woods—as well as top executives from the American Petroleum Institute, BP America, Chevron, Shell Oil and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—to testify at a hearing on October 28 on the "long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming."

ExxonMobil has been at the heart of that campaign. Since 1998, the company has paid a network of seemingly independent think tanks and advocacy groups more than $39 million to manufacture doubt about climate science and stymie government action. Only Charles Koch and his late brother David, owners of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries, are known to have spent more.

In 2020, according to ExxonMobil's most recent corporate grantmaking report, the company spent $490,000 on three grantees—the American Enterprise Institute ($100,000), the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University ($140,000), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($250,000). That amount is down from the $790,000 the company reported it spent on nine climate science denier groups in 2019 and a fraction of what it spent in the past, but there's a catch.

True, the company lost more than $22 billion in 2020 and cut back its grants across the board. But another factor for this decline is that ExxonMobil changed how it reports grants. As first reported by Salon, the company only listed grants of $100,000 or more in its 2020 annual giving report. In previous years, it included grants of $5,000 or more. The change reduces transparency and ultimately means there is no way to tell how much the company spent in smaller donations to support climate disinformation in 2020 or compare the grants it made in 2020 with previous years.

Only three denier groups—the same three named in the 2020 grantmaking report—received $100,000 or more from ExxonMobil in 2019. That year, their grants collectively amounted to $625,000. The other six denier groups the company funded in 2019—the Center for American and International Law ($5,000), the Federalist Society ($10,000), the Hoover Institution ($15,000), the Manhattan Institute ($90,000), Mountain States Legal Foundation ($5,000) and the Washington Legal Foundation ($40,000)—collectively received $165,000. None of those grants, even if ExxonMobil continued them, would wind up in the 2020 report, given the company's new threshold.

Still, it's worth taking a closer look at where the bulk of ExxonMobil's self-reported climate disinformation budget did go in 2020.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Since 2014, ExxonMobil has given more than $5 million on top of its annual dues to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—a major player in blocking action on climate change for decades. A few years after becoming an ExxonMobil grantee, the Chamber gained some unwanted notoriety by financing a widely debunked report that then-President Trump cited as a primary rationale for pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.

In 2019, however, the Chamber appeared to flip 180 degrees, declaring on its website, "Our climate is changing and humans are contributing to these changes. Inaction is simply not an option." The assertion that human activity is merely contributing to climate change is inaccurate, given that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause, but the statement did represent a quantum leap from when the association spuriously maintained in comments submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009 that "a warming of even 3 [degrees Celsius] in the next 100 years would, on balance, be beneficial to humans."

That said, the Chamber vowed in an August 24 press release to "do everything [it] can to prevent" the proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill—which would slash carbon emissions from the electric power and transportation sectors—"from becoming law." And in a section on its website addressing climate change, the Chamber calls for "the increased use of natural gas" to make "further progress."

Increase the use of natural gas?! That runs counter to what climate science says about the need to swiftly decarbonize the energy sector, essentially trading one major carbon pollution source—coal—for another—methane, which is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet. Moreover, according to a December 2019 study in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, the carbon dioxide emissions attributable to the boom in natural gas use over the last decade alone have now surpassed the emissions avoided by closing coal-fired power plants.

The American Enterprise Institute

Economist Benjamin Zycher might be considered the climate science denier in residence at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which has received $4.86 million from ExxonMobil since 1998. Zycher insists that a carbon tax would be "ineffective," has called the Paris climate agreement an "absurdity," and rejects the scientific consensus about the causes and seriousness of global warming.

Zycher published his most recent broadside against climate science in the Summer 2021 issue of National Affairs, a formerly independent conservative policy quarterly that AEI brought in-house in 2019. In his essay, "The Case for Climate-Change Realism," he falsely argued that the "available science" does not support the notion that human activity is "the single most significant cause of climate change" and the "available data" undercut the assessment that extreme weather events are "evidence of an ongoing climate crisis."

As he has in previous articles, Zycher cited roundly debunked hypotheses for the primary causes of climate change, including a shift in northern Pacific Ocean circulation patterns called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which scientists have determined is incapable of causing a long-term warming trend, and "changes in solar activity," when, in fact, the sun's energy has declined since the 1980s while average global temperatures have continued to climb.

This summer was not a fortuitous time to be peddling discredited theories. On August 9, less than two months after Zycher posted his essay, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark, nearly 4,000-page "code red for humanity" report warning that the climate crisis is close to spiraling out of control and human activity is "unequivocally" to blame.

Zycher's main objective? To make a case, no matter how specious, for continued reliance on fossil fuels, which he falsely claimed are less expensive than renewables. Proposals to cut carbon emissions, including the Paris agreement, would have little real impact, he argued, and could "be accomplished only by substituting expensive energy for cheaper energy." In fact, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg, it is "now cheaper to build and operate new large-scale wind or solar plants in nearly half the world than it would be to run an existing coal or [natural] gas-fired power plant." To be sure, no one would confuse Zycher for a scientist or National Affairs for a peer-reviewed journal. But he serves ExxonMobil's interests as a seemingly independent expert who continues to express doubt about climate science and the viability of renewable energy, thereby providing cover for climate science deniers in Congress.

George Washington University's Regulatory Studies Center

The relatively unknown Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington (GW) University received $140,000 from ExxonMobil in 2020 and $1.2 million from the company since 2013. Director Susan Dudley founded the center in 2009 after serving as President George W. Bush's "regulatory czar" at the Office of Management and Budget and, before that, running the Regulatory Studies Program at Koch-financed Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She currently serves in various capacities for other longtime climate science disinformation groups, including the Koch-founded Cato Institute, the Federalist Society, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Regulatory Studies Center portrays itself as an "objective, unbiased" policy shop, but—like the Mercatus Center—its primary raison d'être is to weaken and quash government regulations, according to a 2019 analysis by the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen. The GW center's main tools are reports and public comments it submits to Congress, and although it does not get much mainstream news media attention, it has found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill—and in the previous administration. Much of the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda, Public Citizen found, echoed the center's recommendations, including "dramatically reducing the cost that the government attributes to carbon emissions."

But should the Regulatory Studies Center be lumped in with climate science disinformation groups? In response to the Public Citizen report, as well as criticism from UnKoch My Campus and GW student groups, the center issued a statement in February disputing the charge that it rejects climate science. "Contrary to unsubstantiated claims, no one in the Regulatory Studies Center questions climate science," it said. "In fact, most of the Center's scholars do not focus on environmental or energy issues at all. Those who have written on climate issues address economic and legal questions, not the science."

Whether or not the center directly disputes climate science is beside the point. In the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence, most ExxonMobil-funded disinformation groups have revised their position on the reality of climate change. Instead of challenging the science, their efforts now tend to focus on denigrating renewable energy, overstating the costs of transitioning to a clean energy economy while ignoring the benefits, and preventing government action. That is exactly what the Regulatory Studies Center does. In recent years, for example, it has published papers and filed public comments opposing stronger efficiency standards for home appliances and vehicles that would dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

The center also has enlisted the help of unabashed climate science deniers. In the fall of 2018, for example, it tapped Julian Morris to file a public comment supporting the Trump administration's proposed rollback of Obama-era standards for cars and light trucks designed to increase fuel economy and, for the first time, substantially reduce tailpipe carbon emissions. Morris, president and founder of the International Policy Network and vice president of research at the Reason Foundation—two libertarian, climate science denier organizations—falsely declared in a paper published in March 2018 that the "effects of climate change are unknown—but the benefits may well be greater than the costs for the foreseeable future."

Millions More for Disinformation

The money ExxonMobil donated in 2020 to AEI, the GW Regulatory Studies Center and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents only a small percentage of the company's recent outlays to sway public opinion and blunt government climate action. It is difficult to document all of the company's related expenditures, but they include:

  • More than $5 million on Facebook ads in 2020, which is more than half of the $9.6 million that the U.S. oil and gas industry spent on the ads, according to an analysis by the think tank InfluenceMap that reviewed more than 25,000 ads on Facebook's U.S. platform. Many of the ads described natural gas as a "green" fuel source and argued that cutting carbon emissions would drive up energy costs.
  • An estimated $10 million in annual dues to the American Petroleum Institute (API) (based on how much Shell Oil recently revealed it paid). The U.S. oil and gas industry's oldest and largest trade association, API is working overtime to block stricter methane emissions standards. McCoy indirectly referenced API during the secretly taped interview when he said ExxonMobil relied on third parties to publicly represent its interests in Congress. "We don't want it to be us, to have these conversations, especially in a hearing," he said. "It's getting our associations to step in and have those conversations and answer those tough questions and be, for the lack of a better term, the whipping boy for some of these members of Congress."
  • At least $100,000 in annual dues to trade associations (based on what it reported it spent in 2019) that have a long track record of peddling climate disinformation, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  • Nearly $834,000 during the 2018 and 2020 election cycles to 118 of the 139 climate science deniers currently in Congress. Over that same time period, the company reportedly spent nearly $41 million to lobby in Washington, but neither McCoy nor ExxonMobil's other in-house lobbyists have broached the topic of a carbon tax—the company's avowed top priority—with legislators since 2018, according to its quarterly lobbying reports.

So while ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods and his colleagues proclaim that they fully understand the threat posed by climate change and are "committed to being part of the solution," the evidence shows they continue to spend tens of millions of dollars every year to promote gridlock in Congress on the issue. The future of the planet as we know it hangs in the balance, but as McCoy acknowledged in his interview, ExxonMobil was—and still is—looking out for its investments and its shareholders' short-term interests, regardless of the long-term consequences.

Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.

How 'anti-science' Republicans are 'torturing the truth' with their Fauci hysteria: journalist

Dr. Anthony Fauci, now 80, is hardly a newcomer to the U.S. government. The expert immunologist has been part of the National Institutes of Health since the late 1960s, working with at least ten presidential administrations along the way. In the past, Fauci was regarded as strictly a medical figure rather than a political figure whether the person in the White House was Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But MAGA Republicans, during the COVID-19 pandemic, have politicized Fauci in a big way — and the Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank humorously discusses the absurdity of their anti-Fauci hysteria in his October 25 column.

Milbank's column is headlined, "Why Is Anthony Fauci Trying to Kill My Puppy?"

"My family recently got a new puppy, a strong-willed and mouthy but ultimately lovable little nipper," Milbank sarcastically writes. "We named him Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, though, I can't take Bernie out on walks. Here in the capital, we have a puppy killer on the loose: a murderous psychopath known as Anthony S. Fauci."

Of course, those comments are pure sarcasm on Milbank's part. But Milbank does debunk some sloppy reporting from the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, which on October 24, claimed that the NIH "provided a grant to a lab in Tunisia to torture and kill dozens of beagle puppies for twisted scientific experiment."

Milbank explains, "As it turns out, the only thing being tortured here is the truth. The episode says more about the right-wing disinformation machine and its crusade against Fauci than it does about research funded by Fauci's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It turns out that this Tunisian study was erroneously attributed to NIAID."

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are among the Republicans who have been trying to rally their base with anti-Fauci hysteria. Cruz recently tweeted, "Remind me again how Fauci still has a job???"

Milbank writes, "Here's how. Millions of people are alive today because of his work against AIDS, COVID-19 and more. The anti-science forces of Trump, Murdoch, Paul and Cruz will continue to spew disinformation. But I'm grateful for Fauci — and so is my puppy."

A glimpse into our solar system's future

Stars, much like humans, go through different stages of life, from birth through middle age through senescence. At the moment, our solar system's sun is in its yellow dwarf stage of life — essentially middle age for a star of its class.

But that won't always be the case. Earth's sun is about 4.5 billion years old, but in another five billion years, the sun will eventually run low on hydrogen fuel. After that happens, it will expand into a red giant and engulf many of the inner planets, and perhaps mess up the orbits of outer ones. (Scientific models conflict on exactly which planets will be engulfed and how orbits might be adjusted.) After expansion, the sun will contract until it becomes a white dwarf, at which point it will no longer produce any heat of its own, and rather will slowly cool for all eternity. Nothing in the universe lives forever.

While humans on Earth won't be around to see what happens at the end of the sun's life, other star systems in the universe can theoretically provide glimpses of our solar system's future — if only we could find one that was similar enough to ours.

Now, it seems, astronomers have. In a new study published in the journal Nature last week, astronomers observed the first planetary system that resembles the future trajectory of our own solar system. What they found is that even after the sun's death, there might be some surviving planets that stick around.

Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, astronomers observed a Jupiter-like planet that is revolving around a white dwarf near the center of the Milky Way. The planet in question is an estimated 40 times more massive than Jupiter.

"This evidence confirms that planets orbiting at a large enough distance can continue to exist after their star's death," said lead author of the study, Joshua Blackman, a researcher at the University of Tasmania in Australia, in a news release. "Given that this system is an analog to our own solar system, it suggests that Jupiter and Saturn might survive the Sun's red giant phase, when it runs out of nuclear fuel and self-destructs."

This is a pretty remarkable discovery considering the violence that coincides with the death of a yellow dwarf star like our sun. When a yellow dwarf burns off all the hydrogen in its core, it balloons into a red giant star. From there, it collapses into a very faint white dwarf. The small size of white dwarfs is partly why it has been so difficult to detect a planetary system orbiting a white dwarf until now.

But while this might be good news for the outer gas giants, does this mean that Earth could survive the sun's death?

"Earth's future may not be so rosy because it is much closer to the Sun," said co-author David Bennett, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "If humankind wanted to move to a moon of Jupiter or Saturn before the Sun fried the Earth during its red supergiant phase, we'd still remain in orbit around the Sun, although we would not be able to rely on heat from the Sun as a white dwarf for very long."

The team of scientists used a technique called gravitational microlensing to confirm their observations. In his General Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein predicted that objects of large mass, things like black holes or stars, would distort space-time around them. Hence, light bends and distorts around these massive objects. Occasionally this is to the advantage of astronomers, as objects that are generally too distant or dim to observe directly can be briefly magnified by passing massive astrophysical bodies from the perspective of us on Earth. Such observations are known as gravitational microlensing events. It is not a common means of observing exoplanets, or planets in other solar systems; as Salon has previously reported, only 2% of discovered exoplanets have been found via microlensing.

In this case, astronomers tried to look for the planet's host star, and were surprised to discover that its starlight was not bright enough to constitute an ordinary, main sequence star. This helped rule out the possibility of the host star being anything besides a white dwarf.

"We have also been able to rule out the possibility of a neutron star or a black hole host. This means that the planet is orbiting a dead star, a white dwarf," said co author Jean-Philippe Beaulieu, an astrophysics professor at the University of Tasmania. "It offers a glimpse into what our solar system will look like after the disappearance of the Earth, whipped out in the cataclysmic demise of our Sun."

We should keep the healthier hand-washing habits we developed at the start of the pandemic

by Melissa Hawkins, American University

People were washing their hands so much early in the pandemic that sensitive skin and soap shortages were common problems in 2020.

All this focus on hand-washing was for good reason. The science uniformly demonstrates that frequent hand-washing reduces the risk of a variety of illnesses. It is low-hanging fruit in terms of an easy, healthy habit to practice.

However, people today aren't washing their hands as often as at the beginning of the pandemic, and many are wondering: Should I still be washing my hands more often because of the coronavirus? The short answer is yes. That is because you probably weren't washing your hands nearly as often as you should have been before the pandemic.

I am an epidemiologist and mom of three boys, one girl, two cats and one dog. Between sports and a busy household, there are a lot of opportunities for germs to spread in our house, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

Hand-washing: How often?

You wash your hands after going to the bathroom, but when else should you be washing?

In general, germs can get on your hands in many ways – from dirty hands, droplets in the air released during a cough or sneeze, contaminated surfaces, or contact with a sick person's body fluids. Your hands come into contact with thousands upon thousands of microorganisms each day – and that can be a problem considering that, on average, people touch their mouth, nose or eyes upward of 20 times per hour.

In hospitals, health care professionals are required to wash their hands before and after seeing every patient. While you and I might not need to do it quite as often, it's always a good idea to wash your hands in warm or cold water with soap before eating, after using the bathroom, when coming inside from the outdoors and after any activity.

Before the pandemic, most people did not wash their hands enough. Men, in particular, were less likely than women to remember to wash their hands. In recent years prior to the pandemic, hand-washing hygiene had been slipping generally, both in terms of frequency of washing and duration as people are more often doing a simple rinse-and-run. One survey found that only around 40% of people reported washing their hands six or more times a day.

Coronavirus transmission from touch

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is primarily spread through inhalation of infectious particles in the air. Catching the coronavirus from touching a surface – known as fomite transmission – is possible but is a low risk route of transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This indirect transmission could happen if a person touched a contaminated surface, the coronavirus transferred to the person's hand and then from their hand to their mouth, nose or eyes.

It is difficult to directly measure the risk of fomite transmission. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that the coronavirus can survive for hours and in some cases days on surfaces. However, other studies testing surfaces in real–world conditions – like a grocery store – did not detect the coronavirus. A research team estimated that the risk of infection from fomite transmission is less than 5 in 10,000 — significantly lower than risk estimates for infection through the airborne route and even lower than risk for influenza or norovirus.

But low risk is not no risk, and hand-washing has a direct, inverse association with illness. It has been shown to help prevent respiratory illnesses like colds, can reduce the spread of diarrhea and even helps to prevent children from missing school due to gastrointestinal illness.

The more you wash, the less likely you will have germs on your hands that can make you sick. This applies to the coronavirus as much as any other pathogen.

When in doubt, wash

The CDC and public health experts often repeat that the first line of defense against the spread of the coronavirus is hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

In 2020, a survey by the CDC found that the chances a person washed their hands before doing certain things nearly doubled compared to 2019. But even so, people still weren't washing their hands every time they should, pandemic or not. And despite this early increase, there is evidence that as coronavirus cases are dropping, hand-washing hygiene is falling too, even among health care professionals.

So how often should you wash your hands? The simple answer is every time you need to.

Use soap. Wash for 20 seconds at least – roughly one round of singing Happy Birthday. And remember to air dry or towel dry your hands because wet hands are also a good vector for transferring germs.

The science is clear that the commonplace practice of hand-washing is one of the most important activities that a person can do to avoid getting sick or spreading germs to other people. You probably weren't doing it enough pre-pandemic, and there has never been a better time to improve your hand-washing hygiene, especially as the holiday season approaches.

[Over 110,000 readers rely on The Conversation's newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]The Conversation

Melissa Hawkins, Professor of Public Health, American University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We ignored the harbingers of doom at high altitudes — and now the woes have arrived for us all

Thirteen thousand feet high on the far side of the Himalaya mountains, we have entered the past and the future at the same time. We are a medical expedition and also a pilgrimage, consisting of doctors, nurses, Buddhist clerics, supernumeraries like me, and a large staff of guides, muleteers, and camp tenders. We are bound for the isolated villages of Upper Dolpo, a remote region of northwestern Nepal, land of the snow leopard — both the actual animal and The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen's nonfiction classic. We are traveling the same trails Matthiessen walked in 1973.

As a medical mission, our purpose is to provide primary health care to people who rarely, if ever, see a clinician. As pilgrims, our purposes are as varied as our individual identities. Mine is to make peace with the anger and grief that have dogged me since finishing a pair of books, one on climate change, the other on extinction. They left me heartsick. My delight in the beauty of the world had been joined to sorrow at its destruction, and the two emotions were like cellmates who refused to get along. Their ceaseless argument soured the taste of life. I hoped that a long walk — about 150 miles in this case — might cure the resultant moral ache. (The story of that walk provides the backbone of my new book, The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss.)

The trails we followed led us into the past in the sense that the high Himalayan world — Sanskrit's "abode of snow" — is a relic of the Pleistocene, a land of glaciers, vast spaces, stony rubble, and frigid rivers. Its cynosure animal is less the snow leopard than the yak, a source of food, fiber, hide, bone tools, transport, and tractor power more essential to the Tibetan settlers of the region than even the bison was to America's Cheyenne or Sioux. Yaks enabled people to inhabit the wintry attic of the world, where today an Ice Age climate still lingers, even as it begins to fade away.

As much as we were entering the past, however, we were also plunging into the future. Lands at these high elevations appear to be warming two to three times faster than those lower down. The reasons for this are only partly understood. Changes in albedo — the reflectance of the land — are part of the answer: as snow packs shrink and glacial ice retreats, the newly bared and darker earth absorbs more solar energy than the white blanket that had covered it. The absorbed energy, in turn, warms the land and accelerates the melting of yet more nearby snow and ice. Windblown soot and dust, often set loose by human activities, can also darken the white, high-altitude world, yielding a similar effect.

From 1962 to 2006 the glaciers of the Himalaya appear to have lost more than a fifth of their ice. They did not all shrink at the same rate. In fact, some glaciers haven't shrunk at all, but measurements of the overall trend in the Sikkim-Nepal region put the average loss at seven inches of depth every year across the whole extent of ice. And, of course, the melting continues.

We used to say that climate disruption at high altitude presaged the changes that were soon to arrive in the rest of the world, that the cascade of broken balances exhibited by melting glaciers, erratic seasons, and unpredictable rivers was a harbinger of woes bound for environments closer to home. Sadly, such changes are harbingers no longer, for the woes have arrived.

Last summer saw nearly an entire Greek island combusted, significant swaths of Italy and Turkey turned to ash, giant expanses of the American Pacific Northwest set ablaze, and another full season of California flambé. Meanwhile, wildfires in Siberia consumed forested areas greater than all the rest combined, while floods in Belgium and western Germany drowned towns and villages that had never seen the like before. Then came an Atlantic hurricane season that has rivaled or surpassed the previous record-setting year in multiple categories. The future about which scientists and activists have warned us for more than 30 years is no longer on our doorstep. It's in the house.

Nowadays, the far Himalaya is less a model for the future than a mirror for the present. You see the same controversies over grazing and the same mistrust of land "managers" that preoccupy the American West. You see patterns of rural-to-urban migration that are common throughout the world, with young people leaving the family farmstead to seek their fortunes in the city. You also see the increased mobility of humanity expressed in legions of outsiders flooding into formerly isolated districts, much to the consternation of longtime residents.

In the case of Dolpo, the vast majority of outsiders invading the region are hunters of a weird fungus, yarza gunbu, that invades the head of a particular caterpillar soon after it hatches in the tundra grasslands. The fungus then consumes the unlucky caterpillar and erupts through the thin soil to produce a miniature tower, only a centimeter or two high, that (with a certain amount of imagination) can be seen to resemble an erect penis. As the snow recedes in the spring, yarza hunters pour by the thousands into the high country. Crawling on their hands and knees or shuffling stooped across the damp heights, they stare intently at the ground, straining to spot the phallic structure of their quarry. Gathered and dried, these rather unappetizing avatars of the male principle sell at cocaine prices as a remedy for impotence and a general tonic for health. Their market includes a large swath of Asia, especially China. Some call it "Himalayan Viagra."

Many Nepalis, especially urban youth, look to science to explain the perplexities of climate change, but in Dolpo and similar regions, yarza gunbu hunters often get blamed for the disturbed weather and chaotic hydrology afflicting the region. The newcomers, so the thinking goes, break unwritten laws, abuse pastureland, pollute streams, and cut shrubs and trees where none should be cut. Such behavior is said to upset the spirits of place. As a result, brutal winters now alternate with ones that are too warm, while avalanches fall where avalanches never fell before. The rains also seem to be affected. They start too early or end too late. Or they don't come at all. And the traditional rituals that people counted on to restore order when things slipped out of balance are proving inadequate to overcome such a high level of disturbance.

The Third Force: Stupidity

If opinion as to the cause of climate change is divided in Nepal, the division is generally benign. Not so in the United States, where it used to be said that, when things got bad enough, the nation's doubters and deniers would come around. Well, things have been bad enough for quite a while, as attested by the incineration of Paradise, California, in 2018, and Greenville, California this summer, the steady diminishment of the Colorado River, and so many other grim indicators. Rather than allow the light of realism to penetrate their thinking, the rightwing cheerleaders of America's culture wars, many of whom serve in Congress, persist in denying, dodging, or twisting the facts of global warming in ways that please their base and their corporate sponsors. Garret Keizer, writing in Harper's Magazine, theorizes that the problem goes deeper than the inevitable tension between liberals and conservatives. He argues that there is "a third force seeking hegemony over this world: stupidity."

Powered by social media, bullshit now travels at the speed of light. A Facebook algorithm is always available to help you segue from funny cat videos to anxiety-inducing clips about QAnon and chem trails. The main objective for Facebook and its advertisers is to keep viewers amused and aroused, to keep them plugged in. For many Internet users, real threats like global warming just can't compete with the loony ones.

The immoral and potentially fatal inability of the United States to take meaningful action on global warming means that Americans share more in common with rural Nepalis than they might imagine. Even through the pall of pollution that hangs over that country's capital, Kathmandu, people there can see that their climatic future will be determined by the billowing smokestacks of the United States, China, India, and Europe. They know that they have little agency on the world stage, little ability to influence events. This is not something new. Nepal is squeezed between the jealous powers of India and China. Each plays a different tune; Nepal dances, but it cannot dance to both at once. With two quarreling neighbors to appease, Nepal is far from being the master of its fate.

We Americans don't see ourselves as subject to the will of others. Since the early days of the republic, our autonomy has been a point of national pride. We chart our own path and we've long believed that, if something isn't right, we can fix it. If something needs doing, we will do it. We fought a world war in two hemispheres and came out victors. We rebuilt Europe. We walked on the moon. We won the Cold War and extended our economic reach around the world, exporting not just manufactured goods but our taste in music, film, fast food, and clothes. We spurred a Green Revolution in agriculture that vastly expanded the human carrying capacity of the globe, and we vanquished smallpox and polio. We were the good guys.

Today those attitudes and that pride seem so… well, twentieth century. Our scientists still develop vaccines, but the rest of us can't agree on using them. Our research institutions still pioneer the science of epidemics and climate change, but the general population can't agree on their underlying reality.

Implementing policies to control a public health crisis that has killed more than 700,000 fellow citizens or mitigating a shift in the global environmental equilibrium that threatens the future of civilization — these "big lifts" now exceed our strength. We can't even agree on a measure as simple as mask-wearing. More concerning yet, fidelity to the basic tenets of our electoral system, once the backbone of our democracy, now seems a relic of the past. Tens of millions of voters reject the clearly documented outcome of our last presidential election, and so do hundreds, maybe thousands, of public officials elected by that very system.

In times of stress, America has sought reassurance in the exploits of its vaunted military, but lately that hasn't worked out too well. Washington's 20-year war in Afghanistan bore a gloomy resemblance to its catastrophic effort to "save" Vietnam from communism, and not just in the way it ended. Imperial hubris, ignorance of local realities, and soaring civilian casualties are just a few of the dismal parallels to the earlier war. And we need hardly speak of Iraq: our invasion there produced an out-and-out disaster premised on out-and-out lies.

Which brings us back to agency. As Americans, we now confront a striking new reality: we don't have the clout we once thought we did. White America now shares its humbled condition with people who live on the farther side of the Himalaya, as well as with Native Americans, Blacks, and many other fellow citizens. America's minorities have long understood the loneliness and vulnerability of not being in command, of having to struggle against a hostile and disordered world. Now, the fractured American majority is getting a taste of how that feels. For want of cohesion and agreement, the United States is failing to address the biggest and most complex problems that confront it. Given how we've used our military since World War II, that reduced capability may not be an entirely bad thing. But where climate change is concerned, it's tragic.

Climate change requires comprehensive, systematic, and immediate action. Again and again at the national level, we've shown that we don't have what it takes. Diagnosis: inadequate agency. Responding to the climate crisis has become a race against time and our government still dawdles at the starting line.

Gratitude, Resilience, and Hope

At 13,000 feet on the farther side of the Himalaya, the world becomes lunar. The tallest vegetation can't hide a golf ball. Nothing is screened from view. What's there is there, as naked as sunlit boulders, as clear as mountain streams. As our expedition meandered from village to village, traversing passes higher than 17,000 feet, we wondered how so stark and spartan an environment might shape the people dwelling in it. In our clinics, we got a partial answer.

The gratitude and resilience of our Dolpo patients impressed us all deeply. One doctor spoke for many of us when he said,

"They come in with joint pain, a blown-out knee, GI distress, a horrible rash, whatever, and maybe we can't help them. 'Sorry,' we say. 'Wish we could do something for you.' And they get up and smile. They say, 'That's fine. Thanks anyway.' And off they go, as cheerfully as they came in. Patients back in my clinic [in the U.S.] are so different. Whatever hurts them becomes so much bigger a thing. And we give them meds for blood pressure or pain, but they really seem to want us to fix something bigger than that, something we don't have meds for. They want us to fix the pain that is in their minds or in their souls. My Nepali patients have lots of problems, but not that one."

The cheerful stoicism of our hosts inspired us. I had joined the expedition carrying much anger at my country's refusal to face its environmental responsibilities and frustration at witnessing the worsening results of its fecklessness. The long walk helped quite a bit. My fellow travelers, the patients we treated, and the spectacular land through which we traveled imparted many lessons. Perhaps the most important involved a rekindling of hope.

Hope is different from optimism and also different from the simple desire for things to turn out well. True hope demands faith in "not-knowing," in trusting the uncertainty of the future. The people of Dolpo seemed to possess that faith. In realms more familiar to westerners, such culture heroes as Czech dissident and later president Vaclav Havel and South African liberator Nelson Mandela also possessed it. Neither Havel nor Mandela knew if the Soviet Union or apartheid would be dismantled in their lifetime.

Nevertheless, through long periods of darkness, each of them cultivated a resilient hope that had two vital components. The first was a commitment to the intrinsic value of right action, irrespective of whether it resulted in the desired outcome. In Havel's words, they did what "makes sense," no matter whether their efforts might ultimately fail. Many philosophies distinguish between "instrumental good," which is realized when an action achieves its goal, and "intrinsic good," which is realized irrespective of result. Havel and Mandela pursued intrinsic good.

Second, they believed in surprise — that sometimes big, consequential things happen with virtually no warning. An earthquake, the fall of the Soviet Union, or a coronavirus epidemic are all good examples. There is no guarantee that the consequences of surprise will be beneficial. That's where true hopefulness and doing what "makes sense" come in — they sustain you through the long wait for surprise. In Czechoslovakia and South Africa when the long-desired surprises arrived, both Havel and Mandela seized their moment and made them as beneficial as possible. The essence of their preparation was that they never lost hope. Neither should we.

Copyright 2021 William deBuys

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

William deBuys is the author of 10 books, including A Great Aridness and The Last Unicorn, which compose a trilogy that culminates with The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss, just published.

An ancient fossil may provide a new perspective on 'Darwin’s dilemma'

by Elizabeth C. Turner, Laurentian University

Ever wonder how and when animals swanned onto the evolutionary stage? When, where and why did animals first appear? What were they like?

Life has existed for much of Earth's 4.5-billion-year history, but for most of that time it consisted exclusively of bacteria.

Although scientists have been investigating the evidence of biological evolution for over a century, some parts of the fossil record remain maddeningly enigmatic, and finding evidence of Earth's earliest animals has been particularly challenging.

Hidden evolution

Information about evolutionary events hundreds of millions of years ago is mainly gleaned from fossils. Familiar fossils are shells, exoskeletons and bones that organisms make while alive. These so-called “hard parts" first appear in rocks deposited during the “Cambrian explosion," slightly less than 540 million years ago.

The seemingly sudden appearance of diverse, complex animals, many with hard parts, implies that there was a preceding interval during which early soft-bodied animals with no hard parts evolved from simpler animals. Unfortunately, until now, possible evidence of fossil animals in the interval of “hidden" evolution has been very rare and difficult to understand, leaving the timing and nature of evolutionary events unclear.

This conundrum, known as “Darwin's dilemma," remains tantalizing and unresolved 160 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Required oxygen

There is indirect evidence regarding how and when animals may have appeared. Animals by definition ingest pre-existing organic matter, and their metabolisms require a certain level of ambient oxygen. It has been assumed that animals could not appear, or at least not diversify, until after a major oxygen increase in the Neoproterozoic Era, sometime between 815 and 540 million years ago, resulting from accumulation of oxygen produced by photosynthesizing cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae.

It is widely accepted that sponges are the most basic animal in the animal evolutionary tree and therefore probably were first to appear. Yes, sponges are animals: they use oxygen and feed by sucking water containing organic matter through their bodies. The earliest animals were probably sponge-related (the “sponge-first" hypothesis), and may have emerged hundreds of millions of years prior to the Cambrian, as suggested by a genetic method called molecular phylogeny, which analyzes genetic differences.

Based on these reasonable assumptions, sponges may have existed as much as 900 million years ago. So, why have we not found fossil evidence of sponges in rocks from those hundreds of millions of intervening years?

Part of the answer to this question is that sponges do not have standard hard parts (shells, bones). Although some sponges have an internal skeleton made of microscopic mineralized rods called spicules, no convincing spicules have been found in rocks dating from the interval of hidden early animal evolution. However, some sponge types have a skeleton made of tough protein fibres called spongin, forming a distinctive, microscopic, three-dimensional meshwork, identical to a bath sponge.

Work on modern and fossil sponges has shown that these sponges can be preserved in the rock record when their soft tissue is calcified during decay. If the calcified mass hardens around spongin fibres before they too decay, a distinctive microscopic meshwork of complexly branching tubes results appears in the rock. The branching configuration is unlike that of algae, bacteria or fungi, and is well known from limestones younger than 540 million years.

Unusual fossils

I am a geologist and paleobiologist who works on very old limestone. Recently, I described this exact microstructure in 890-million-year-old rocks from northern Canada, proposing that it could be evidence of sponges that are several hundred million years older than the next-youngest uncontested sponge fossil.

Although my proposal may initially seem outrageous, it is consistent with predictions and assumptions that are common in the paleontological community: the new material seems to validate an extrapolated timeline and a predicted identity for early animals that are already widely accepted.

If these are indeed sponge fossils, animal evolution can be pushed back by several hundred million years.

The early possible sponges that I describe lived with localised cyanobacterial communities that produced oxygen oases in an otherwise low-oxygen world, prior to the Neoproterozoic oxygenation event. These early sponges may have continued living in similar environments, possibly unchanged and unchallenged by evolutionary pressure, for up to several hundred million years, before more diverse animals emerged.

The existence of 890-million-year-old animals would also indicate that biological evolution was not substantially affected by the controversial Cryogenian glacial episodes — so-called “snowball Earth" — that began around 720 million years ago.

My unusual fossil material may provide a new perspective on Darwin's dilemma. However, radical new ideas are generally not fully accepted by the scientific community without vigorous discussion; I expect lively controversy to ensue. At some point, probably years in the future, a consensus may develop based on further work. Until then, enjoy the debate!The Conversation

Elizabeth C. Turner, Professor, Earth Sciences, Laurentian University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A mysterious and powerful radio signal from space is repeating itself

Outer space is chirping, and no one quite knows why.

Known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs for short, these very brief yet incredibly powerful bursts of radio wave energy appear to be coming from all corners of the universe. And while astronomers can pick up such signals, they are, because of their brief duration, very difficult to study. Very few of them ever repeat; and since they only last a millisecond, telescopes can rarely focus on them in time to get a good look. Moreover, astronomers do not quite know exactly where they are coming from, or where the next one might land.

All of this uncertainty around fast radio bursts has only heightened their mystery.

But astronomers may have found some answers in a fast radio burst that, unusually, repeats — which has given them more opportunities to study the strange signals.

Dubbed FRB 121102, the first repeating FRB has revealed new insights about this mysterious phenomenon. According to a study published in Nature last week, an international group of scientists found 1,652 independent radio bursts from the same source over the course of 47 days between August 29 and October 29, 2019. The analysis is significant for being the largest set of FRBs ever recorded from a single source. At one point during observation, 122 radio bursts occurred in the span of one hour from the source.

"This was the first time that one FRB source was studied in such great detail," said astrophysicist Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas and one of the study's corresponding authors. "The large burst set helped our team hone in like never before on the characteristic energy and energy distribution of FRBs, which sheds new light on the engine that powers these mysterious phenomena."

Part of the mystery around FRBs is that they are relatively new to science. Scientists discovered the first FRBs in 2007, and have since turned to powerful radio telescopes to track down the bursts and search for clues on where they originate and how they are produced. One prominent theory on their origins is that they spawn from a type of incredibly dense neutron star called a magnetar, which have some of the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. Another theory posits that FRBs emerge from shock waves traveling at near light-speed outside a magnetosphere.

In a news release, Zhang said the latest observations "pose great challenges to the latter model."

"The bursts are too frequent and — given that this episode alone amounts to 3.8% of the energy available from a magnetar — it adds up to too much energy for the second model to work," Zhang said.

Pei Wang, one of the article's lead authors from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), agreed.

"During its most active phase, FRB 121102 included 122 bursts measured within a one-hour period, the highest repeat rate ever observed for any FRB," Wang said.

Indeed, in a separate study published in Nature in June 2020 suggested that some fast radio bursts could be coming from a magnetar in our galaxy nearly 10,000 parsecs away.

"Because magnetars are spinning quickly and have powerful magnetic fields, they have huge reservoirs of energy that can produce outbursts," Alexandra Witze wrote in Nature. "One idea about the source of these outbursts is that something happening inside the magnetar — such as a 'starquake,' analogous to an earthquake — could crack its surface and release energy."

While their precise causes remain a mystery, astrophysicists have mostly ruled out the possibility that these mysterious radio waves are coming from an alien civilization, as Salon has previously reported.

"It is unlikely that all FRBs are from alien civilizations due to the power requirements at cosmological distances, but possible," Avi Loeb, the former chair of Harvard's astronomy department previously told Salon.

How many lives have coronavirus vaccines saved? Our new analysis finds out

by Sumedha Gupta, IUPUI

More than 200 million U.S. residents have gotten at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine with the expectation that the vaccines slow virus transmission and save lives.

Researchers know the efficacy of the vaccines from large-scale clinical trials, the gold standard for medical research. The studies found the vaccines to be very effective at preventing severe COVID–19 and especially good at preventing death. But it's important to track any new treatment in the real world as the population-level benefits of vaccines could differ from the efficacy found in clinical trials.

For instance, some people in the U.S. have only been getting the first shot of a two-shot vaccine and are therefore less protected than a fully vaccinated person. Alternatively, vaccinated people are much less likely to transmit COVID-19 to others, including those who are not vaccinated. This could make vaccines more effective at a population level than in the clinical trials.

I am a health economist, and my team and I have been studying the effects of public policy interventions like vaccination have had on the pandemic. We wanted to know how many lives vaccines may have saved due to the states' COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in the U.S.

Building an accurate model

In March 2021, when weekly data on state COVID-19 vaccinations started to become reliably available from state agencies, my team began to analyze the association between state vaccination rates and the subsequent COVID-19 cases and deaths in each state. Our goal was to build a model that was accurate enough to measure the effect of vaccination within the complicated web of factors that influence COVID–19 deaths.

To do this, our model compares COVID-19 incidence in states with high vaccination rates against states with low vaccination rates. As part of the analysis, we controlled for things that influence the spread of the coronavirus, like state–by–state differences in weather and population density, seasonally driven changes in social behavior and non-pharmaceutical interventions like stay-at-home orders, mask mandates and overnight business closures. We also accounted for the fact that there is a delay between when a person is first vaccinated and when their immune system has built up protection.

Vaccines saved lives

To check the strength of our model before playing with variables, we first compared reported deaths with an estimate that our model produced.

When we fed it all of the information available – including vaccination rates – the model calculated that by May 9, 2021, there should have been 569,193 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. The reported death count by that date was 578,862, less than a 2% difference from our model's prediction.

Equipped with our well-working statistical model, we were then able to “turn off" the vaccination effect and see how much of a difference vaccines made.

Using near real-time data of state vaccination rates, coronavirus cases and deaths in our model, we found that in the absence of vaccines, 708,586 people would have died by May 9, 2021. We then compared that to our model estimate of deaths with vaccines: 569,193. The difference between those two numbers is just under 140,000. Our model suggests that vaccines saved 140,000 lives by May 9, 2021.

Our study only looked at the few months just after vaccination began. Even in that short time frame, COVID-19 vaccinations saved many thousands of lives despite vaccination rates still being fairly low in several states by the end of our study period. I can say with certainty that vaccines have since then saved many more lives – and will continue to do so as long as the coronavirus is still around.The Conversation

Sumedha Gupta, Associate Professor of Economics, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ivermectin is a Nobel Prize-winning wonder drug – but not for COVID-19

by Jeffrey R. Aeschlimann, University of Connecticut

Ivermectin is an over 30-year-old wonder drug that treats life- and sight-threatening parasitic infections. Its lasting influence on global health has been so profound that two of the key researchers in its discovery and development won the Nobel Prize in 2015.

I've been an infectious disease pharmacist for over 25 years. I've also managed patients who delayed proper treatment for their severe COVID-19 infections because they thought ivermectin could cure them.

Although ivermectin has been a game-changer for people with certain infectious diseases, it isn't going to save patients from COVID-19 infection. In fact, it could cost them their lives.

Let me tell you a short story about the history of ivermectin.

Developing ivermectin for animal use

Ivermectin was first identified in the 1970s during a veterinary drug screening project at Merck Pharmaceuticals. Researchers focused on discovering chemicals that could potentially treat parasitic infections in animals. Common parasites include nematodes, such as flatworms and roundworms, and arthropods, such as fleas and lice. All of these infectious organisms are quite different from viruses.

Merck partnered with the Kitasato Institute, a medical research facility in Japan. Satoshi Omura and his team isolated a group of chemicals called avermectin from bacteria found in a single soil sample near a Japanese golf course. To my knowledge, avermectin has yet to be found in any other soil sample in the world.

Research on avermectin continued for approximately five years. Soon, Merck and the Kitasato Institute developed a less toxic form they named ivermectin. It was approved in 1981 for commercial use in veterinary medicine for parasitic infections in livestock and domestic pets with the brand name Mectizan.

Developing ivermectin for human use

Early experiments by William Campbell and his team from Merck discovered that the drug also worked against a human parasite that causes an infection called river blindness.

River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, is the second leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. It is transmitted to humans from blackflies carrying the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus and occurs predominantly in Africa.

Ivermectin underwent trials to treat river blindness in 1982 and was approved in 1987. It has since been distributed free of charge through the Mectizan Donation Program to dozens of countries. Thanks to ivermectin, river blindness has been essentially eliminated in 11 Latin American countries, preventing approximately 600,000 cases of blindness.

These two decades of extensive work to discover, develop and distribute ivermectin helped to significantly reduce human suffering from river blindness. It's these efforts that were recognized by the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded to both William Campbell and Satoshi Omura for their leadership on this groundbreaking research.

Repurposing drugs for other uses

Infectious disease researchers frequently attempt to repurpose antimicrobials and other medications to treat infections. Drug repurposing is attractive because the approval process can happen more quickly and at a lower cost since nearly all of the basic research has already been completed.

In the years since it was approved to treat river blindness, ivermectin was also shown to be highly effective against other parasitic infections. This includes strongyloidiasis, an intestinal roundworm infection that affects an estimated 30 to 100 million people worldwide.

Another example is amphotericin B, originally approved to treat human yeast and mold infections. Researchers discovered it can also be an effective treatment for severe forms of leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection prevalent in tropical and subtropical countries.

Likewise, doxycycline is an antibiotic used for a wide variety of human bacterial infections such as pneumonia and Lyme disease. It was later found to also be highly effective in preventing and treating malaria.

Repurposing drugs for COVID-19

Not every attempt at repurposing a drug works as hoped, however.

At the start of the pandemic, scientists and doctors tried to find inexpensive medications to repurpose for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were two of those drugs. They were chosen because of possible antiviral effects documented in laboratory studies and limited anecdotal case reports from the first COVID-19 outbreaks in China. However, large clinical studies of these drugs to treat COVID-19 did not translate to any meaningful benefits. This was partly due to the serious toxic effects patients experienced before the drugs reached a high enough dose to inhibit or kill the virus.

Unfortunately, lessons from these failed attempts have not been applied to ivermectin. The false hope around using ivermectin to treat COVID-19 originated from an April 2020 laboratory study in Australia. Although the results from this study were widely circulated, I immediately had serious doubts. The concentration of ivermectin they tested was 20 to 2,000 times higher than the standard dosages used to treat human parasitic infections. Indeed, many other pharmaceutical experts confirmed my initial concerns within a month of the paper's publication. Such high concentrations of the drug could be significantly toxic.

Another commonly cited paper on ivermectin's purported effects against COVID-19 was withdrawn in July 2021 after scientists found serious flaws with the study. These flaws ranged from incorrect statistical analyses to discrepancies between collected data and published results to duplicated patient records and the inclusion of study subjects who died before even entering the study. Even more concerning, at least two other oft-cited studies have raised significant concerns about scientific fraud.

At the time of this writing, two large randomized clinical trials both showed no significant benefit from the use of ivermectin for COVID-19. Reputable national and international health care organizations, including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, unanimously recommend against the use of ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19 unless in the context of a clinical trial.

Consequences of using ivermectin for COVID-19

Unfortunately, many organizations with dubious intentions have continued to promote unsubstantiated use of invermectin for COVID-19. This has led to a dramatic rise in ivermectin prescriptions and a flood of calls to U.S. poison control centers for ivermectin overdoses. Many calls were due to ingestion of large amounts of veterinary products containing ivermectin – two deaths linked to ivermectin overdose were reported in September 2021.

Ivermectin, when used correctly, has prevented millions of potentially fatal and debilitating infectious diseases. It's meant to be prescribed only to treat infections caused by parasites. It's not meant to be prescribed by parasites looking to extract money from desperate people during a pandemic. It's my sincere hope that this unfortunate and tragic chapter in the otherwise incredible story of a lifesaving medication will come to a quick end.

[Like what you've read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation's daily newsletter.]The Conversation

Jeffrey R. Aeschlimann, Associate Professor of Pharmacy, University of Connecticut

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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