The Daily Dose: WHO “independent” panel whitewashes report on pandemic’s early days;

After a brief period of calmness in the face of increasingly visible new strains of COVID-19, scientists are beginning to publicly fret about the possible implications for infections, reinfections, antibody treatments, and vaccines. Per Science, “Now, they’re also focusing on a potential new threat: variants that could do an end run around the human immune response. Such “immune escapes” could mean more people who have had COVID-19 remain susceptible to reinfection, and that proven vaccines may, at some point, need an update.” Scientists are also concerned about the 501Y.V2, a variant detected in South Africa because some of the mutations it carries, including ones named E484K and K417N, change its surface protein and spike, rendering monoclonal antibody treatments useless. If 2021 was supposed to be better, we’re still waiting.

International panel appointed by the World Health Organization to investigate itself has returned with its findings. The “independent” investigators pretty much spread any and all blame to unnamed countries for ambiguous missed opportunities to prevent the initial spread of SARS-CoV-2. It also criticized the WHO for its most obvious early missteps, e.g. taking ages to declare a pandemic, while also ignoring many other grievances. Stating the obvious reveals nothing while giving the illusion of being revelatory. It’s just another example of whitewashing by large bureaucratic institutions, not to mention a waste of the paper the report is printed on.

In light of all the discouraging pandemic news, pharmaceutical companies continue to plug away at near-term and long-term vaccine options. One company, Gristone Oncology is positioning itself as the backstop to current vaccines. Per STAT, “The Gritstone approach combines two different types of vaccines. The first dose would be a vaccine based on adenovirus, a group of viruses that can cause cold-like illnesses. This is similar to the vaccines being developed by Johnson and Johnson and, separately, by the team of Oxford University and AstraZeneca. The virus is used to introduce a gene into cells, which then produce proteins to which the immune system mounts a response. But the second dose would be an mRNA vaccine, much like the vaccines developed by Moderna and the team of Pfizer and BioNTech.” This is welcome news. However, the implications of Gristone’s efforts mean that they foresee COVID-19 lingering for at least another half- to full-year.

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An editorial in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focuses on cognitive biases that are emerging in light of COVID-19 and the increasing amount of Open Access data. It’s a little too involved for a quick summary but if you’re interested in how good information can unintentionally get skewed, it’s worth the read.

Insect populations around the world are experiencing significant declines. It has worried scientists for some time. Unfortunately, they actually don’t have quality data to even study the phenomenon. A paper in PNAS explains the challenges facing entomologists. “Despite the overwhelming sense that something sinister is afoot, entomologists lack clear, comprehensive data on insect abundances over time. So far, a million species have been described and probably another 4.5 million have yet to be discovered. Piecemeal or anecdotal evidence shows the broad strokes of what seems to be a general decline, with some exceptions. At times, the narrative seems almost apocalyptic. And yet, some studies do find stable or increasing arthropod populations. To really quantify what’s been going on would require long-term monitoring studies tracking insect abundances over decades. Few such datasets exist, however. When they do, they are the gold standard for reconstructing trends.” While on the surface, the insect apocalypse may pale in comparison to the current pandemic, the implications are no less dire. Such a major disruption to the global and local food chains can be catastrophic.

For almost 40 years, there has been heated debate in the astronomy world about whether there are two massive bubbles above and below the disc that comprises the Milky Way galaxy. While conclusive proof has been lacking, astronomer Yoshiaki Sofue never gave up on the theory and discussed it every chance he got. After four decades, his tenacity has been rewarded. The evidence has finally been revealed. Per Quanta, “The map traces X-ray bubbles that stand an estimated 45,000 light-years tall, engulfing the gamma-ray Fermi bubbles. Their X-rays shine from gas that measures 3 million to 4 million degrees Kelvin as it expands outward at 300 to 400 kilometers per second. And not only does the northern bubble align perfectly with the spur, its mirror image is obvious as well, just as Sofue predicted. ‘I was particularly happy to see the southern bubble clearly exhibited, so similar to my simulation,’ he said.” 40 years is a long time not to surrender to naysayers.

Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.

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