DAILY DOSE: Too little, too late when it comes to lethal autonomous weapons.

The Omicron variant and a televised address by United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding the virus’ rapid spread has sent many British citizens in search of boosters. Per the BBC, “More than 100,000 people trying to book their Covid booster jabs on Monday has led to the NHS website crashing, the government has said. And the ordering of lateral flow kits from the government website has been temporarily suspended amid high demand. It comes after the prime minister said over-18s in England would be offered a third dose by the end of the year. He also said fully jabbed people would be advised to do daily tests after contact with a Covid case from Tuesday.” If boosters are available where you are located and you haven’t done so already, get it done. Better safe than sorry. https://bbc.in/3GEkMxR

The first case of the new Covid-19 variant has arrived in Mainland China. Per Reuters, “Health authorities in northern China’s port city of Tianjin have detected the first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the country’s mainland, the state-run Tianjin Daily reported on Monday. The infection was discovered in a traveller who arrived in the city from overseas on Dec. 9, the newspaper said, adding that the patient is currently being treated in isolation in hospital.” https://reut.rs/33eb079

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In light of Omicron, getting a better understanding of the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and the way new variants can evade the immune system is of the utmost importance. A recent study published in Science addresses the impact of SARS-CoV-2 variants on neutralizing antibody activity after they have become dominant strains. According to the authors, “We demonstrate mechanisms through which the SARS-CoV-2 receptor binding domain (RBD) can tolerate large numbers of simultaneous antibody escape mutations and show that pseudotypes containing up to seven mutations, as opposed to the one to three found in previously studied variants of concern, are more resistant to neutralization by therapeutic antibodies and serum from vaccine recipients. We identify an antibody that binds the RBD core to neutralize pseudotypes for all tested variants but show that the RBD can acquire an N-linked glycan to escape neutralization. Our findings portend continued emergence of escape variants as SARS-CoV-2 adapts to humans.” Even though we already knew escape variants would emerge – and already have – it’s still a bit disconcerting to see the idea formalized. https://bit.ly/3dKhKeX

Another virus has been ripping through the world under the radar as it grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic. Respiratory syncytial virus infections have skyrocketed and as have deaths associated with it. Fortunately, after decades of vaccine-development failure, scientists appear to be on the verge of introducing a safe and effective RSV vaccine.  An article in Nature looks at the efforts and how identifying and focusing on a single target has been a game changer. “McLellan, then a postdoctoral researcher at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, and his colleagues looked at a protein that the virus uses to fuse with cells and infect them, called the F protein, and found a way to stabilize it in its prefusion form — the shape it adopts when ready to grab on to cells. The structure of the prefusion F protein unveiled the best target for making vaccine-induced antibodies that could prevent the virus from entering human cells. Now, an effective RSV vaccine is nearly within reach: four candidates and one monoclonal antibody treatment are in late-stage clinical trials.” https://go.nature.com/3GzzBBM

Diversity has skyrocketed to the top of the social buzzword list during the past few years. Unfortunately, even in light of active efforts to include people of color in various professions, it remains challenging. STAT investigated the startling lack of diversity among orthapedic surgeons. According to the article, “While medicine as a whole, and even other elite specialties like dermatology, thoracic surgery, and otolaryngology, has begun to increase the number of people of color in its ranks, orthopedics’ numbers have barely budged. Less than 2% of those practicing in the field are Black, just 2.2% are Hispanic, and 0.4% are Native American. Even Asian American physicians, a group considered overrepresented in medicine, are much scarcer in orthopedics, making up just 6.7% of these specialists.” The article goes on to say that orthopedic surgeons of color harbor a sense of abandonment by their field’s white majority, citing a failure of leadership and “an ‘outsourcing’ of diversity efforts to Black and brown orthopedic surgeons who are already pushed to their limits.”  https://bit.ly/3pU5KgB

In a classic case of the cat already being out of the bag, the United Nations has continued its sloth-like move calling on countries to adopt limits on the use of lethal autonomous weapons. Per Reuters, “United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Monday for new rules covering the use of autonomous weapons as a key meeting on the issue opened in Geneva. Negotiators at the U.N. talks have for eight years been discussing limits on lethal autonomous weapons, or LAWS, which are fully machine-controlled and rely on new technology such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition. But pressure has increased in part due to a U.N. panel report in March that said the first autonomous drone attack may have already occurred in Libya.” Like we said, it’s a bit late in the game when it comes to killer robots. https://reut.rs/3DOkORR

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

IMAGE CREDIT: Nicolas Halftermeyer

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