Month: May 2020
NYTimes: Around the world, scientists are racing to develop and mass produce reliable antibody tests that public health experts say are a crucial element in ending the coronavirus lockdowns that are causing economic devastation. But that effort is being hamstrung, scientists say, by a shortage of the blood samples containing antibodies to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, that are needed to validate the tests.
Recognizing a rare opportunity, some companies are seeking to cash in on the shortages, soliciting blood donations and selling samples at rich markups in a practice that has been condemned by medical professionals as, at the very least, unethical.
“I’ve never seen these prices before,” said Dr. Joe Fitchett, the medical director of Mologic, one of the British test manufacturers that was offered the blood samples. “It’s money being made from people’s suffering.”
I am reminded of Walter Williams who asks his students whether it is wrong to profit from the misfortune of others:
But I caution them with some examples. An orthopedist profits from your misfortune of having broken your leg skiing. When there’s news of a pending ice storm, I doubt whether it saddens the hearts of those in the collision repair business. I also tell my students that I profit from their misfortune — their ignorance of economic theory.
A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive so if you want a strong signal and a strong incentive you need to let prices rise. The prices in this case don’t even seem that high:
From March 31 to April 22, prices asked by Cantor BioConnect for its cheapest samples — always sold by the milliliter, the equivalent of less than a quarter of a teaspoon — rose more than 40 percent, to $500 from $350.
Bear in mind the costs of collecting the sample, including nurse time and PPE. Some samples which are especially rich in antibodies, do sell for prices that are well above cost which is not surprising as those samples are in high demand as they may offer a cure.
Do the firms willing and able to pay the highest prices necessarily have the best science? No, not necessarily, but on balance the decentralized allocation process offered by markets and civil society will likely be far more effective than centralized, political allocation. We also know from field experiments around the world that higher prices for blood increase supply, a key consideration.
As Hayek said the moral rules of the tribe which appear natural to us–like don’t profit from misery–cannot maintain a civilization so we struggle between what we think is right and what actually works to prevent misery.
There can be no doubt that our innate moral emotions and instincts were acquired in the hundreds of thousand years—probably half a million years—in which Homo sapiens lived in small hunting and gathering groups and developed a physiological constitution which governed his innate instincts. These instincts are still very strong in us. Yet civilization developed by our gradually learning cultural rules which were transmitted by teaching and which served largely to restrain and suppress some of those natural instincts.
Here are some relevant criticisms from Soltani, Calo, and Bergstrom:
Studies suggest that people have on average about a dozen close contacts a day—incidents involving direct touch or a one-on-one conversation—yet even in the absence of social distancing measures the average infected person transmits to only 2 or 3 other people throughout the entire course of the disease. Fleeting interactions, such as crossing paths in the grocery store, will be substantially more common and substantially less likely to cause transmission. If the apps flag these lower-risk encounters as well, they will cast a wide net when reporting exposure. If they do not, they will miss a substantive fraction of transmission events. Because most exposures flagged by the apps will not lead to infection, many users will be instructed to self-quarantine even when they have not been infected. A person may put up with this once or twice, but after a few false alarms and the ensuing inconvenience of protracted self-isolation, we expect many will start to disregard the warnings.
At least as problematic is the issue of false negatives—instances where these apps will fail to flag individuals as potentially at risk even when they’ve encountered someone with the virus. Smartphone penetration in the United States remains at about 81 percent—meaning that even if we had 100 percent installation of these apps (which is extremely unlikely without mandatory policies in place), we would still only see a fraction of the total exposure events (65 percent according to Metcalf’s Law). Furthermore, people don’t always have their phones on them.
There is also a very real danger that these voluntary surveillance technologies will effectively become compulsory for any public and social engagement. Employers, retailers, or even policymakers can require that consumers display the results of their app before they are permitted to enter a grocery store, return back to work, or use public services—is as slowly becoming the norm in China, Hong Kong, and even being explored for visitors to Hawaii.
Taken with the false positive and “griefing” (intentionally crying wolf) issues outlined above, there is a real risk that these mobile-based apps can turn unaffected individuals into social pariahs, restricted from accessing public and private spaces or participating in social and economic activities. The likelihood that this will have a disparate impact on those already hardest hit by the pandemic is also high. Individuals living in densely populated neighborhoods and apartment buildings—characteristics that are also correlated to non-white and lower income communities—are likelier to experience incidences of false positives due their close proximity to one another.
In another study:
Nearly 3 in 5 Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert system under development by Google and Apple, suggesting that it will be difficult to persuade enough people to use the app to make it effective against the coronavirus pandemic, a Washington Post–University of Maryland poll finds.
And here are skeptical remarks from Bruce Schneier.
I also have worried about how testing and liability law would interact. If the positive cases test as positive, it may be harder for businesses and schools to reopen, because they did not “do enough” to keep the positive cases out, or perhaps the businesses and the schools are the ones doing the testing in the first place. Whereas under a lower-testing “creative ambiguity” equilibrium, perhaps it is easier to think in terms of statistical rather than known lives lost, and to proceed with some generally beneficial activities, even though of course some positive cases will be walking through the doors.
I wonder if there also is a negative economic effect, over the longer haul, simply by making fear of the virus more focal in people’s minds. The plus of course is simply that contact tracing does in fact slow down the spread of the virus and allows resources to be allocated to individuals and areas of greatest need.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
Among my friends and acquaintances, the best predictor of how seriously they take the matter is whether they read science fiction in their youth. As you might expect, the science-fiction readers are willing to entertain the more outlandish possibilities. Even if these are not “little green men,” the idea that the Chinese or Russians have a craft that can track and outmaneuver the U.S. military is newsworthy in and of itself. So would be a secret U.S. craft, especially one unknown to military pilots.
The cynical view is that the science-fiction readers are a bit crazy and are trying to recapture the excitement of their youth by speculating about UFOs. Under this theory, they shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than Tolkien fans who wonder if orcs are hiding under the next stone.
The more positive view is that science-fiction readers are more willing to consider new ideas and practices. This kind of openness presumably is a good thing, at least in general, so why aren’t the opinions of more “open” observers accorded more respect? Science-fiction readers have long experience thinking about worlds that are very different from the current one, and perhaps that makes them more perceptive when something truly unusual does come along.
Some of the individuals who were early to see and point out Covid-19 risk, such as tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, also have taken the UFO reports seriously, perhaps due to the same flexibility of mind.
Do read the whole thing, the column does not excerpt easily.
That is a new paper by Augustin Landier and David Thesmar, here is the abstract:
We analyze firm-level analyst forecasts during the COVID crisis. First, we describe expectations dynamics about future corporate earnings. Downward revisions have been sharp, especially for 2020 and 2021, but much less drastic than the lower bound estimated by Koijen et al. (2020). Analysts’ consensus forecast does not exhibit evidence of over-reaction: Forecasts over 2020 earnings have slowly decreased by 10.2% over the course of March and April 2020 before stabilizing. Long-run forecasts, as well as expected “Long-Term Growth” have reacted less than short-run forecasts, and feature less disagreement. However, even the 2024 forecasts are revised down. Second, we ask how much forecast revisions explain market dynamics. Without change in discount rates, mean forecast-implied cumulative returns from mid-February to mid-April should be around -9%, while they were actually -20%. The difference between forecast-implied returns and actual returns implies a rise in the average discount rate of about 1\%. This increase is decomposed into three factors: increased risk premium (+1\%)), increased leverage (+1\%) and interest rate reduction (-1\%). In other words, analyst forecast revisions explain most of the downward revision in equity values.
This is perhaps the best stock market analysis I have seen so far…?
1. Black hole in the outer solar system? By Edward Witten.
5. Peruvian indigenous rap (NYT).
7. The culture that was French: France to sell some of nation’s antique furniture to support hospitals.
9. The culture that is Japan: should you video chat your local aquarium eel?
I was pleased to read this NYT reporting:
Yet another team has been trying to find drugs that work against coronavirus — and also to learn why they work.
The team, led by Nevan Krogan at the University of California, San Francisco, has focused on how the new coronavirus takes over our cells at the molecular level.
The researchers determined that the virus manipulates our cells by locking onto at least 332 of our own proteins. By manipulating those proteins, the virus gets our cells to make new viruses.
Dr. Krogan’s team found 69 drugs that target the same proteins in our cells the virus does. They published the list in a preprint last month, suggesting that some might prove effective against Covid-19…
It turned out that most of the 69 candidates did fail. But both in Paris and New York [where the drugs were shipped for testing], the researchers found that nine drugs drove the virus down.
“The things we’re finding are 10 to a hundred times more potent than remdesivir,” Dr. Krogan said. He and his colleagues published their findings Thursday in the journal Nature.
The Krogan team was an early recipient of Fast Grants, and you will find more detail about their work at the above NYT link. Fast Grants is also supporting Patrick Hsu and his team at UC Berkeley:
There are >100 antibody tests for coronavirus on the market. I explained https://t.co/fVV8ggQ5QI on @CNNTonight to @donlemon with @MarsonLab: what antibody tests can and cannot tell you, which tests perform well or don’t, and how scientists are racing to connect the dots https://t.co/uC5BMn726e
— Patrick Hsu (@pdhsu) April 30, 2020
And the work of the Addgene team:
— Addgene (@Addgene) April 30, 2020
Garett Jones emails me:
How soon until superspreader discrimination studies becomes an academic field? Is it already, on a Straussian level?
Will employment discrimination law react quickly or slowly?
IIRC after 9/11 it took about a year for the left to start bringing up serious concerns about detainee treatment.
Perhaps social media and the naturally greater sympathy people may have toward probabilistic superspreaders will encourage a faster response to the injustice of treating people differently on the basis of personal E(R0 | Covid +).
This will shape the medium-term spread of Covid if it hasn’t already.
This is all from Michael A. Alcorn, from my email, no further indentation offered:
“Just to keep hammering on this nursing home point… I saw your Tweet about Eastern vs. Western Europe and decided to explore the nursing home angle there too. The WHO has data on the number of nursing and elderly home beds for different countries here. Unfortunately, the data only goes up to 2013-ish for many countries, but it’s suggestive nonetheless.
Italy and France were clearly trending up seven years ago in its number of beds… would be interesting to see if Italy had a similar jump to Spain at some point. The number of beds gives us a proxy for the number of people who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Obviously, these countries have different total populations, but I don’t think that should matter too much because I suspect nursing homes tend to be highly concentrated within countries (e.g., how many of France’s nursing homes are in the Paris metro?). Based on what I’ve read about nursing home staff often being low paid and so perhaps coming to work when sick and working at multiple facilities, I suspect nursing home density is nonlinearly related to the number of COVID-19 deaths in a country (especially when you account for some of the truly horrifying government decisions regarding nursing homes).
Here are those Nordic countries everyone likes to compare:
You can get exact numbers on the website, but Sweden had twice as many nursing home beds as Finland and three times as many as Norway. The ship might have sailed on what we can do to protect these vulnerable populations, but I would love to see a Fast Grant go towards investigating the COVID-19/nursing home tragedy.”