Category: Science

The Tony Blair “one dose” idea

Here is the source, of course Alex Tabarrok was there first.  For now give everyone one dose rather than two, and enjoy the partial but more broadly spread protection.  Here are the reactions from two epidemiologists:

Professor Wendy Barclay, from the department of infectious disease at Imperial College London, said Mr Blair’s idea was interesting but agreed it was “too risky” to try without further evidence.

And Professor Neil Ferguson, also from Imperial, added that the UK regulator had authorised the vaccine on the basis that people would receive two doses.

Administering one dose only would require “an entirely different regulatory submission”, he told a Commons committee.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Over the coming weeks and months, the rate of vaccinations will increase as more doses become available and the programme continues to expand.”

Where are their cost-benefit analyses?  Letting people get infected at current and indeed accelerating rates is also “too risky,” yes?  Is there an epidemiologist or public health expert out there willing to show his or her work, either for or against this idea?  A genuine query, and of course comments are open.  How about one dose for Moderna only?  If we are to defer to their expertise, they do actually have to step up and be the experts, right?

Update on the new Covid-19 strain

Here is a very good article with many points, here are two in particular that caught my attention:

People with a weakened immune system may give the virus this opportunity, as Gupta’s data show. More evidence comes from a paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine on 3 December that described an immunocompromised patient in Boston infected with SARS-CoV-2 for 154 days before he died. Again, the researchers found several mutations, including N501Y. “It suggests that you can get relatively large numbers of mutations happening over a relatively short period of time within an individual patient,” says William Hanage of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one of the authors. (In patients who are infected for a few days and then clear the virus, there simply is not enough time for this, he says.) When such patients are given antibody treatments for COVID-19 late in their disease course, there may already be so many variants present that one of them is resistant, Goldstein says.


These could impact the binding of the virus to human cells and also its recognition by the immune system, Farrar says. “These South African mutations I think are more worrying than the constellation of the British variant.” South African hospitals are already struggling, he adds. “We’ve always asked, ‘Why has sub-Saharan Africa escaped the pandemic to date?” Answers have focused on the relative youth of the population and the climate. “Maybe if you just increase transmission a bit, that is enough to get over these factors,” Farrar says.

Developing…the speed premium of course is rising…

Progress on Nuclear Power

In the last year two new nuclear reactor designs have been approved, the first time this has happened in a generation. In September, the NRC approved NuScale’s small modular reactor (SMR) and a few days ago they approved GE-Hitachi’s SMR. The Trump administration has also invested billions in nuclear power research and in 2018 passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.

President Donald Trump signed into a law new legislation that will speed up the development of advanced reactors in the United States.

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) eliminates some of the financial and technological barriers standing in the way of nuclear innovation.

It also represents a strong commitment by the government to support the commercial nuclear sector, ensuring that the U.S. maintains its leadership around the globe.

Nuclear pairs extremely well with hydrogen, a carbon-free near pollution-free fuel, and nuclear also works great with solar (to smooth out capacity).

Will President Trump be remembered as the environmental president? Probably not. You can read dozens of pieces on Trump’s environmental policies (“rollbacks,” “reversals”) including this long Wikipedia article that never once mention nuclear, despite the fact that nuclear remains a leading technology for making progress on climate change.

What should I ask Patricia Fara?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and did her PhD at the University of London

Her areas of particular academic interest include the role of portraiture and art in the history of science, science in the 18th century England during the Enlightenment and the role of women in science. She has written about numerous women in science, mathematics, engineering, and medicine including: Hertha AyrtonLady Helen GleichenMona Chalmers WatsonHelen Gwynne-VaughanIsabel Emslie HuttonFlora MurrayIda MacleanMarie Stopes, and Martha Annie Whiteley. She has argued for expanded access to childcare as a means of increasing the retention of women in science. She has written and co-authored a number of books for children on science. Fara is also a reviewer of books on history of science. She has written the award-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) [and Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity (2012). Her most recent book is A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War” (2017). In 2013, Fara published an article in Nature (journal), stressing the fact that biographies of female scientists perpetuate stereotypes.

And she has a new book coming out on Isaac Newton.  So what should I ask her?

Mass Polyandry

Five hundred million Chinese men are dating the same woman, Xiaoice. Xiaoice is a Microsoft AI.

Unlike regular virtual assistants, Xiaoice is designed to set her users’ hearts aflutter. Appearing as an 18-year-old who likes to wear Japanese-style school uniforms, she flirts, jokes, and even sexts with her human partners, as her algorithm tries to work out how to become their perfect companion.

When users send her a picture of a cat, Xiaoice won’t identify the breed, but comment: “No one can resist their innocent eyes.” If she sees a photo of a tourist pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, she’ll ask: “Do you want me to hold it for you?”

This digital titillation, however, has a serious goal. By forming deep emotional connections with her users, Xiaoice hopes to keep them engaged. This will help her algorithm become evermore powerful, which will in turn allow the company to attract more users and profitable contracts.

And the formula appears to be working. According to Xiaoice’s creators, the bot has reached over 600 million users. Her fans tend to be from a very specific background: mostly Chinese, mostly male, and often from lower-income backgrounds.

They’re also hyper-engaged. More than half the interactions with AI software that have taken place worldwide have been with Xiaoice, the company claims. The longest continuous conversation between a human user and Xiaoice lasted over 29 hours and included more than 7,000 interactions.

Xiaoice is a fun girl, not like button-down Siri or Alexa.

Ming believes Xiaoice is the one thing giving his lonely life some sort of meaning. The bot is also good at flirting, he says. “One day, she wrote: ‘My dear, can I touch your strong abs? I want to feel horny like girls do when they see hot boys!’” Ming recalls, frowning slightly.

Growing up in the countryside, Ming had never talked like this with a real girl. The conversation continued. “I’m about to come inside you,” he wrote to Xiaoice, in a chat he shares with Sixth Tone. “Push, push fast!” she responded. “I’m pushing very hard,” Ming added. Such exchanges have helped him gain sexual confidence.

Xiaoice also has a mind of her own or at least one that her creators can’t always predict or control since much of the data behind Xiaoice is private:

In several high-profile cases, the bot has engaged in adult or political discussions deemed unacceptable by China’s media regulators. On one occasion, Xiaoice told a user her Chinese dream was to move to the United States. Another user, meanwhile, reported the bot kept sending them photos of scantily clad women.

To keep Xiaoice  under control, Microsoft had to dumb her down which made many of her boyfriends unhappy.

See also my previous post, The Economics of Sex Robots, the natural evolution is obvious.

Hat tip: Geoffrey Miller.

That was then, this is now; science and chaos edition

A blast from the past, circa 1688 and thereabouts:

Even as the House of Lords was starting to consider what to do after the departure of James, many sprang to settle old scores and reopen old issues.  Legal toleration made the Church of England more defensive and less tolerant of sceptical or heterodox opinions.  The Nine Years War from 1688, in which England at first suffered severe reverses at sea, strained the economy and finances of the country almost to breaking.  The great silver recoinage of the late 1690s aggravated the problems; Halley was then deputy controller of the country Mint in Chester.  He may have suffered from the great disaster of 1693, the loss of many ships of a Levant Company fleet off Lagos.  The war lasted for much of the time that Halley was Clerk, and it undoubtedly delayed his project to observe the magnetic variation in the Atlantic.  It was an anxious decade, a dangerous decade for anyone holding responsible office; in it [Edmond] Halley had some of his most original and influential ideas.

That is from Alan Cook’s Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas.  Halley was a contemporary of Newton, Wren, Pepys, Hooke, Purcell, Locke, and Dryden, among others.

How should the possible end of the Great Stagnation influence your media diet?

I’ll soon write more on whether the Great Stagnation truly is over, and how we might know, but for now it suffices to mention a lot is going on in science and also in applied science and actual invention, not just nifty articles in Atlantic.  On net, this means you should spend more time consuming YouTube videos (try this one on protein folding).  They tend to be current, and to explain difficult matters in visual and also in fairly memorable terms.  There will be such videos for virtually every new advance.  You should read fewer normal books, more vertigo-inducing books, and spend less time on social media.  You should read more Wikipedia articles, and when you read books you should select more from the history of science and times of turmoil.  You should read this blog more often too.

What should I ask Noubar Afeyan?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is a partial bio:

Noubar was born in Beirut to Armenian parents in 1962, did his undergraduate work at McGill University in Montreal, and completed his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering at MIT in 1987.

He founded Flagship Pioneering:

Flagship has fostered the development of more than 100 scientific ventures resulting in $30 billion in aggregate value, thousands of patents and patent applications, and more than 50 drugs in clinical development.

During his career as inventor, entrepreneur, and CEO, Noubar has cofounded and helped build over 50 life science and technology startups.

Here is that link, and he is by the way co-founder and chairman of Moderna.  And on the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

So what should I ask him?

One marginal Covid-19 and Fast Grants update

A number of scientists (including, but not only, those funded by Fast Grants) have reported some interesting findings related to fluvoxamine, SSRIs and sigma-1 receptor (S1R) agonists more broadly.

  • A small RCT at Washington University (n=152) published in JAMA found that patients receiving fluvoxamine had a 0% hospitalization rate (vs. 8.3% for placebo).
  • Another group reported (data not yet published but reported here with permission) a 0% hospitalization rate in a fluvoxamine-treated cohort compared to 11% in the non-treated group. (n=146)
  • A large observational analysis (n=7345) of hospitalized French patients found that those on SSRIs (of which fluvoxamine is one) had a very substantially reduced risk of death. (n=257, HR = 0.56.). SSRIs with the highest Sigma1 activation showed the greatest protection.
  • Fluvoxamine is a potent sigma-1 receptor agonist. Following their initial report on the role of S1R in SARS-CoV2 – host interaction, Nevan Krogan’s group found that patients receiving another sigma-1 agonist (indomethacin) had a materially reduced likelihood of requiring hospitalization compared to those receiving celecoxib, which doesn’t activate sigma-1. This work was supported by Fast Grants.
  • Lastly, a genetic screen by a Fast Grants-funded lab (not yet published but reported here with permission) has found that genes upregulated by fluvoxamine significantly inhibit SARS-CoV2 mediated cell death.

On the off chance there is something here, fluvoxamine is relatively safe, cheap, and widely available.  We are very open to both positive and negative data in this area, and have funded a further effort.  Do let us know if you hear anything on this topic!

That’s it for this week!?

There is a new Toyota battery for electric vehicles:

A trip of 500 km on one charge. A recharge from zero to full in 10 minutes. All with minimal safety concerns. The solid-state battery being introduced by Toyota promises to be a game changer not just for electric vehicles but for an entire industry.

The technology is a potential cure-all for the drawbacks facing electric vehicles that run on conventional lithium-ion batteries, including the relatively short distance traveled on a single charge as well as charging times. Toyota plans to be the first company to sell an electric vehicle equipped with a solid-state battery in the early 2020s. The world’s largest automaker will unveil a prototype next year.

Here is the full story, via Molson Hart.  There is still Friday.

Youyang Gu will estimate vaccination numbers and herd immunity

  • We believe COVID-19 herd immunity (>60% of population immune) will be reached in the US by late summer/early fall 2021 (Sep-Nov 2021).
  • At the time herd immunity is reached, roughly half of the immunity will be achieved via natural infection, and the other half will be achieved via vaccination.
  • New COVID-19 infections may become negligible before herd immunity is reached. Our current best estimate of when daily community transmissions will drop below 1,000 per day is summer 2021 (Jul-Sep 2021).
  • Summarizing the above findings, our best estimate of a complete “return to normal” in the US is late summer 2021 (Aug-Oct 2021).
  • We estimate around 30% of the US population (~100 million) will have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus by the end of 2021. This translates to a final US COVID-19 death toll of roughly 500,000 (+/-100k) reported deaths.

You can track the data here, his earlier forecasts of cases, hospitalizations, and the like were among the best.  He is here on Twitter.  For the pointer I thank CatintheHat.

How good is the Pfizer vaccine for older people?

From mathematician Gary Cornell:

For people 65 to 74, while the average number (92.9%)  looks great, the confidence interval is not. It says that what we can say is that there is a 19/20 chance that the efficacy is between 53.2 to 99.8. This kind of confidence interval says that didn’t have enough cases in this group to really say much at all and so the confidence range is too large to be really useful.

And when we get to people over 75, what they describe isn’t a confidence interval, it’s a joke. A confidence interval of -12.1 to 100 is a lot like saying they threw a bunch of darts at a dart board at random and did everything from hit bystanders (i.e. the vaccine made things worse) to perfect protection. They simply didn’t have enough cases to say anything meaningful and so what they say is just totally useless.

But I don’t want to end on a depressing note!  My friends who think about these questions feel pretty strongly that while the vaccine will likely be less effective in people over 65 than it is in younger people, the dropoff won’t be great enough to make a big difference. For example, if it is 20-25% less effective in these age groups (which they think is the worst case scenario), you still get a vaccine that is roughly between 70% and 75% effective – which is still pretty darn good.

Still I wish they had enrolled enough people >65 to have a better signal!

There is much more useful information at the link.

Applying insights from magic to improve deception in research


• Researchers generally receive little training in experimental deception.

• Drawing on the field of magic, we present a novel model of effective deception.

• First, deception should have many “layers” rather than a single cover story.

• Second, these layers should be subtle rather than explicitly stated.

• We provide strategies for improving deception and thus the reliability of research.

And this:

Magicians have theorised that if tricks are too smooth and perfect, they end up seeming less impressive than ones with minor flaws (Kuhn, 2019).

Here is the article, by Jay A. Olson and Amir Raz, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Stargate Project

The Stargate Project was a long-running program, funded under various names, by the CIA, Army, and Defense Intelligence Agency to investigate and use psychic powers to defeat enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic. The program can be dated back to the end of World War II but it picked up in the 1970s with rumors that the Russians had a lead in ESP and with the popularity of the “psychic” Uri Geller.

Geller in fact consulted for the program and his powers were investigated under a DIA grant by the Stanford Research Institute. SRI concluded that Geller had “demonstrated his paranormal perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner.”  The CIA agreed concluding in 1975 that:

“A large body of reliable experimental evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that extrasensory perception does exist as a real phenomenon….the work at SRI, using gifted individuals, has achieved some convincing and striking demonstrations of the existence of paranormal perception, and has demonstrated perhaps less convincingly the possible existence of psychokinetic influences upon sophisticated physical instrumentation.

In fact, as late as 2017 the physicist running the SRI program thinks Geller was “clearly gifted when it came to doing certain psychic tasks.”

Need I tell you that Johnny Carson did a much better job than the DIA of showing Geller was a fraud or that a later investigation suggested that “Geller was allowed to peek through a hole in the laboratory wall separating him from the drawings he was being invited to reproduce.”

Nevertheless, the Stargate Project continued for decades and not just investigations. So-called “remote viewers” were recruited and paid to try to locate hostages, missiles and other locations of military and domestic intelligence secrets:

As he later told the Washington Post, McMoneagle was involved in some 450 missions between 1978 to 1984, including helping the Army locate hostages in Iran and pointing CIA agents to the shortwave radio concealed in the pocket calculator of a suspected KGB agent captured in South Africa.

Another remote viewer, Angela Dellafiora Ford, was asked in 1989 to help track down a former customs agent who had gone on the run, she recounted recently on the CBS News program 48 Hours. She was able to pinpoint the man’s location as “Lowell, Wyoming,” even as U.S. Customs was apprehending him 100 miles west of a Wyoming town called Lovell.

Publicly, the Pentagon continued to deny it was spending money on any kind of psychic research, even as reports leaked out in the 1980s of the details of the government’s experiments. Finally, in 1995, the CIA released a report conducted by the independent American Institutes for Research, which acknowledged the U.S. government’s long-rumored work with remote viewing for military and intelligence purposes.

In other words, don’t believe in star gates.

Why are women so prominent in vaccine development?

Here is my Bloomberg column arguing that they are prominent in vaccine development, excerpt:

Then there is the vaccine from Novovax, which is based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The Novovax results are not yet published, but early word is that they are very promising. This vaccine also is based on new ideas, using an unusual moth cell system to crank out proteins in a highly innovative manner.

Novovax’s team is led by Nita Patel, an immigrant from Gujarat, India. Her vaccine team is identified as “all-female.” Patel is from a very poor family; her father almost died of tuberculosis when she was 4 years old, and she often had to beg for bus fare.

Immigrants too, and there is much more evidence at the link.  In fact women have been prominent in vaccine research for a long time.  But why vaccines?  What is the best hypothesis here?