Category: Science

Canada and Novavax

Canada has made some smart moves with the Novavax vaccine. First, they initiated a rolling review of the Novavax vaccine in late January which suggests that they might authorize the vaccine based on the British trial before the US trial is concluded. The FDA will probably wait until the US trial is concluded. Second, Canada also signed a production agreement to bring some capacity online in Canada, although that will take time. That agreement, however, is on top of an advance purchase of 52 million doses with an option on another 24 million doses.

In short, if they act quickly, Canada could approve the Novavax vaccine before the United States and get a jump on its own vaccination efforts.

The problem with rapid testing was always on the demand side

The U.S. government distributed millions of fast-acting tests for diagnosing coronavirus infections at the end of last year to help tamp down outbreaks in nursing homes and prisons and allow schools to reopen.

But some states haven’t used many of the tests, due to logistical hurdles and accuracy concerns, squandering a valuable tool for managing the pandemic. The first batches, shipped to states in September, are approaching their six-month expiration dates.

At least 32 million of the 142 million BinaxNOW rapid Covid-19 tests distributed by the U.S. government to states starting last year weren’t used as of early February, according to a Wall Street Journal review of their inventories…

“The demand has just not been there,” said Myra Kunas, Minnesota’s interim public health lab director.

…the tests are piling up in many states, the Journal found.

Here is more from Brianna Abbott and Sarah Krouse at the WSJ.  You may recall the discussions of demand-side issues from my CWTs with Paul Romer and Glen Weyl.  The envelope theorem remains underrated.

The economic geography of global warming

By Jose Cruz Alvarez and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg:

Our baseline results show welfare losses as large as 15% in parts of Africa and Latin America but also high heterogeneity across locations, with northern regions in Siberia, Canada, and Alaska experiencing gains. Our results indicate large uncertainty about average welfare effects and point to migration and, to a lesser extent, innovation as important adaptation mechanisms.

A few points:

1. Average global welfare loss is about six percent.  The discount rate is 0.9%, and yes those are welfare losses.  Losses as a percent of gdp are somewhat lower, because amenity costs are a factor with global warming.

2. About half of the global losses stem from the negative effects on productivity.  For Africa, amenities losses are especially important.  Overall the biggest losers are Central America, India, Brazil, and Africa.  Many colder regions are better off.

3. The model allows for many margins of adjustment, including migration.  Cheaper/freer migration is a good way of limiting the costs from global warming.

4. Subsidies to green energy don’t help very much, because of Jevons-like effects, namely that energy becomes cheaper and total energy use rises.

5. A carbon tax postpones fossil fuel use but in the long run it doesn’t help much, unless the delay in fossil fuel extraction is used to buy effective abatement measures.

Of course the assumptions in such papers always can be challenged, but this is one case where the authors think like economists throughout the entire exercise.  It seems to be one of the best such studies.

My net conclusion (not theirs) is that the paper shows why serious action has been so slow in coming.  The world as a whole might lose about two years worth of economic growth, with most of the losses concentrated in countries that are not calling the shots.  Let’s say a poor country loses fifteen percent of welfare and about ten percent of gdp.  Isn’t that somewhat similar to many of the losses caused by the current pandemic?  Circa early 2021, how many vaccines are we sending to those places?

I do fully agree that we should be more cosmopolitan, but first to fix the malady we must understand it.

What are the most important statistical ideas of the past 50 years?

We argue that the most important statistical ideas of the past half century are: counterfactual causal inference, bootstrapping and simulation-based inference, overparameterized models and regularization, multilevel models, generic computation algorithms, adaptive decision analysis, robust inference, and exploratory data analysis. We discuss common features of these ideas, how they relate to modern computing and big data, and how they might be developed and extended in future decades. The goal of this article is to provoke thought and discussion regarding the larger themes of research in statistics and data science.

By Andrew Gelman and Aki Vehtari, via Lampros Tzontsos.

Who first noticed the tech was ready for human genome sequencing? (that was then, this is now)

Perkin Elmer’s last purchase had been a Cambridge, Massachusetts, company called PerSeptive Biosystems, a protein-analysis enterprise started by Lebanese-born wunderkind Noubar Afeyan seven years earlier, when the ink was still wet on his Ph.D. from MIT. Afeyan had sold his company to Perkin Elmer for almost $400 million. The deal had yet to be finalized, and formally speaking Afeyan wasn’t yet a Perkin Elmer employee. But he was at the meeting in Foster City, too. Like Lipe and Barrett, he shared White’s vision of “moving up the food chain” and getting into the genetic information business. But like them, he didn’t really have a clear idea how that was to be done.

It was Afeyan, the newcomer, who first said the words. The head of the multicapillary-machine production team was winding up a presentation on the instrument’s design and capacity. There were twenty-odd people around the table, discussing such matters as pricing, costs, and marketing strategy. This was the first time Afeyan had heard that the project even existed. He was taking some notes and idly doing some calculations. “You know, with enough of these machines, we could sequence the whole human genome,” he remarked. A few people chuckled at the notion, and the discussion returned to serious topics. But now Hunkapiller was hunched over his yellow pad, scribbling. After a minute he looked up. “He’s right,” he said. “Who’s right?” asked White. “Noubar. With two hundred machines, we could sequence the human genome in three years.” Most people in the room hardly knew Noubar Afeyan, but they knew Michael Hunkapiller. He would not interrupt a serious discussion except for something even more serious.

That is from James Shreeve’s The Genome War, here is more detail from the NYT in 1999, and for the pointer I thank Patrick Collison.  Of course that is the same Afeyan Noubar who co-founded Moderna and now chairs it, here is my earlier CWT with him.

Had Covid? You May Need Only One Dose

The barriers are breaking. Step by step we move closer to First Doses First. New results from a small-scale study suggest that people who have had COVID have strong reactions to the first dose and may not need the second dose.

NYTimes: Based on these results, the researchers say, people who have had Covid-19 may need only one shot.

“I think one vaccination should be sufficient,” said Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and an author on the study. “This would also spare individuals from unnecessary pain when getting the second dose and it would free up additional vaccine doses.”

…People who have had Covid seem to be “reacting to the first dose as if it was a second dose,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at the Yale School of Medicine. So one dose is probably “more than enough,” she said.

A study published earlier this month reported that surviving a natural infection provided 83 percent protection from getting infected again over the course of five months. “Giving two doses on top of that appears to be maybe overkill,” she added.

So for the 25 million to 100 million Americans who have already been infected by COVID it may be better for them personally to delay the second dose. In short, a significant fraction of second doses have little to no value. This (unsurprising) finding means that First Doses First is an even better strategy even if we can’t condition doses on previous infection.

Most important, First Doses First gets more people significant immunity faster which is good for the vaccinated and also drives down R which is good for society as a whole, even the unvaccinated.

The Biden administration has been more pro-active than the Trump administration on tests and vaccination and has already made some goods calls on getting more doses out faster. I hope they continue to be bold. We need quick, bold, and decisive action.

Sci-founder fellowship

Sci-Founder Fellowship is a program to help early career scientists start companies of their own. We believe that companies can often be the best way to pursue translational research, and not enough scientists consider this as serious option.

The Fellowship program provides an investment up to $400,000 to each founding team to get started, along with mentorship and a peer-network of other scientists starting companies to help support you.

We will mentor you — our team includes the former director of Y Combinator’s research non-profit, a co-founder of Color Genomics, and a co-founder of Mammoth Biosciences.

If you think you could be a good fit, please apply here.

Have more questions? Take a look at our FAQ.

Here is the link.

Gender and the dynamics of economics seminars

This paper reports the results of the first systematic attempt at quantitatively measuring the seminar culture within economics and testing whether it is gender neutral. We collected data on every interaction between presenters and their audience in hundreds of research seminars and job market talks across most leading economics departments, as well as during summer conferences. We find that women presenters are treated differently than their male counterparts. Women are asked more questions during a seminar and the questions asked of women presenters are more likely to be patronizing or hostile. These effects are not due to women presenting in different fields, different seminar series, or different topics, as our analysis controls for the institution, seminar series, and JEL codes associated with each presentation. Moreover, it appears that there are important differences by field and that these differences are not uniformly mitigated by more rigid seminar formats. Our findings add to an emerging literature documenting ways in which women economists are treated differently than men, and suggest yet another potential explanation for their under-representation at senior levels within the economics profession.

That is from a new paper by Pascaline Dupas, Alicia Sasser Modestino, Muriel Niederle, Justin Wolfers,
and the Seminar Dynamics Collective.  Via Kris Gulati.

Why U.S. Immigration Barriers Matter for the Global Advancement of Science

From Ruchir Agarwal, Ina Ganguli, Patrick Gaule, and Geoff Smith:

This paper studies the impact of U.S. immigration barriers on global knowledge production. We present four key findings. First, among Nobel Prize winners and Fields Medalists, migrants to the U.S. play a central role in the global knowledge network— representing 20-33% of the frontier knowledge producers. Second, using novel survey data and hand-curated life-histories of International Math Olympiad (IMO) medalists, we show that migrants to the U.S. are up to six times more productive than migrants to other countries—even after accounting for talent during one’s teenage years. Third, financing costs are a key factor preventing foreign talent from migrating abroad to pursue their dream careers, particularly talent from developing countries. Fourth, certain ‘push’ incentives that reduce immigration barriers – by addressing financing constraints for top foreign talent – could increase the global scientific output of future cohorts by 42% percent. We conclude by discussing policy options for the U.S. and the global scientific community.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

How Rapidly ‘First Doses First’ Came to Britain

Tim Harford writes about the whiplash he experienced from the debate over delaying second doses in Britain.

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. In mid-December, I asked a collection of wise guests on my BBC radio programme How to Vaccinate the World about the importance of second doses. At that stage, Scott Gottlieb, former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, had warned against stockpiling doses just to be sure that second doses were certain to be available, Economists such as Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University had gone further: what if we gave people single doses of a vaccine instead of the recommended pair of doses, and thus reached twice as many people in the short term? This radical concept was roundly rejected by my panel

…. “This is an easy one, Tim, because we’ve got to go with the scientific evidence,” said Nick Jackson of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. “And the scientific evidence is that two doses is going to provide the best protection.”

My other guests agreed, and no wonder: Jackson’s view was firmly in the scientific mainstream three weeks ago. But in the face of a shortage of doses and a rapidly spreading strain of “Super-Covid”, the scientific mainstream appears to have drifted. The UK’s new policy is to prioritise the first dose and to deliver the second one within three months rather than three weeks…..the recommendation comes not from ministers but from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Strikingly, many scientists have given the move their approval.

See also Tyler’s previous post on this theme.

By the way, if the J&J single-dose vaccine comes in at say 80% effective it is going to be interesting to see how people go from ‘a single-dose at 80% effective is too dangerous to allow for 8-12 weeks’ to ‘isn’t it great we have a single-dose 80% effective vaccine!’.

That was then, this is now, now it’s now again

To see how much the sanitary and medical revolutions have changed the risks of global interaction, examine what kills Americans abroad these days: cardiovascular events including heart attacks account for 49 percent of all deaths, injuries for a further 25 percent, and infectious diseases other than pneumonia for just 1 percent…even travel to pathogen-rich environments has become far, far safer than it used to be: a study of 185 deaths of US Peace Corps volunteers,  placed in some of the world’s least healthy countries, found that unintentional injuries and suicides were far more deadly than infection, accounting for more than 80 percent of deaths between them.

That is from Charles Kenny’s new and excellent The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, which was started well before Covid.

Protection against dengue?

The dengue virus uses a particular protein, called Non-Structural Protein 1 (NS1), to latch onto the protective cells around organs. It weakens the protective barrier, allowing the virus to infect the cell, and may cause the rupture of blood vessels. The research team’s antibody, called 2B7, physically blocks the NS1 protein, preventing it from attaching itself to cells and slowing the virus’s spread. Moreover, because it attacks the protein directly and not the virus particle itself, 2B7 is effective against all four dengue virus strains.

That is cited by the excellent Jodi Ettenberg, from new January 2021 research.  If I  hear more I will let you know.

What should I ask Sarah Parcak?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Sarah Helen Parcak is an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert, who has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. She is a professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In partnership with her husband, Greg Mumford, she directs survey and excavation projects in the Faiyum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta.

And here is Sarah on Twitter.  Here is her very useful bio page.  Here is her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes the Past.  So what should I ask her?

My Conversation with the excellent Noubar Afeyan

Among his other achievements, he is the Chairman and co-founder of Moderna.  Here is the audio and video and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss which aspect of entrepreneurship is hardest to teach, his predictions on the future of gene editing and CRISPR technology, why the pharmaceutical field can’t be winner takes all, why “basic research” is a poor term, the secret to Boston’s culture of innovation, the potential of plant biotech, why Montreal is (still) a special place to him, how his classical pianist mother influenced his musical tastes, his discussion-based approach to ethical dilemmas, how thinking future-backward shapes his approach to business and philanthropy, the blessing and curse of Lebanese optimism, the importance of creating a culture where people can say things that are wrong, what we can all learn by being an American by choice, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

AFEYAN:

I should point out, Tyler, what these people don’t yet realize is that mRNA, in addition to being unique in that it’s really the first broadly applied code molecule, information molecule that is used as a medicine and with all the advantages that come with information — digital versus analog — or where you actually have to do everything bespoke, the way drugs usually work.

The other major advantage that it has is that it is something that is actually taking advantage of nature. There was a lot of know-how we had going into this around how the process could be done. In fact, let me tell you the parallel that we used.

We have a program in cancer vaccines. You might say, “What does a cancer vaccine have to do with coronavirus?” The answer is the way we work with cancer vaccines is that we take a patient’s tumor, sequence it, obtain the information around all the different mutations in that tumor, then design de novo — completely nonexistent before — a set of peptides that contain those mutations, make the mRNA for them, and stick them into a lipid nanoparticle, and give it back to that patient in a matter of weeks.

That has been an ongoing — for a couple of years — clinical trial that we’re doing. Well, guess what? For every one of those patients, we’re doing what we did for the virus, over and over and over again. We get DNA sequence. We convert it into the antigenic part. We make it into an RNA. We put it in a particle. In an interesting way, we had interesting precedents that allowed us to move pretty quickly.

And at the close:

Imagine if all of us were also born imagining a better future for ourselves. Well, we should be, but we’ve got to work to get that. An immigrant who comes here understands that they’ve got to work to get that. They have to adapt. The problem is, if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’ve got to work to get that. You might think you’re born into it.

This will be a funny thing to say, and I apologize to anybody that I offend. If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be, versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility.

Definitely recommended, he is working to save many many lives, and with great success.