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Markets in everything

Illicit sales of fake negative Covid-19 test results are becoming more widespread as criminals look to profit from travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic, according to Europol.

The EU’s law enforcement agency on Monday reported an increase in cases of fraudulent Covid-19 test certificates being sold to travelers. It comes as an increasing number of countries in the European Union and beyond oblige travelers to present a negative coronavirus test in order to be allowed entry, when travelling from a high-risk area.

In its latest Early Warning Notification, which Europol issues to alert EU member states of new or increasingly prevalent forms of criminal activity, the agency said the latest case of this crime had been detected in Luton Airport in the U.K., where a man was arrested trying to sell false coronavirus test results. Elsewhere in the U.K., fraudsters were caught selling bogus Covid-19 test documents for £100 ($137).

There had also been earlier reports of similar activity in other European countries.

A forgery ring at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, for example, was “dismantled” after being found selling forged negative test results to passengers, Europol said. The amount charged for the fake test documents ranged between 150-300 euros ($181-$363).

Another fraudster was apprehended in Spain for selling false negative test certificates on the internet for 40 euros, and in the Netherlands, scammers were discovered selling fake negative test results for 50-60 euros through messaging apps.

Here is the full article, via Samarth.

The Invisible Graveyard is Invisible No More

We called it the invisible graveyard, the place they buried people killed by FDA delay. Back then only a few of us–mostly libertarians long practiced in seeing the invisible hand–could see the invisible graveyard. Normal people looked at us oddly and quickly ran away when we frantically pointed to the dead. “There! there! Can’t you see the bodies?” Now, however, the veil has been lifted and even normal people see.

Here is Ezra Klein writing in the NYTimes:

The problem here is the Food and Drug Administration. They have been disastrously slow in approving these tests and have held them to a standard more appropriate to doctor’s offices than home testing. “The F.D.A. needs to catch up to the science,” Mina said, frustration evident in his voice. “They are inadvertently killing people by not following the science.” On my podcast, I asked Vivek Murthy, President Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, whether the F.D.A. had been too cautious. “I do think we’ve been too conservative,” he told me. Murthy went on to argue that there’s a difference between the diagnostic testing doctors do and the surveillance testing the public could do and that the F.D.A. had failed to appreciate the difference. Speeding the F.D.A. on this issue will be an early, and crucial, test for the Biden administration. In this case, Democrats need to deregulate.

Even back in December when I was tweeting from the rooftops things like:

Your daily reminder that 14,696 people have died from COVID in the United States since Pfizer applied for an EUA from the FDA.

people argued that I was exaggerating the simple math of FDA delay. Today, however, the reality of deadly delay is almost conventional wisdom. Here’s Klein again:

The new strains spread quickly. The speed of our countermeasures will decide our fate. What feel like reasonable delays in our normal experience of time — a few weeks here for Congress to debate a bill, a few weeks there for the F.D.A. to hold meetings — could lead to the kind of explosive infections that overwhelm our hospitals and fill our morgues.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “In Iran, where Telegram usage takes up 60 percent of the country’s internet bandwidth…” (NYT).

2. Update on on-line Oklahoma charter schools.

3. Facts about Indian farmer rebellions (you may not agree with all of the analysis).

4. Peeps marshmallow hot tamale fierce cinnamon markets in everything.

5. James Flynn obituary (NYT).

6. The cancellation of monkey slavery coconut milk?

7. What is up with GameStop? And this comment seems to be true.

Sunday assorted links

1. The Economist on science, innovation, and R&D (and Fast Grants).

2. Milton Friedman cancel culture.

3. Phil Spector has passed away (music clip).  I say judge him by the body of work, which is very impressive.

4. Saliva tests do seem to be better.

5. “…while the most intuitive-seeming solution — having the driver and the passenger each roll down their own windows — was better than keeping all the windows closed, an even better strategy was to open the windows that are opposite each occupant. That configuration allows fresh air to flow in through the back left window and out through the front right window and helps create a barrier between the driver and the passenger.”  NYT Link here.

Most Popular MR Posts of the Year

Here is a selection of the most popular MR posts of 2020. COVID was a big of course. Let’s start with Tyler’s post warning that herd immunity was fragile because it holds only “for the current configuration of social relations”. Absolutely correct.

The fragility of herd immunity

Tyler also predicted the pandemic yo-yo and Tyler’s post (or was it Tyrone?) What does this economist think of epidemiologists? was popular.

Tyler has an amazing ability to be ahead of the curve. A case in point, What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism was written on January 1 of last year, before anyone was talking about pandemics! State capacity libertarianism became my leitmotif for the year. I worked with Kremer on pushing government to use market incentives to increase vaccine supply and at the same repeatedly demanded that the FDA move faster and stop prohibiting people from taking vaccines or using rapid tests. As I put it;

Fake libertarians whine about masks. Real libertarians assert the right to medical self-defense and demand access to vaccines on a right to try basis.

See my 2015 post Is the FDA Too Conservative or Too Aggressive for a good review of ideas on the FDA. A silver lining of the pandemic may be that more people realize that FDA delay kills.

My historical posts the The Forgotten Recession and Pandemic of 1957 and What Worked in 1918? and the frightening The Lasting Effects of the the 1918 Influenza Pandemic were well linked.

Outside of COVID, Tyler’s 2005 post Why did so many Germans support Hitler? suddenly attracted a lot of interest. I wonder why?

Policing was also popular including my post Why Are the Police in Charge of Road Safety? which called for unbundling the police and my post Underpoliced and Overprisoned revisited.

Tyler’s great post The economic policy of Elizabeth Warren remains more relevant than I would like. On a more positive note see Tyler’s post Best Non-Fiction Books of the Year.

One of the most popular posts of the year and my most popular post was The Gaslighting of Parasite.

But the post attracting the most page views in 2020 by far, however, was Tyler’s and it was…

  1. John Brennan on UFOs.

You people are weird. Don’t expect more UFO content this year. Unless, well you know.

New blood-test device monitors blood chemistry continually

“A blood test is great, but it can’t tell you, for example, whether insulin or glucose levels are increasing or decreasing in a patient,” said Tom Soh, a professor of electrical engineering and of radiology at Stanford. “Knowing the direction of change is important.”

Now, Soh, in collaboration with Eric Appel, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and colleagues have developed a technology that can provide this crucial piece of missing information. Their device, which they’ve dubbed the “Real-time ELISA,” is able to perform many blood tests very quickly and then stitch the individual results together to enable continuous, real-time monitoring of a patient’s blood chemistry. Instead of a snapshot, the researchers end up with something more like a movie.

In a new study, published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers used the device to simultaneously detect insulin and glucose levels in living diabetic laboratory rats. But the researchers say their tool is capable of so much more because it can be easily modified to monitor virtually any protein or disease biomarker of interest…

Technologically, the system relies upon an existing technology called Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay – ELISA (“ee-LYZ-ah”) for short. ELISA has been the “gold standard” of biomolecular detection since the early 1970s and can identify virtually any peptide, protein, antibody or hormone in the blood. An ELISA assay is good at identifying allergies, for instance. It is also used to spot viruses like HIV, West Nile and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We do ELISA continuously,” Soh said.

The Real-time ELISA is essentially an entire lab within a chip with tiny pipes and valves no wider than a human hair. An intravenous needle directs blood from the patient into the device’s tiny circuits where ELISA is performed over and over.

Here is the full story, via Malinga Fernando.

That was then, this is now

Many professors at universities routinely quizzed their students too, although not as commonly as faculty at smaller colleges did.  [In 1910]…a questionnaire of University of Chicago faculty revealed that 25 of 122 replying professors gave some kind of quiz each day; 31 gave them each week, and 10 others did so every other week.  The following year, in 1911, a survey of 188 economics professors around the country showed that 171 of them employed “oral quizzes” in class; only 60 of them used written tests.  Surveying undergraduates alongside faculty, the 1910 University of Chicago survey found that four of five students favored written tests over oral ones.

That is from Jonathan Zimmerman’s quite interesting The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.

My Conversation with John O. Brennan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — we are both Irish-Americans who were born in Hudson County, New Jersey, and who spent most of our lives working in northern Virginia, the CIA in his case.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

John joined Tyler to discuss what working in intelligence taught him about people’s motivations, how his Catholic upbringing prepared him for working in intelligence, the similarities between working at the CIA and entering the priesthood, his ability to synthetize information from disparate sources, his assessment on the possibility of alien life, the efficacy of personality tests and polygraphs, why CIA agents are so punctual, how the CIA plans to remain a competitive recruiter for top talent, the challenges that spouses and family members of intelligence workers face, the impact of modern technology on spycraft, why he doesn’t support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, his favorite parts of Cairo, the pros and cons of the recent Middle Eastern peace deal brokered by Jared Kushner, the reasons he thinks we should leverage American culture more abroad, JFK conspiracy theories, why there seemed to be much less foreign interference in the 2020 election than experts predicted, what John le Carré got right about being a spy, why most spies aren’t like James Bond, what he would change about FISA courts, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?

BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.

If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.

Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.

COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.

BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —

COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.

BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.

Definitely recommended, fascinating throughout.  And here is John’s new book Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.

New CRISPR-based COVID-19 test uses smartphone cameras to spot virus RNA

This one brings us closer to the Star Trek medical universe:

Scientists at UC Berkeley and Gladstone Institutes have developed a new CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic test that, with the help of a smartphone camera, can provide a positive or negative result in 15 to 30 minutes. Unlike many other tests that are available, this test also gives an estimate of viral load, or the number of virus particles in a sample, which can help doctors monitor the progression of a COVID-19 infection and estimate how contagious a patient might be.

“Monitoring the course of a patient’s infection could help health care professionals estimate the stage of infection and predict, in real time, how long is likely needed for recovery and how long the individual should quarantine,” said Daniel Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering at Berkeley and one of the leaders of the study…

The new diagnostic test takes advantage of the CRISPR Cas13 protein, which directly binds and cleaves RNA segments. This eliminates the DNA conversion and amplification steps and greatly reduces the time needed to complete the analysis.

“One reason we’re excited about CRISPR-based diagnostics is the potential for quick, accurate results at the point of need,” [Jennifer] Doudna said. “This is especially helpful in places with limited access to testing or when frequent, rapid testing is needed. It could eliminate a lot of the bottlenecks we’ve seen with COVID-19.”

In the test, CRISPR Cas13 proteins are “programmed” to recognize segments of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA and then combined with a probe that becomes fluorescent when cleaved. When the Cas13 proteins are activated by the viral RNA, they start to cleave the fluorescent probe. With the help of a handheld device, the resulting fluorescence can be measured by the smartphone camera. The rate at which the fluorescence becomes brighter is related to the number of virus particles in the sample.

And:

Now that the CRISPR-based assay has been developed for SARS-CoV-2, it could be modified to detect RNA segments of other viral diseases, like the common cold, influenza or even human immunodeficiency virus. The team is currently working to package the test into a device that could be made available at clinics and other point-of-care settings and that one day could even be used in the home.

“The eventual goal is to have a personal device, like a mobile phone, that is able to detect a range of different viral infections and quickly determine whether you have a common cold or SARS-Cov-2 or influenza,” Fletcher said. “That possibility now exists, and further collaboration between engineers, biologists and clinicians is needed to make that a reality.”

I recall once asking Silvana Konermann: “What am I going to buy at the CRISPR store?”  Well, this is what you are going to buy at the CRISPR store.

Here is the article.  And funded by Fast Grants, I am happy to say.  Quite the week for science, yes?

Teaching Modern Principles Online

I’ve been teaching hundreds of students the principles of economics using Modern Principles of Economics and its online course management system and the response has been excellent. Most students like the class but what always surprises me is that some students like the online class better than any other class they have ever taken. A good lesson about different learning styles. Some reviews:

  • I wanted to say thank you for the way you teach your class. I just started it and it is way better than I expected. The videos you made are why I’m thanking you. In high school I would always have to go home and watch videos explaining what the teacher taught us….your class is already the best class I have taken in my life because it fits the way I learn. I’ve never really written an email like this so forgive me if it breaks the usual business casual email approach. Thank you again!
  • I am a student a George Mason…I would like to say that these classes are the best online classes I have taken and wish all my classes would be like this! Especially with Mason being mostly online and all of my classes being online this semester, I think that this class’s design should be an outline for other online classes. The videos themselves are very well edited and can be fun to watch! Instead of just watching a PowerPoint online and taking notes, being able to see the professor speak, while incorporating graphs, and even animations makes the class much more enjoyable, and in my case easier to absorb. Another aspect I wish all online classes did is giving quizzes along with the videos to check information learned. Speaking from my experience in your previous class the “Learning Curve” and other pre-test activities did wonders for me when preparing for chapter tests and exams. Overall, these classes are a great experience and I look forward to this semester in Econ 104! As a little side note, my favorite videos/lessons from last semester where the ones where you and Professor Cowen would debate over subjects learned in class. It gave useful insight and thinking to both sides of the argument.
  • I really liked how it was set up with the videos. As someone who has diagnosed ADHD, this type of online class, and class in general has made it so much easier for me to constantly go back on videos to hear what the professors were saying and trying to teach us. Honestly best class experience I’ve ever had, and I wish more were like it.
  • Prof. Tabarrok’s videos that accompanied our course material were of high quality. Even though this was a distance learning course, I felt that I got an in depth lecture for each section of the course. I did not feel that I was left to read the book myself; it was like I had great in-person lecture that I could re watch again and again.
  • Since this is an online course, I expected it to be very short cut and not interactive. This course was the total opposite. Being able to watch videos about professors genuinely teaching economics and answering questions while following the video was so helpful.The aspects of the course allowed me to connect with different imperative issues & solutions across the world.

Bryan Caplan on the cost of Covid

Here is Bryan’s post, here is one bit:

Taking quality of life into account, how many life-years has the reaction to COVID destroyed?…

Upshot: The total cost of all COVID prevention has very likely exceeded the total benefit of all COVID prevention.

I don’t agree with Bryan’s numbers, but the more important point is one of logic.  The higher the costs of reaction to Covid, the stronger the case for subsidizing vaccines, therapeutics, and other corrective measures.  Would you accept this Bryan?  You have numerous posts about risk overreaction, but not one (if I recall correctly) calling for such subsidies.  Furthermore we just did some of those subsidies, through Operation Warp Speed, and they worked and they will fix the relevant incentives and lead to a resumption of normal life.  So the “subsidies will prove counterproductive” argument doesn’t seem strong here.  The subsidies are the (much) quicker path back to what you desire.

A second question is whether moral suasion — “don’t overreact to Covid!” — is likely to prove effective.  As I’ve already linked to, risk explains mobility reductions far more than do lockdown policies.  Or consider Sweden, which had a relatively non-panicky Covid messaging, no matter what you think of their substantive policies.  Sweden didn’t do any better on the gdp front, and the country had pretty typical adverse mobility reactions.  (NB: These are the data that you don’t see the “overreaction” critics engage with — at all.  And there is more where this came from.)

How about Brazil? While they did some local lockdowns, they have a denialist president, a weak overall response, and a population used to a high degree of risk.  The country still saw a gdp plunge and lots of collateral damage.  You might ponder this graph, causality is tricky and the “at what margin” question is trickier yet, but it certainly does not support what Bryan is claiming about the relevant trade-offs.

I keep on hearing this point again and again, about overreaction.  What kinds of reaction are you expecting or viewing as feasible and attainable?  If overreacting is indeed a public bad, why think you can talk people down out of it?  How much do you think you can talk them out of it?  What if someone suggested that we try to talk people out of their irrational voting patterns, as analyzed by Bryan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter?  How sanguine would he be about that enterprise?  I believe he instead stressed changes in relative prices.

And this is the huge flaw behind so much of the discourse about the “costs of lockdowns” — they can cite the stupidity of closing the parks in March, yes, but they don’t and indeed can’t tell you how most of those costs were to be avoided, given how the public reacts to risk.

If we instead look to the relevant changes in relative prices, that means subsidies for vaccines and tests, most of all through advance market commitments, but not only.  And a full-scale commitment to implementing testing and masks and therapeutics.

The more you push home points about overreaction, the more you ought to favor these subsidies.  Libertarians out there, do you?  This chicken has come home to roost, so please fess up and give the right answer here.  Do you favor these subsidies, not just murmured into your closet at night but in plain black and white for the world to read?  Moral suasion against risk overreaction is a red herring, fine enough for cutting back on one part of the problem by maybe a few percentage points, but serving mainly to distract from the very real economic questions at hand and the need to admit that one’s libertarian ideology doesn’t fit around this problem as nicely as one might wish.

Friday assorted links

1. Home field advantage has gone away in the NFL.  And thread on reading fast.

2. Atlantic profile of Peter Turchin.

3. “No son of mine will marry a consequentialist!”  A lesson in human pettiness.

4. Ticketmaster exploring verifying fans’ vaccine status before issuing concert passes.  And the Golden State Warriors will try to reopen at 50% capacity plus tests for everyone.  And people taking the placebo will get the Pfizer vaccine (but when?).

5. Hall and Kudlyak on the inexorable recovery of employment.

6. “Settlers and Norms,” job market paper by Joanne Haddad.

Sweden Covid-19 update

Do not judge Sweden until the autumn. That was the message from its state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell in May and through the summer as he argued that Sweden’s initial high death toll from Covid-19 would be followed in the second wave by “a high level of immunity and the number of cases will probably be quite low”.

Now the autumn is here, and hospitalisations from Covid-19 are currently rising faster in Sweden than in any other country in Europe, while in Stockholm — the centre for both the first and second waves in the country — one in every five tests is positive, suggesting the virus is even more widespread than official figures suggest.

Even Sweden’s public health agency admits its earlier prediction that the country’s Nordic neighbours such as Finland and Norway would suffer more in the autumn appears wrong. Sweden is currently faring worse than Denmark, Finland and Norway on cases, hospitalisations and deaths relative to the size of their population.

…The number of patients hospitalised with Covid-19 is doubling in Sweden every eight days currently, the fastest rate for any European country for which data is available. Its cases per capita have sextupled in the past month to more than 300 new daily infections per million people, close to the UK and way ahead of its Nordic neighbours.

Here is more from Richard Milne at the FT.  To be clear, it seems that many of the Swedish deaths are due to a “dry tinder” effect, so in relative terms they are not doing as much worse than you might think. Other parts of Europe may well catch up to them, at least on a “tinder-adjusted” basis.  But if you are just asking which predictions of which model are being vindicated here, it is that the herd immunity obtained through a partial neutralization of super-spreaders is temporary rather than permanent.

Source here. And Swedish deaths seem to be 40% of the U.S. equivalent.

To be clear, I did not predict this (or its opposite), but rather for many months I have been saying we need more data from Sweden to draw a conclusion.  Now we have more data.