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kottke.org posts about Michael Specter

Dr. Fauci: Earliest We’ll Be “Back to Normal” Is the End of 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2020

A few weeks ago during the Q&A session after his lecture for MIT’s online biology class about the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci shared his expert opinion on when things might return to “normal” in the US. Here was my paraphrased tweet about it:

With a very effective vaccine ready in Nov/Dec, distributed widely, and if lots of people take it (i.e. the best case scenario), the earliest we could return to “normal life” in the world is the end of 2021.

At the New Yorker Festival earlier in the week, Michael Specter asked him about a return to normalcy and Fauci elaborated a bit more on this timeline (starts ~10:22 in the video).

When are we gonna get back to something that closely resembles, or is in fact, normal as we knew it?

We’re already making doses, tens and hundreds of millions of doses to be ready, first at least, in graded numbers at the end of the year in November/December. By the time we get to April, we likely will have doses to be able to vaccinate anybody who needs to be vaccinated. But logistically by the time you get everybody vaccinated, it likely will not be until the third or even the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2021.

So let’s say we get a 70% effective vaccine, which I hope we will get, but only 60% of the people get vaccinated. There are going to be a lot of vulnerable people out there, which means that the vaccine will greatly help us to pull back a bit on the restrictions that we have now to maintain good public health, but it’s not going to eliminate things like mask wearing and avoiding crowds and things like that.

So I think we can approach normality, but I don’t think we’re going to be back to normal until the end of 2021. We may do better than that; I hope so but I don’t think so.

Leaving aside what “normal” might mean and who it actually applies to,1 there’s some good news and bad news in there. The good news is, they’re already producing doses of the vaccine to be ready if and when the phase 3 trials are successful. Ramping up production before the trials conclude isn’t usually done because it’s a waste of money if the trials fail, but these vaccines are so critical to saving lives that they’re spending that money to save time. That’s great news.

The bad news is that we’re not even halfway through the pandemic in the best case scenario. We’re going to be wearing masks in public for at least another year (and probably longer than that). Large gatherings of people (especially indoors) will continue to be problematic — you know: movie theaters, concerts, clubs, bars, restaurants, schools, and churches — and folks staying within small pods of trusted folks will likely be the safest course of action.

A change in national leadership in both the executive branch and Senate could change the outlook for the better. We could get some normalcy back even without a vaccine through measures like a national mask mandate/distribution, a real national testing & tracing effort, taking aerosol transmission seriously, and easing the economic pressure to “open back up” prematurely. We’re never going to do as well as Vietnam or Taiwan, but I’d settle for Greece or Norway.

Update: In an interview posted yesterday, Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Rivers gives her best guess at a return to normalcy:

Topol: When do you think we’ll see pre-COVID life restored?

Rivers: I wish I knew. I’m thinking toward the end of 2021. It’s really hard to say with any certainty. We should all be mentally prepared to have quite a bit ahead of us.

  1. It’s America. If we know anything by now about this country, it’s that access to healthcare and economic opportunity is going to apply unevenly to the people who live here. For instance, it’s likely that Black & brown communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, may face difficulty in getting access to vaccines compared to wealthier, predominantly white communities.

The Paradox of Preparation

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2020

Coronavirus, social distancing, exponential growth, flatten the curve, pandemic, immunocompromised — those are just some of the concepts related to COVID-19 we have had to come up to speed on over the last few weeks. We should add the “paradox of preparation” to that list.

The paradox of preparation refers to how preventative measures can intuitively seem like a waste of time both before and after the fact. Most of us don’t stop brushing our teeth because the dentist didn’t find any cavities at our most recent checkup, but with larger events that have effects more difficult to gauge (like COVID-19, climate change, and Y2K), it can be hard to spur people to action. From Chris Hayes:

A doctor I spoke to today called this the “paradox of preparation” and it’s the key dynamic in all this. The only way to get ahead of the curve is to take actions that *at the time* seem like overreactions, eg: Japan closing all schools for a month with very few confirmed cases.

That was in response to Dr. James Hamblin:

The thing is if shutdowns and social distancing work perfectly and are extremely effective it will seem in retrospect like they were totally unnecessary overreactions.

Epidemiologist Mari Armstrong-Hough made a similar point earlier on Twitter:

You won’t ever know if what you did personally helped. That’s the nature of public health. When the best way to save lives is to prevent a disease rather than treat it, success often looks like an overreaction.

Preparation, prevention, regulations, and safeguards prevent catastrophes all the time, but we seldom think or hear about it because “world continues to function” is not interesting news. We have to rely on statistical analysis and the expert opinions of planners and officials in order to evaluate both crucial next steps and the effectiveness of preparatory measures after the fact, and that can be challenging for us to pay attention to. So we tend to forget that preparation & prevention is necessary and discount it the next time around.

The good news is that while unchecked epidemics grow exponentially, another thing that can also spreads exponentially is behavioral norms. The basic expert advice on how we can slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities is pretty unambiguous — wash your hands, don’t touch your face, maintain social distance, self-quarantine, etc. — and so is the huge potential impact of those precautions on the number of people who will get infected and die. To help overcome the paradox of preparation, let’s continue to spread the word about what the experts are urging us to do. Because if we don’t, there might be a lot fewer of us around in a month or two.

Update: In the same vein, Vaughn Tan writes:

This means that any effective actions taken against coronavirus in the few days before the epidemic curve shoots upward in any country will always look unreasonable and disproportionate.

By the time those actions look reasonable and appropriate, they will be too late.

And Now Is the Time to Overreact Ian Bogost in the Atlantic:

The idea that an extreme reaction, such as closing schools and canceling events, might prove to be an overreaction that would look silly or wasteful later outweighs any other concern. It can also feel imprudent; just staying home isn’t so easy for workers who depend on weekly paychecks, and closing is a hard decision for local companies running on thin margins. But experts are saying that Americans can’t really over-prepare right now. Overreaction is good!

It’s hard to square that directive with the associations we’ve built up around overreactions. Ultimately, overreaction is a matter of knowledge-an epistemological problem. Unlike viruses or even zombies, the concept lives inside your skull rather than out in the world. The sooner we can understand how that knowledge works, and retool our action in relation to its limits, the better we’ll be able to handle the unfolding crisis.

Michael Specter writing about America’s weakened public-health system for the New Yorker:

Few people have trouble understanding the purpose of public education or public housing: they are tangible programs that, at least in theory, are designed to improve our lives. Public-health accomplishments, however, are measured in an entirely different way: success is defined by what is prevented, not by what is produced. This creates an odd psychological dynamic.

When public-health programs are successful, they are invisible, and what is invisible is almost always taken for granted. Nobody cheers when they remain untouched by a disease that they hardly knew existed. That makes it easy for shortsighted politicians to deny long-term realities. And that is what they almost always do.

CRISPR, a cheap and accurate copy/paste for DNA

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2015

Michael Specter has a truly fascinating piece in the New Yorker about CRISPR, a relatively new genetic tool for editing genes that geneticists are very excited about.

With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that H.I.V. uses to infiltrate our immune system.

The story has everything: the cheap copy/paste of DNA, easily editable mice, pig Hitler, “destroyer of worlds” overtones, and an incredible tale of science that could actually revolutionize (or ruin, depending on who you talk to) the world. I was shocked at how easy it is to do genetic research nowadays.

Ordering the genetic parts required to tailor DNA isn’t as easy as buying a pair of shoes from Zappos, but it seems to be headed in that direction. Yan turned on the computer at his lab station and navigated to an order form for a company called Integrated DNA Technologies, which synthesizes biological parts. “It takes orders online, so if I want a particular sequence I can have it here in a day or two,” he said. That is not unusual. Researchers can now order online almost any biological component, including DNA, RNA, and the chemicals necessary to use them. One can buy the parts required to assemble a working version of the polio virus (it’s been done) or genes that, when put together properly, can make feces smell like wintergreen. In Cambridge, I.D.T. often makes same-day deliveries. Another organization, Addgene, was established, more than a decade ago, as a nonprofit repository that houses tens of thousands of ready-made sequences, including nearly every guide used to edit genes with CRISPR. When researchers at the Broad, and at many other institutions, create a new guide, they typically donate a copy to Addgene.

And CRISPR in particular has quickened the pace. A scientist studying lung cancer mutations said of her research:

“In the past, this would have taken the field a decade, and would have required a consortium,” Platt said. “With CRISPR, it took me four months to do it by myself.”

Also recommended: Radiolab’s podcast on CRISPR from back in June.

Memories without all the pesky feelings

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2014

In the New Yorker, Michael Specter writes generally about the malleability of memory and specifically about Daniela Schiller’s research on disassociating people’s memories from the feelings they have about them. Simply recalling a memory can change it, and Schiller has found evidence that process can be used to remove the feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear associated with certain memories.

Even so, Schiller entered her field at a fortunate moment. After decades of struggle, scientists had begun to tease out the complex molecular interactions that permit us to form, store, and recall many different types of memories. In 2004, the year Schiller received her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience, from Tel Aviv University, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship and joined the laboratory of Elizabeth Phelps, at New York University. Phelps and her colleague Joseph LeDoux are among the nation’s leading investigators of the neural systems involved in learning, emotion, and memory. By coincidence, that was also the year that the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was released; it explores what happens when two people choose to have all their memories of each other erased. In real life, it’s not possible to pluck a single recollection from our brains without destroying others, and Schiller has no desire to do that. She and a growing number of her colleagues have a more ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories.

“I want to disentangle painful emotion from the memory it is associated with,” she said. “Then somebody could recall a terrible trauma, like those my father obviously endured, without the terror that makes it so disabling. You would still have the memory, but not the overwhelming fear attached to it. That would be far more exciting than anything that happens in a movie.” Before coming to New York, Schiller had heard — incorrectly, as it turned out — that the idea for “Eternal Sunshine” originated in LeDoux’s lab. It seemed like science fiction and, for the most part, it was. As many neuroscientists were aware, though, the plot also contained more than a hint of truth.