One year of COVID-19: What will we learn?
Pandemics have historically given way to social revolution. What will the post-COVID revolution be?
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- The US is approaching 500,000 COVID-19 deaths. What can we learn from one year of loss and chaos?
- The lessons are clear. Among them are realizing our fragility as a species, our codependence as humans, and the urgent need to move beyond social injustice and inequity.
- As with the Renaissance following the Black Plague of the 14th century and the explosive creativity of the 1920s post Spanish influenza, this is our turn to redefine the course of history. Let's not mess this up.
It's been almost a year now since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt. Everyone has been affected, to a degree that varies from the no-so-much to the profoundly tragic. In March 2020, a few weeks into the pandemic, I wrote an opinion piece for CNN where I advanced a few ideas about what changes could unfold due to the challenges ahead. Now that we are well into this mess, and with the growing hope of stepping out of it within the next few months, it's time to reconsider some of these ideas.
First, some facts.
This is the biggest existential threat of our generation. We didn't face the tragedy of two world wars and, so far, escaped the ongoing threat of nuclear warfare. It's important to compare the tragedy that we are going through now with the devastation of the Spanish Influenza of 1918, with numbers that seem almost incomprehensible. It is estimated that about 500 million people, some one-third of the world's population then, were infected by the virus. Of those, 50 million—10 percent—died worldwide, 675,000 of which were in the US. In today's numbers, this would mean that about 2.4 billion people would be infected, and 240 million would die. At the time of writing, there have been about 109 million confirmed infections (surely an underestimate) and 2.4 million deaths. While the numbers are much better worldwide this time around, this data doesn't make us feel any better. We are approaching half a million deaths in the US, another incomprehensible number, getting closer to the number of US losses during the Spanish flu. Denial, the lack of federal leadership, the top-down silencing of scientific evidence and support, complacency, science denial—these are all to blame.
Science is essential.
A global pandemic of this magnitude is first and foremost a public health issue and the first line of defense is through science and public policy working in tandem. The fact that we are faring comparatively better than in 1918 speaks to the power of medicine to save lives: ventilators, antiviral drugs, better sanitation, better understanding of how this virus operates. The numbers could have been much better if health policy measures had not become politically weaponized and added to the current ideological divide with tragic consequences. The fact that we now have extremely effective vaccines, some using entirely novel technologies, speaks again to the power of science to save lives. This is a moment to celebrate science in service of humanity's greater good.
We need to rethink who we are.
Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for about 200,000 years.
Credit: desdemona72 via Adobe Stock
The pandemic has exposed our perennial fragility as a species. Nature operates under rules that don't include compassion for loss of life. We are not above nature. Technology may give us the impression that we can control the ways of the world, but we are still very much part of the process of natural selection, getting ill as mutant forms of this virus and others create new public health challenges. Natural selection is an endless battle for survival. We cannot trick it into a permanent stop, only into momentary halts. Indeed, as the environment changes, new forms of life emerge and not all of them will be beneficial to us. The melting of the permafrost is bringing up diseases that hit our distant ancestors and against which we are defenseless. Rethinking who we are calls for humility. Humility in the face of our limited resources, humility in the face of forces that are much more powerful than we are. We can dig deep holes and tunnels through mountains, cut down forests and make oceans retreat. But every one of these actions has a profound environmental impact that costs us dearly. Rethinking who we are calls for a reframing of our relationship to the planet. Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years; our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for about 200,000 years. We have just arrived here. Earth will continue without us. We can't continue without it, space exploration notwithstanding. The future of our project of civilization depends on our rethinking of our planetary role.
We are a human hive.
The pandemic has given us ample proof of our codependence. We need each other at all levels; the first responders, the farmers and drivers, the supermarket workers bringing food to our tables. It is said that the stability of society is nine meals away. If we don't eat for 3 days, society unravels. And we need energy, supplies, banking systems, clear roads, clean cities, political stability, news, and fast internet. In a beehive, all workers contribute to the survival of the hive as a whole, every job is important. We are a human hive, and must respect all labor, and ensure that all workers are properly compensated. To live with dignity is not a luxury, it is a right.
We must rethink social structure and inequality.
The uneven toll of the pandemic has exposed systemic racism and social injustice to levels that can no longer be tolerated or overlooked by anyone, and certainly by those in power. Since at least the origins of agrarian civilization, our ancestors divided into tribes so as to guarantee social cohesion against battling economies. Defined mostly by religious beliefs and social exclusion, such tribal walls have been the signpost of cultures across the globe. We now have a different view of humanity's place on this planet, our togetherness exposed to us in ways that many dislike. A virus doesn't care what you believe in, the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank. It will attack opportunistically and hijack your cellular material to reproduce. But the extent to which people can protect themselves against such attacks does reveal societal inequities in transparent ways. If you share an apartment with eight people and must go to work every day, taking public transportation to get there, you will be walking into the war zone without a weapon or shelter.
We need to rethink how we work.
With fast internet, it's abundantly clear that much of the dislocations to and from work, or frequent trips to distant places for meetings, is unnecessary, costly, and detrimental to the environment. Huge expenses with business real estate can be avoided, and funneled into higher compensation for workers and better computer and connectivity equipment. The notion of a downtown where people go to do business is quickly becoming obsolete. Travel will be mostly for fun and adventure. However, for this to become the new normal, fast connectivity and better equipment must be accessible to all, like electricity and clean water (there's some work still to be done here for sure.) Otherwise, we will be creating another tribal divide (it's here already), between those who have fast access to information and resources and those who don't.
The Black Death of the 14th century helped usher in the Renaissance, a spectacular blossoming of human creativity. The Spanish influenza was followed by the Roaring Twenties, an era of explosive cultural dynamism that brought us jazz, Art Deco, and a renewal of our capacity to celebrate life and be productive: automobiles, telephones, aviation, the film industry, electrical appliances, rapid industrial growth. What will be our post-pandemic revolution? The old ways are about to go; they are going already. There is a new world order emerging, the signs are everywhere. Not everyone is willing to see them, or to embark into this new venture. But I hope that those who do will inspire many to follow them. All this loss has to swing around and usher a new page in human history.
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Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."
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