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Archive for September 26th, 2021

Leaked Grant Proposal Details High-risk Coronavirus Research

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Sharon Lerner and Maia Hibbett report in The Intercept:

A GRANT PROPOSAL written by the U.S.-based nonprofit the EcoHealth Alliance and submitted in 2018 to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, provides evidence that the group was working — or at least planning to work — on several risky areas of research. Among the scientific tasks the group described in its proposal, which was rejected by DARPA, was the creation of full-length infectious clones of bat SARS-related coronaviruses and the insertion of a tiny part of the virus known as a “proteolytic cleavage site” into bat coronaviruses. Of particular interest was a type of cleavage site able to interact with furin, an enzyme expressed in human cells.

The EcoHealth Alliance did not respond to inquiries about the document, despite having answered previous queries from The Intercept about the group’s government-funded coronavirus research. The group’s president, Peter Daszak, acknowledged the public discussion of an unfunded EcoHealth proposal in a tweet on Saturday. He did not dispute its authenticity.

Since the genetic code of the coronavirus that caused the pandemic was first sequenced, scientists have puzzled over the “furin cleavage site.” This strange feature on the spike protein of the virus had never been seen in SARS-related betacoronaviruses, the class to which SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the respiratory illness Covid-19, belongs.

The furin cleavage site enables the virus to more efficiently bind to and release its genetic material into a human cell and is one of the reasons that the virus is so easily transmissible and harmful. But scientists are divided over how this particular site wound up in the virus, and the cleavage site became a major focus of the heated debate over the origins of the pandemic.

Many who believe that the virus that caused the pandemic emerged from a laboratory have pointed out that it is unlikely that the particular sequence of amino acids that make up the furin cleavage site would have occurred naturally.

Adherents of the idea that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a natural spillover from animal hosts have argued that it could have evolved naturally from an as-yet undiscovered virus. Further, they argued, scientists were unlikely to have engineered the feature.

“There is no logical reason why an engineered virus would utilize such a suboptimal furin cleavage site, which would entail such an unusual and needlessly complex feat of genetic engineering,” 23 scientists wrote earlier this month in an article in the journal Cell. “There is no evidence of prior research at the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] involving the artificial insertion of complete furin cleavage sites into coronaviruses.”

But the proposal describes the process of looking for novel furin cleavage sites in bat coronaviruses the scientists had sampled and inserting them into the spikes of SARS-related viruses in the laboratory.

“We will introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites and evaluate growth potential in [a type of mammalian cell commonly used in microbiology] and HAE cultures,” referring to cells found in the lining of the human airway, the proposal states.

The new proposal, which also described a plan to mass vaccinate bats in caves, does . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 September 2021 at 4:31 pm

The Villains Behind Our Medical Supply Shortages

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UPDATE: After reading Stoller’s post, this post by umair haque will be of interest.

Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about shortages, and getting a lot of feedback. One of the most common complaints I’m hearing is from medical personnel, who tell me about shortages in everything from masks to blue top collection tubes used to test blood clotting to lidocaine to gloves. There’s a well-known set of monopolies behind this problem, so that’s what I’m writing about today.


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Shortages Aren’t New

Today, with supply chains tangled in knots and shortages everywhere in the economy, it’s easy to blame what’s gone wrong merely on the disruptions caused by Covid. Indeed, David Frum at the Atlantic is the latest to mock the idea that there is something wrong with our markets that set us up with a fragile system. Frum criticized the new approach to concentration as taking us back to the 1970s. Pursuing ‘resiliency’ translates in “plainer English as higher taxes and higher prices.” Instead, he suggests that we should, in the face of inflation and shortages, “do nothing,” because the immutable laws of supply and demand will work themselves out.

There are a couple of reasons that dismissive attitude doesn’t make sense. Health care is a great place to understand problems with supply chains, because they predate Covid by 20 years. For more than 10 years, hundreds of drugs or medical supplies – everything from saline to epinephrine to chemotherapeutic agents to antibiotics, to sterilized water – have been regularly in short supply or outright shortage. The shortage problem is clearly not due to Covid, though Covid exacerbated it.

This became clear when I got feedback from you on the shortages you’re seeing. Doctors told me that they often have to switch from drugs they understand to lesser known drugs because of shortages, which can lead to medical errors, but that this situation isn’t a result of Covid. In fact the FDA has had a drug shortage webpage for years.

Here’s one reader making the point.

New shortages cropping up all the time in healthcare. I first noticed it around 2017-2018 after a storm affected production of saline in Puerto Rico. This limited supplies of fluid for intravenous infusion. Ever since then, especially after the Covid 19 pandemic hit, an unpredictable shortage will hit the hospital where I work. Right now, there’s a lidocaine shortage. Before that, it was the gloves we would normally use, which were replaced with whatever the hospital could get it’s hands on, the worst being flimsy ones from Malaysia that clearly hadn’t gone through quality control because they would stick together in the box and rip when you tried to put them on, wasting half the box. Before that it was opioid pain medication, medications to sedate and/or paralyze patients on ventilators, N95 masks, and respirators. It always seems as if you solve one issue, and another crops up to replace it.

Shortages of medicine and personal protective equipment, while understandable the beginning of the pandemic, make little sense eighteen months later. Early last year, large numbers of domestic firms that produce textiles retooled to produce PPE, material like meltblown for masks. We now have an industry that can make a lot of different medical supplies, though clearly not everything. But what I’m told is that the domestic supply chain, while now impressive, simply cannot sell into domestic hospitals. And that means these new firms are going to stop investing and shut down what they are producing. This is a profoundly weird situation. If there are shortages, why can’t hospitals buy from new producers?

The story always seems to come back to changes in hospital buying that took place thirty years ago, among a small group of middlemen known as Group Purchasing Organizations, or GPOs.

You Be Sure and Thank Masie for This Fine Pie

In 1993, just after the end of the Cold War, American doctors noticed something new and disturbing about the U.S. medical system. The Soviet Union had collapsed, in part due to a dysfunctional economic system that couldn’t deliver basic goods. By contrast, the United States was known for having a world-class, domestic, and resilient supply chain for important goods, like medicines. But that year, three serious nationwide shortages occurred in the U.S. in quick succession, for drugs to treat AIDS, tuberculosis, and heart conditions.

It was something of a shock, and the New York Times went digging, finding the problem was rooted in monopoly production. “Many drugs are made by only one company,” reported the paper, so “a serious manufacturing or financial problem could leave the United States vulnerable to a sudden disruption in the supply of a standard drug.” This wasn’t supposed to happen in the land of supply and demand. Higher demand for certain products should have led to higher prices and then more supply, which is how markets are supposed to work. Shortages didn’t figure in the picture. Still, it seemed to be a one-off.

In 1999, there was another shortage, this one of something much more basic: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

26 September 2021 at 4:23 pm

“‘Iran was our Hogwarts’: my childhood between Tehran and Essex”

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In the Guardian Arianne Shahvisi has a long essay, a memoir of growing up bi-culturally, that I found worth reading. It begins:

When I was 12, a bespectacled boy with a shock of thick hair and his forearm in plaster gave me the first Harry Potter book. We were at that age when gifts need little occasion, and this marked the last day of our first year of secondary school. It was 1999, and the book was unknown to me. I was mildly embarrassed by its childish watercolour cover, but I dutifully packed it in my satchel when, two days later, my family flew to Iran for our six-week summer holiday. On the large, faded floor cushions of my grandparents’ apartment in Tehran’s central district, I read the book aloud, flanked by my twin younger sisters, while the adults took their siesta and scorched air and car horns filtered through the mosquito blinds. We fell for it instantly, rooting for Harry as he was transported from life as a misfit in a gloomy suburban cupboard to the secret world of wizardry in which he found fellowship, adventure and belonging.

In the years that followed, I would read each successive book to my sisters. Even from the start, they were too old to be read to, but it was more gratifying and companionable to follow Harry’s story together, and besides, we could only ever get our hands on one copy. Every now and then one of us would sigh and say, “Don’t you feel sad when it hits you that Harry Potter isn’t real?” We lived in Southend-on-Sea and attended the local school, an underperforming comprehensive housed in a squat brutalist building on the edge of a large council estate. Most of the pupils were poor, and many underfed, which gave rise to an unshakeable fog of hopelessness, shame and anxiety. While there were few children of colour, racism prospered alongside the many other casual cruelties. With our packed lunches and summer holidays, we were the lucky ones (as our parents often reminded us), but we nonetheless lived in hope that the prosaic, heartless world around us was just the opening scene of a story with a stronger narrative, a better set of characters, and the clean justice of magic.

Returning from Iran, we would start the new school year back in Essex brimming with secrets, adapting our unorthodox capers into more mundane retellings. The International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy requires that wizards protect themselves and others by dressing and behaving as Muggles (those without magical ability) and giving no reason for suspicion. So it was that when Harry returned to his aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, each summer, he had to bear their mistreatment and his cousin’s bullying without recourse to his spells, and without the satisfaction of telling them that he was special in the other world. As any migrant or mixed person knows, I am valued there has no value here. Bodies migrate; worth, like home-boiled jam, doesn’t travel well.

We kept our double lives studiously; so much was at stake. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

26 September 2021 at 1:19 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

10 rules for dealing with criticism

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Ted Gioia has a good column that’s worth reading in full, and it contains his ten rules for how to deal with criticism. The first three:

(1) Never let a total stranger control or define your sense of who you are, and what your mission in life is. Of course, there are some people whose criticisms I must take to heart—starting with my wife, and close family members. But it’s not a large number of people. And it certainly doesn’t include the reviewer at the Poughkeepsie Times.

(2) That said, you can’t just ignore criticism. I applaud writers who claim never to read reviews, but I don’t suggest you emulate them. And for the simple reason that critics impact your life, and you often need to deal with the fallout. That’s true if your boss takes you to task. (“Ted, you’re not making enough widgets on the widget assembly line—I’m taking away your overtime hours.”) And it’s also true if a hit piece on you runs in the New York Times. So you pay attention to the criticism, not because it defines you (it doesn’t), but because as a professional you responsibly deal with the consequences of your actions, whether deserved or not.

(3) Absolutely try to learn from every bit of criticism, if at all possible—although you shouldn’t assume the critic understands what you do better than you do yourself. In general, people are overly polite in our day-to-day lives, and will avoid telling us unpleasant truths. So it’s a great favor to us when they speak bluntly and honestly. Receiving tough feedback is never fun, but it can be one of the most productive experiences in your life. However. . . .

(4) Much of what passes for . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

26 September 2021 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Daily life

Rice feeds half the world. Climate change’s droughts and floods put it at risk

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In a severe drought, rice farmers in California’s Sacramento Valley have to leave some of their fields unplanted (upper left).CALIFORNIA RICE COMMISSION, BRIAN BAER

I have mentioned in several previous posts that two major catastrophes that climate change will bring are food wars (due to crop failures and low yields) and mass migration (due to droughts, flooding, and sea-level rise). We already see the beginnings, and we’re still in early days of climate change when (for example) one major political party in the US can still deny that it’s happening. 

Nikk Ogasa writes in Science News:

Under a midday summer sun in California’s Sacramento Valley, rice farmer Peter Rystrom walks across a dusty, barren plot of land, parched soil crunching beneath each step.

In a typical year, he’d be sloshing through inches of water amid lush, green rice plants. But today the soil lies naked and baking in the 35˚ Celsius (95˚ Fahrenheit) heat during a devastating drought that has hit most of the western United States. The drought started in early 2020, and conditions have become progressively drier.

Low water levels in reservoirs and rivers have forced farmers like Rystrom, whose family has been growing rice on this land for four generations, to slash their water use.

Rystrom stops and looks around. “We’ve had to cut back between 25 and 50 percent.” He’s relatively lucky. In some parts of the Sacramento Valley, depending on water rights, he says, farmers received no water this season.

California is the second-largest U.S. producer of rice, after Arkansas, and over 95 percent of California’s rice is grown within about 160 kilometers of Sacramento. To the city’s east rise the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, which means “snowy mountains” in Spanish. Rice growers in the valley below count on the range to live up to its name each winter. In spring, melting snowpack flows into rivers and reservoirs, and then through an intricate network of canals and drainages to rice fields that farmers irrigate in a shallow inundation from April or May to September or October.

If too little snow falls in those mountains, farmers like Rystrom are forced to leave fields unplanted. On April 1 this year, the date when California’s snowpack is usually at its deepest, it held about 40 percent less water than average, according to the California Department of Water Resources. On August 4, Lake Oroville, which supplies Rystrom and other local rice farmers with irrigation water, was at its lowest level on record.

Not too long ago, the opposite — too much rain — stopped Rystrom and others from planting. “In 2017 and 2019, we were leaving ground out because of flood. We couldn’t plant,” he says. Tractors couldn’t move through the muddy, clay-rich soil to prepare the fields for seeding.

Climate change is expected to worsen the state’s extreme swings in precipitation, researchers reported in 2018 in Nature Climate Change. This “climate whiplash” looms over Rystrom and the other 2,500 or so rice producers in the Golden State. “They’re talking about less and less snowpack, and more concentrated bursts of rain,” Rystrom says. “It’s really concerning.”

Farmers in China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam — the biggest rice-growing countries — as well as in Nigeria, Africa’s largest rice producer — also worry about the damage climate change will do to rice production. More than 3.5 billion people get 20 percent or more of their calories from the fluffy grains. And demand is increasing in Asia, Latin America and especially in Africa.

To save and even boost production, rice growers, engineers and researchers have turned to water-saving irrigation routines and rice gene banks that store hundreds of thousands of varieties ready to be distributed or bred into new, climate-resilient forms. With climate change accelerating, and researchers raising the alarm about related threats, such as arsenic contamination and bacterial diseases, the demand for innovation grows.

“If we lose our rice crop, we’re not going to be eating,” says plant geneticist Pamela Ronald of the University of California, Davis. Climate change is already threatening rice-growing regions around the world, says Ronald, who identifies genes in rice that help the plant withstand disease and floods. “This is not a future problem. This is happening now.”

Saltwater woes

Most rice plants are grown in fields, or paddies, that are typically filled with around 10 centimeters of water. This constant, shallow inundation helps stave off weeds and pests. But if water levels suddenly get too high, such as during a flash flood, the rice plants can die.

Striking the right balance between too much and too little water can be a struggle for many rice farmers, especially in Asia, where over 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced. Large river deltas in South and Southeast Asia, such as the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, offer flat, fertile land that is ideal for farming rice. But these low-lying areas are sensitive to swings in the water cycle. And because deltas sit on the coast, drought brings another threat: salt.

Salt’s impact is glaringly apparent in the Mekong River Delta. When the river runs low, saltwater from the South China Sea encroaches upstream into the delta, where it can creep into the soils and irrigation canals of the delta’s rice fields. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

26 September 2021 at 10:00 am

When McDonalds Came to Denmark

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Matt Breunig has a good post on his site. It begins:

Every few months, a prominent person or publication points out that McDonalds workers in Denmark receive $22 per hour, 6 weeks of vacation, and sick pay. This compensation comes on top of the general slate of social benefits in Denmark, which includes child allowances, health care, child care, paid leave, retirement, and education through college, among other things.

In these discussions, relatively little is said about how this all came to be. This is sad because it’s a good story and because the story provides a good window into why Nordic labor markets are the way they are.

McDonalds opened its first store in Denmark in 1981. At that point, it was operating in over 20 countries and had successfully avoided unions in all but one, Sweden.

When McDonalds arrived in Denmark, the labor market was governed by a set of sectoral labor agreements that established the wages and conditions for all the workers in a given sector. Under the prevailing norms, McDonalds should have adhered to the hotel and restaurant union agreement. But they didn’t have to do so, legally speaking. The union agreement is not binding on sector employers in the same way that a contract is. You can’t sue a company for ignoring it. It is strictly “voluntary.”

McDonalds decided not to follow the union agreement and thus set up its own pay levels and work rules instead. This was a departure, not just from what Danish companies did, but even from what other similar foreign companies did. For example, Burger King, which is identical to McDonalds in all relevant respects, decided to follow the union agreement when it came to Denmark a few years earlier.

Naturally, this decision from McDonalds drew the attention of the Danish labor movement. According to the press reports, the struggle to get McDonalds to follow the hotel and restaurant workers agreement began in 1982, but the efforts were very slow at first. McDonalds maintained that it had a principled position against unions and negotiations and press overtures were unable to move them off that position.

In late 1988 and early 1989, the unions decided enough was enough and called sympathy strikes in adjacent industries in order to cripple McDonalds operations. Sixteen different sector unions participated in the sympathy strikes.

Dockworkers refused to unload containers that had McDonalds equipment in them. Printers refused to supply printed materials to the stores, such as menus and cups. Construction workers refused to build McDonalds stores and even stopped construction on a store that was already in progress but not yet complete. The typographers union refused to place McDonalds advertisements in publications, which eliminated the company’s print advertisement presence. Truckers refused to deliver food and beer to McDonalds. Food and beverage workers that worked at facilities that prepared food for the stores refused to work on McDonalds products.

In addition to wreaking havoc on McDonalds supply chains, the unions engaged in picketing and leaflet campaigns in front of McDonalds locations, urging consumers to boycott the company.

Once the sympathy strikes got going, McDonalds folded pretty quickly and decided to start following the hotel and restaurant agreement in 1989.

This is why McDonalds workers in Denmark are paid $22 per hour.

I bring this up because people say a lot of things about the economies of the Nordic countries and why they are so much more equal than ours. In this discussion, certainly the presence of unions and sector bargaining comes up, but rarely do you get a discussion of just how radically powerful and organized the Nordic unions are and have been. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the Nordic labor market is the way it is because all of the employers and workers came together and agreed that their system is better for everyone. And while it’s true of course that, on a day-to-day basis, labor relations in the countries are peaceful, lurking behind that peace is often a credible threat that the unions will crush an employer that steps out of line, not just by striking at one site or at one company, but by striking every single thing that the company touches.

We saw this most recently in Finland in 2019 when . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

26 September 2021 at 9:45 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Unions

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