The state of COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research

Yesterday I spoke with a couple of colleagues about COVID-19 vaccines, and it became clear for me that there is a lot of news about potential vaccines, but it is hard for people to get a grip of the current state.

This made me recommend the New York Times vaccine tracker to several people.

Here is the status of all the vaccines that have reached trials in humans, along with a selection of promising vaccines still being tested in cells or animals.

As the description explains, it is an overview of vaccines that has reached a stage where they are relevant to talk about.

There is a companion site to the vaccine tracker, the Coronavirus Drug and Treatment Tracker, which is described thus:

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges modern medicine has ever faced. Doctors and scientists are scrambling to find treatments and drugs that can save the lives of infected people and perhaps even prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

Below is an updated list of 21 of the most-talked-about treatments for the coronavirus. While some are accumulating evidence that they’re effective, most are still at early stages of research. We also included a warning about a few that are just bunk.

Both of these sites are great resources on the current state of the research, and well worth checking up on from time to time.

More evidence of the damage from social isolation

Via Sciencedaily, I see that researchers discover a specific brain circuit damaged by social isolation during childhood

Loneliness is recognized as a serious threat to mental health. Even as our world becomes increasingly connected over digital platforms, young people in our society are feeling a growing sense of isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many countries to implement social distancing and school closures, magnifies the need for understanding the mental health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. While research has shown that social isolation during childhood, in particular, is detrimental to adult brain function and behavior across mammalian species, the underlying neural circuit mechanisms have remained poorly understood.

The ScienceDaily article is referring the research published in the paper A prefrontal–paraventricular thalamus circuit requires juvenile social experience to regulate adult sociability in mice in Nature Neuroscience, which unfortunately is behind of a paywall.

As is clear from both the extract I posted before, this is a study using a mouse model, so we should be careful to not draw too many conclusions from it yet. Yet, it does add to the generally accepted idea that social isolation can be harmful.

I think the ScienceDaily COVID-19 angle is problematic, as most people don’t experience total social isolation, but instead  experience limited social interactions and the use of technological solutions to keep contact with other people. Rather, I think the subject is more relevant for people kept in isolation in jails or refugee detention centers around the world. Here, the article is adding more fuel to the argument that isolation is a human rights violation.

A couple of great ones are gone: Katherine Johnson and Freeman Dyson

Just under a week ago, we lost Katherine Johnson:

Katherine Johnson Dies at 101; Mathematician Broke Barriers at NASA (NY Times link)

She was one of a group of black women mathematicians at NASA and its predecessor who were celebrated in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.”

PZ has written more about her here.

Today, we have lost another important figure – this one more well know and celebrated through his working life.

Freeman Dyson, quantum physicist who imagined alien megastructures, has died at 96 (livescience link)

Freeman Dyson, Math Genius Turned Visionary Technologist, Dies at 96 (NY Times link)

Freeman Dyson, like so many scientists before him, did some brilliant work, and the turned towards less scientific ideas. This shouldn’t make you dismiss his importance, just make you weary of his later works.


I, a philosophical zombie

I have just listened to the newest episode of the Serious Inquiry Only, which is about how peoples’ brains work differently.

SIO227: Do You Have an Internal Monologue?

… because one of your beloved hosts of SIO does not! Needless to say, this was a mind blowing realization to that person. We talk about the extraordinary differences in human internal experience, and some of the current science and philosophy on the topic.

The episode mostly focused on internal monologues, but the hosts also mentioned the fact that not everyone have a mind’s eye, and even mentioned someone on twitter who had neither an internal monologues nor a mind’s eye.

In the podcast, one of the hosts, Thomas Smith, said that people with neither an internal monologue nor a mind’s eye must be philosophical zombies.

As I understand the podcast, having an internal monologue means that there is an auditory aspect to peoples’ thought process, where they hear their thoughts as voices, either their own or someone else’s.

You might have guessed it from my description and the post’s headline, but I don’t have an internal monologue. Nor do I have a mind’s eye (I just learned that not haven’t a mind’s eye is called aphantasia,I have just always said that I’m not visual).

This means that, for me:

  • An earworm is just a song that I instantly recognize
  • I don’t visualize characters in books
  • I don’t read dialogue in the voice of the characters/people
  • For me, picture this/visualize this is just a metaphor for thinking about some

It also means for me that most memorizing techniques doesn’t work for me, since they often require the ability to visualize things.

What it doesn’t mean:

  • I am unable to make figures and diagrams that are useful

Quite contrary, I often make quite clear and useful diagrams/figures, since I have to think about how to communicate through them than people who make them “on the fly”.

  • I don’t enjoy reading

I have always read a lot, and I enjoy well written books. Unlike what some might think, I can also be affected emotionally by books.

  • I can’t improvise speeches and writing

On the rare occasions where I am giving a speech, I usually note a couple of subjects that I need to cover, and then improvise from there. When writing for my blog, I only have a faint outline of what I want to cover, before starting to read the blogpost.

Having listening to the podcast, I did realize that there probably is a connection between my lack of inner monologue, and why I don’t particular sing along songs. I much prefer to listen to the artists doing the singing, and I don’t have a inner monologue pushing me to open my own voice.

Feel free to ask questions about how my thinking process work, but do remember that I don’t have a shared experience with most of you, so I can’t describe the differences, just how I experience it.




Interesting news on the ancestry of Orangutans

An interesting bit of science news from my local University, the University of Copenhagen.

Extinct giant ape directly linked to the living orangutan

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen have succeeded in reconstructing the evolutionary relationship between a two million year old giant primate and the living orangutan. It is the first time genetic material this old has been retrieved from a fossil in a subtropical area. This allows the researchers to accurately reconstruct animal, including human, evolutionary processes way beyond the limits known today.

As the opening paragraph makes clear, this is an interesting piece of news, not only because of the results, but also because of the advancements in techniques this research has led to.

The news release from the university mostly focuses on how the expansion of the techniques are going to make broader research possible – for the actual results of the study, you’ll have to go to the article in Nature (behind a paywall)

European scientific or health personnel, please sign this manifesto

The Association to Protect the Sick of Pseudoscientific Therapies from Spain, and several other European organizations have gotten together to write a European manifesto against pseudo-therapies

It says, in part:

European directive 2001/83/CE has made –and still makes— possible the daily deceiving of thousands of hundreds of European citizens [10]. Influential lobbies have been given the opportunity to redefine what a medicine is, and now they are selling sugar to sick people and making them believe it can cure them or improve their health. This has caused deaths and will continue to do so until Europe admits an undeniable truth: scientific knowledge cannot yield under economic interests, especially when it means deceiving patients and violating their rights.

Europe is facing very serious problems regarding public health. Over-medicalization, multiresistant bacteria or the financial issues of the public systems are already grave enough, and there is no need to add to that gurus, fake doctors or even qualified doctors who claim they can cure any disease by manipulating chakras, making people eat sugar or employing “quantic frequencies”. Europe must not only stop the promotion of homeopathy but also actively fight to eradicate public health scams, which implicate more than 150 pseudo-therapies in our territory. Thousands of citizens lives depend on that. In fact, according to recent research, 25.9 % of Europeans have used pseudo-therapies last year. In other words, 192 million patients have been deceived [11].

Europe being concerned about the misinformation phenomena but at the same time protecting one the most dangerous types of it, health misinformation, is just not coherent. This is why the people signing this manifesto urge the governments of European countries to end a problem in which the name of science is being used falsely and has already costed the life of too many.

I do not fulfill the criteria for signing the manifesto, but I fully endorse it, and hope that any readers out there, who fulfill the criteria, will read the manifesto in full, and sign it.

It is about time that we got rid of pseudo-science in our health care in Europe.

Lazy linking

A few links to articles and blogposts that I think worth sharing

Laurie Penny has written a long-read article about not debating people: No, I Will Not Debate You

Civility will never defeat fascism, no matter what The Economist thinks.

Professor Julie Libarkin of Michigan State University has compiled a list of know harassers in academia

Rates of sexual abuse and harassment in academic science are second only to the military. It’s estimated that at least half of women faculty and staff face harassment and abuse and that 20 to 50 percent of women students in science, engineering, and medicine are abused by faculty. Those numbers are generally based on surveys, which are an important way of getting a handle on the problem and how it changes women’s career trajectories.

But when it comes to holding institutions accountable and making meaningful changes, naming perpetrators may be even more powerful.

Julie Libarkin has taken on the challenge of creating a database of harassers. She’s a professor at Michigan State University and she heads the Geocognition Research Laboratory. She’s compiled a list of some 700 cases of sexual misconduct in academia.

The human league: what separates us from other animals? by Adam Rutherford

You are an animal, but a very special one. Mostly bald, you’re an ape, descended from apes; your features and actions are carved or winnowed by natural selection. But what a special simian you are. Shakespeare crystallised this thought a good 250 years before Charles Darwin positioned us as a creature at the end of the slightest of twigs on a single, bewildering family tree that encompasses 4bn years, a lot of twists and turns, and 1 billion species.

Republicans hoped voters would forget they tried to kill Obamacare. They bet wrong. by Andy Slavitt

Andy Slavitt described his article thus on twitter:

Do you notice this phenomenon where your MOC behaves differently in odd numbered years and even numbered years? My @USATODAY column this week explains.

There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof. by Radley Balko

This is very relevant to my earlier post about the need for a reform in the US judicial system.

Has the Riemann hypothesis been proven?

Well, I guess we’ll find out on Monday.

One of the most important unsolved problems in mathematics may have been solved, retired mathematician Michael Atiyah is set to claim on Monday. In a talk at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany, Atiyah will present what he refers to as a “simple proof” of the Riemann hypothesis, a problem which has eluded mathematicians for almost 160 years.

Actually, it is highly unlikely that we will know on Monday, unless there is some obvious glaring error. Other people have to look at the proof, and it will take a while – when Grigori Perelman confirmed the Poincaré conjecture in 2003, it took until 2006 for it to be verified.

The Riemann hypothesis is one of the Millennium Prize Problems

Hayabusa-2’s probes successfully deployed

Given the current news cycle, this has probably escaped the attention of a lot of people, but there is some exciting science news.

The Hayabusa 2 mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has been successful in landing two probes on the asteroid 162173 Ryugu. This is exciting news, since they will allow exploring the astroid’s surface.

Read more here:
Engadget: Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission lands on target asteroid
The Japan Times: JAXA confirms tiny robots from Hayabusa2 landed on asteroid
BBC: Hayabusa-2: Japan’s rovers send pictures from asteroid

We are not as unique as we think we are

From ScienceDaily: Norway rats trade different commodities

Researchers of the University of Bern have shown for the first time in an experiment that also non-human animals exchange different kind of favours. Humans commonly trade different commodities, which is considered a core competence of our species. However, this capacity is not exclusively human as Norway rats exchange different commodities, too. They strictly follow the principle “tit for tat” — even when paying with different currencies, such as grooming or food provisioning.

In an experimental study, Manon Schweinfurth and Michael Taborsky from the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the University of Bern tested whether common Norway rats engage in reciprocal trading of two different forms of help, i.e. allogrooming and food provisioning. Their test rats experienced a partner either cooperating or non-cooperating in one of the two commodities. To induce allogrooming, the researchers applied saltwater on the test rats’ neck, which is hardly accessible to self-grooming, so help by a partner is needed.

To induce food provisioning, partner rats could pull food items towards the test rats. Afterwards, test rats had the opportunity to reciprocate favours by the alternative service, i.e. allogrooming the partner after receiving food from it, or donating food after having been allogroomed. The test rats groomed more often cooperating than non-cooperating food providers, and they donated food more often to partners that had heavily groomed them before. Apparently, they traded these two services among another according to the decision rules of direct reciprocity.

“This result indicates that reciprocal trading among non-human animals may be much more widespread than currently assumed. It is not limited to large-brained species with advanced cognitive abilities,” says Manon Schweinfurth.

As is usually the case with ScienceDaily, the text is based upon the University’s press release, and it takes a bit of digging to find the actual paper, which is in Current Biology.

Reciprocal Trading of Different Commodities in Norway Rats

The prevalence of reciprocal cooperation in non-human animals is hotly debated [1, 2]. Part of this dispute rests on the assumption that reciprocity means paying like with like [3]. However, exchanges between social partners may involve different commodities and services. Hitherto, there is no experimental evidence that animals other than primates exchange different commodities among conspecifics based on the decision rules of direct reciprocity. Here, we show that Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) apply direct reciprocity rules when exchanging two different social services: food provisioning and allogrooming. Focal rats were made to experience partners either cooperating or non-cooperating in one of the two commodities. Afterward, they had the opportunity to reciprocate favors by the alternative service. Test rats traded allogrooming against food provisioning, and vice versa, thereby acting by the rules of direct reciprocity. This might indicate that reciprocal altruism among non-human animals is much more widespread than currently assumed.

As the summary of the paper shows, the press release was overselling the unique human aspect of reciprocity using different commodities. This behavior have been observed in other primates. This study, however, is the first to show the behavior outside primates.

I always find it interesting when a study shows that a trait that is presumed to be unique for humans, or primates, actually exist among other animals. It makes you wonder if the reason why the traits are considered unique among humans/primates, is because we simply haven’t looked for them before.