In today’s Roundup: COVID vaccination for kids draws closer; AI unleashed on hypothesis creation; Facebook faces criticism, moves into “metaverse”; modeling study sheds light on early COVID transmission; bracing for the next variant; scientists wade into the public discourse; evaluating the effects of “open” peer review; the imperative for pharmacoequity; trial finds SSRI antidepressant is effective in helping to avoid COVID hospitalization; much more:
AI, STATISTICS & DATA SCIENCE
- “The trouble arises when research labs and technology companies assert that highly mutable social categories (e.g. race, citizenship, gender, sexuality, disability) are definitively knowable through the voice, as if vocal qualities can be used to classify people into discrete types marked by rigid, acoustic, and, by extension, physiological boundaries.” At the AI Now Institute Medium channel, a guest post by MIT postdoc Beth Semel peels back the layers of complexity surrounding the use of automated voice analysis – and why the use of such AI-powered tools is potentially fraught with ethical questions.
- “Creating hypotheses has long been a purely human domain. Now, though, scientists are beginning to ask machine learning to produce original insights. They are designing neural networks (a type of machine-learning setup with a structure inspired by the human brain) that suggest new hypotheses based on patterns the networks find in data instead of relying on human assumptions.” A Scientific American feature by Robin Blades describes the emergence neural networks that are designed to generate original hypotheses unencumbered by limitations imposed by human cognitive habits.
- “These topics cover the importance of methodology, the need for evidence of performance, expected heterogeneity in performance, model and data availability, and the difficulty of implementation in clinical practice.” A video seminar by KU Leuven statistician Ben Van Calster covers the use of AI in clinical decision support.
- “A new research project led by Facebook’s AI team suggests the scope of the company’s ambitions. It imagines AI systems that are constantly analyzing peoples’ lives using first-person video; recording what they see, do, and hear in order to help them with everyday tasks.” The Verge’s James Vincent reports on Facebook’s move into AI-assisted “augmented reality” offerings, including what sounds like continuous personal recording to enable a sort of prosthetic memory.
- “Microsoft plans to slash the amount of water its data centers use by 95 percent by 2024, with the goal of “eventually” eliminating water use. That builds on a commitment it made last year to become “water positive” by the end of the decade, meaning it would replenish more water than it uses for its operations.” We’re accustomed to thinking of water as something you want to keep away from a computer if possible – but large data centers need a lot of it to cope with waste heat from giant server farms. The Verge’s Justine Calma reports on new efforts by Microsoft to reduce the amount of water resources that data centers typically consume.
- “The retraction, along with other recent high-profile examples of related work that fell apart under closer inspection, has exposed an additional challenge at the heart of topological quantum computing research: Not only is it extremely difficult to build a topological qubit, but no one is sure how to even spot one.” Quanta’s Philip Ball covers the fallout from a retracted paper (due to an honest mistake) that had many hoping that a longstanding problem in quantum computing – the identification of so-called “topological” qubits – had been potentially solved.
BASIC SCIENCE, CLINICAL RESEARCH & PUBLIC HEALTH
- “The FDA’s own analysis of the (somewhat limited) data on this age group, presented at yesterday’s meeting, came out in favor of giving pediatric shots the official okay…Now comes the hard part: actually getting inoculations into little arms, by no means a slam dunk.” At The Atlantic, Katherine Wu (in a conversation with pediatrician Sallie Permar) anticipates parents’ questions about the COVID vaccine for children, now that pediatric authorization appears to be imminent. In addition Duke Human Vaccine Institute chief medical officer and pediatrician Emmanuel Walter Jr. provides a media briefing on the topic of vaccinating kids ages 5-11 for COVID.
- “We found a clinically important absolute risk reduction of 5.0%, and 32% RR reduction, on the primary outcome of hospitalisation defined as either retention in a COVID-19 emergency setting or transfer to tertiary hospital due to COVID-19, consequent on the administration of fluvoxamine for 10 days. This study is only the second study to show an important treatment benefit for a repurposed drug in the early treatment population.” A paper by Reis and colleagues, just published in Lancet Global Health, is turning heads this week, as its findings show that the antidepressant drug fluvoxamine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor approved for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, appears to reduce the risk of hospitalization from COVID infection.
- “…in this meta-analytic assessment of nonfatal MI surrogacy including 144 RCTs [randomized controlled trials] that randomized 1.2 million patients with 5.7 million years of follow-up to interventions to treat or prevent coronary artery disease, we found no trial-level correlation between nonfatal MI and all-cause or CV [cardiovascular] mortality.” A meta-analysis published by O’Fee and colleagues in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that using incidents of nonfatal myocardial infarction as a surrogate endpoint for outcomes such as cardiovascular or all-cause mortality is not supported by current evidence.
- At his In the Pipeline blog, Derek Lowe describes some promising (albeit still early) news regarding a potential antiviral treatment for dengue fever, al disease that has proven difficult to prevent with vaccines and for which there are presently no approved antiviral therapies.
- “Depending on wealthy nations to donate billions of doses is not working, public health experts say. The solution, many now believe, is for the countries to do something that the big American mRNA vaccine makers say is not feasible: Manufacture the gold-standard mRNA shots themselves.” At the New York Times, Stephanie Nolen walks readers through the process for creating a working mRNA COVID vaccine in regions of the world with access to fewer resources than those enjoyed by wealthier countries.
- “The modelling results highlight international travel as the key driver of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 with possible introductions and transmission events as early as December 2019–January 2020. We find a heterogeneous, geographic distribution of cumulative infection attack rates by 4 July 2020, ranging from 0.78%–15.2% across US states and 0.19%–13.2% in European countries.” A modeling study published in Nature by Davis and colleagues sheds light on how the virus might have spread during the initial wave of infection.
- “The report did not indicate if the coronavirus pandemic, and the ensuing lockdowns last year, had anything to do with the increase in sales, but Bloomberg reported in April 2020 that Altria’s first quarter sales had jumped partly as a result of “bulk purchases — what the company calls ‘pantry loading,’ ” suggesting that smokers stocked up on cigarettes fearing shortages.” Some not-so-great news: NPR’s Scott Neuman reports that cigarette sales rose last year – just 0.4%, but the first such increase in two decades.
- “What does it take to be nimble enough to design and test an updated vaccine against an unknown viral strain, in record time? Nature spoke to three COVID-19 vaccine makers — Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca — to find out exactly how they are preparing.” At Nature, Emily Waltz talks with representatives from vaccine manufacturers about efforts to get ahead of the curve on possible new COVID variants – including ones that may be even more difficult to manage than the delta variant.
COMMUNICATIONS & DIGITAL SOCIETY
- “…the pandemic has proved what public health’s practitioners understood well in the late 19th and early 20th century: how important the social side of health is.” A thought-provoking article by Ed Yong at The Atlantic examines the historical trends that may have resulted in a muffled public health response to the COVID pandemic.
- “These scientist-personalities are navigating their fame with a mix of enthusiasm, anxiety, exhaustion—and uncertainty about what their future professional lives will look like. ‘The anonymity of just being able to kind of do my stuff is gone,’ says Sridhar, who’s been greeted by a Twitter follower in a yoga class.” A feature article at Science by Kai Kupferschmidt explores the complex fallout experienced by scientists and clinicians who waded into the public discourse on social media related to the COVID pandemic and the public health response to it.
- “Male reviewers were 1.8 times more likely to sign their comments to authors than were female reviewers, and this difference persisted over time…reviewers were more likely to sign their reviews when their rating of the manuscript was more positive, and papers that had at least one signed review were more likely to be invited for revision. Signed reviews were, on average, longer and recommended more references to authors.” Although most peer review still takes place in “blinded” form – with the identities of reviewers hidden (and sometimes the identities of the authors hidden from reviewers as well), a growing movement advocates “open” peer review in which reviewers make their identities known to the authors. In a paper published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Charles Fox describes an analysis of differences in open vs. blinded peer review at the journal Functional Ecology (H/T @RetractionWatch).
- “For months, Facebook has been shaken by a steady leak of documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, beginning in The Wall Street Journal but spreading to government officials and nearly any outlet with an interest in the company. Now, those documents are going much more public, giving us the most sweeping look at the operations of Facebook anyone not directly involved with the company has ever had.” The flood of revelations from the release of internal Facebook communications continues – indeed, at a pace and volume even professional journalists are finding difficult to assimilate. The Verge’s Russell Brandom, Alex Heath, and Adi Robertson are trying to keep noses above water with this latest digest of notable items about the social media giant’s inner workings.
- “The metaverse, it turns out, might involve a lot of trust. It also means new kinds of exposure for those most vulnerable, globally. Even assuming good faith and sufficient investment in privacy and security on Facebook’s part, the lack of anonymity, bilateral data-sharing agreements implicit in this model are deeply troubling for anyone—journalists, activists, whistleblowers—contending with power.” In other Facebook news, the unveiling of the company’s new branding and, ostensibly, emphasis as “Meta” is leaving a number of worries in its wake, according to Matt Bailey at Slate.
- “Given the important and growing role of prescription drugs in the management of both acute and chronic diseases, ensuring that all individuals, regardless of race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or availability of resources, have access to the highest-quality medications required to manage their health needs is paramount. This goal could be referred to as pharmacoequity.” A viewpoint article by Essien, Dusetzina, and Gellad published in JAMA highlights the importance of equity in access to, and affordability of, medications.
- “Economic downturn often leads to health system change. With COVID-19 creating enormous disruption to the health care system, a known opportunity to capture more than a quarter-trillion dollars in the next few years without compromising the US health care system’s ability to deliver care could be quite attractive. The sooner health care administration is simplified, the easier it will be for all to engage the US health care system.” A viewpoint article by Sahni, Carrus, and Cutler published in JAMA suggests that streamlining administrative roles in healthcare could net substantial cost savings.
- At the New York Times, Carl Zimmer and Benjamin Mueller report on recent revelations that a nonprofit contractor with the National Institutes of Health did not report findings from coronavirus research conducted jointly with the Wuhan Institute of Virology as promptly as required.
- “Our team noted in our blog post last week that considerable uncertainty remains regarding the magnitude, duration and geographic footprint of COVID-19 resurgence for the winter holiday season. While a seasonal resurgence has begun in many northern areas, the impact varies, and it is likely that some locations will surge more than others.” A post at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab by physicians David Rubin, Susan Coffin, Brian Fisher, and Jing Huang looks forward to what we can expect from COVID as colder weather sets in this fall.
- The use of placebo controls in randomized trials can, in certain contexts, introduce potential ethical conundrums. In a review article published in the journal Clinical Trials, Adélaīde Doussau and colleagues utilize a 2013 study to examine the ethical ramifications of the use of placebos in cancer research.