Friday, February 26, 2021

Tracking COVID19 reinfection - with help from Elon Musk

On 15 February, 2021, the paper Discrete SARS-CoV-2 antibody titers track with functional humoral stability was accepted for publication by the prestigious journal Nature — interesting not only for being a large-cohort study on COVID-19 reinfection, but for the presence of one of its coauthors: Elon Reeve Musk.  Elon is listed as one of the co-authors on a paper concerning the tracking of antibodies in people. Antibodies serve as biomarkers of infection. If sustained they can confer long-term immunity. 

For most clinically approved vaccines, binding antibody titers only serve as a surrogate of protection. Instead, the ability of vaccine induced antibodies to neutralize or mediate impact is the main way they confer protection. While evidence points to persistent antibody responses among SARS-CoV-2 infected individuals, cases of re-infection have begun to emerge, calling the protective nature of humoral immunity against this highly infectious pathogen into question. Using community-based surveillance, the study aimed to define the relationship between titers and functional antibody activity to SARS-CoV-2 over time.

Apparently, Musk — concerned in April 2020 with maintaining the schedule for the SpaceX crewed launch in May and wanting to make sure that an outbreak wouldn't set back plans — contacted academic researchers and worked with them to set up an antibody testing research programme. Over 4,000 SpaceX employees volunteered and were provided with periodic free testing at work to look for infection and monitor previously-infected people for reinfection. The programme gave SpaceX an advance heads up about upcoming threats, such as the growing wave in Texas in June, and continues to this day, with a new focus on mutant COVID strains.

The primary results of the study were that past infection provides a strong, although not perfect, barrier to reinfection. The level of antibodies strongly indicate the level of risk of reinfection, which promotes a positive outlook for vaccines, as they tend to result in much higher antibody levels than infection.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Climate Change has Knock-On Impacts that are far-ranging

Scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events such as blizzards, heat waves, and powerful storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change, as we observe changes in temperature, precipitation, storms, floods, and droughts.

Climate change may not cause a particular storm, but resulting rising sea levels can worsen storm surge impact. In 2012, a three meter storm surge from Hurricane Sandy hit New York City at high tide, making the water almost 5 meters higher than average at the tip of Manhattan. Flooding destroyed neighborhoods and beaches in outer boroughs. The sea level in this area is rising by more than an inch each decade -- twice as fast as the global average -- and is predicted to rise 11 to 21 inches by 2050. To prepare, the city is implementing coastal resiliency measures: An innovative project will create more green spaces for city residents as well as a system of flood walls, berms, and retractable barriers for boost storm protection.

Over at the NYT, we read:

One-third of oil production in the nation was halted. Drinking-water systems in Ohio were knocked offline. Road networks nationwide were paralyzed and vaccination efforts in 20 states were disrupted.

The crisis carries a profound warning. As climate change brings more frequent and intense storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme events, it is placing growing stress on the foundations of the country's economy: Its network of roads and railways, drinking-water systems, power plants, electrical grids, industrial waste sites and even homes. Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways....

Sewer systems are overflowing more often as powerful rainstorms exceed their design capacity. Coastal homes and highways are collapsing as intensified runoff erodes cliffs. Coal ash, the toxic residue produced by coal-burning plants, is spilling into rivers as floods overwhelm barriers meant to hold it back. Homes once beyond the reach of wildfires are burning in blazes they were never designed to withstand... The vulnerabilities show up in power lines, natural-gas plants, nuclear reactors and myriad other systems. Higher storm surges can knock out coastal power infrastructure. Deeper droughts can reduce water supplies for hydroelectric dams. Severe heat waves can reduce the efficiency of fossil-fuel generators, transmission lines and even solar panels at precisely the moment that demand soars because everyone cranks up their air-conditioners...

Power outages in extreme weather could render hospitals and transportation systems inert when needed most. Crop declines could lead to hunger and higher food prices. More CO2 in the air could make staple crops like barley and soy less nutritious. Occupational hazards such as risk of heatstroke will rise, especially among those who work outside: farmers and construction workers who keep us fed and our infrastructure up to par will be hardest hit. Labor could shift to dawn and dusk, times when more disease-­carrying insects are out. and sleep deprivation from shift work is a known health hazard. Hotter days, more rain, and higher humidity will produce more ticks, which spread infectious diseases like Lyme disease.

We continue to see extreme weather and climate events increasing, and new and stronger evidence confirms that some of these increases are related to human activities that impact the global climate. There has been a sizable upward trend in the number of storms causing large financial and other losses -- and the knock-on effects are wide and varied.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Tesla vs German Car Manufacturers

With Tesla opening a manufacturing facility in Deutschland, and Ford aiming to only sell electrified vehicles in the coming decade, it seems German auto makers are under pressure. 

Seven years ago, Mathias Döpfner was at a ceremony celebrating Tesla founder Elon Musk. Döpfner, the head of German media company Axel Springer, was seated next to a CEO of one of Germany's biggest carmakers, and he turned to him and asked, "Isn't this guy dangerous for you?"

As he later recounted, the CEO shook his head. "These guys in Silicon Valley, they have no clue about engineering, about building really beautiful and great cars," the CEO told him. "So we don't have to worry."

At the time, the value of Tesla's shares was $23 billion, a quarter of that of Germany's largest carmaker, Volkswagen. But times have changed. Tesla's market capitalization has skyrocketed to more than $700 billion, more than three times that of Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW — Germany's three largest automakers — put together.

There have been hiccups: Tesla was ordered to suspend preparations for a car factory in Germany after a successful court injunction by environmentalists in December of 2020. Mercedes-Benz and Audi are introducing electric cars so as to defend dominance of the luxury market.

Over at the NYT, a reporter wrote about another competitor to Tesla -- the p-wagen:

The Taycan, a four-door sedan that Porsche recently let me try out at the Hockenheimring racing complex south of Heidelberg, provides an early example of what the German automakers are capable of. The car, with a starting price a little over $100,000, can blast from zero to 60 miles per hour in well under three seconds.

So, it happens, can the Tesla S. But tests by Car and Driver confirmed Porsche’s assertion that the Taycan can replicate those blastoffs 10 times in a row, unlike the Tesla, which becomes sluggish with repeat use as the battery wears down. Porsche has found a way to maintain explosive acceleration even when the battery is not fully charged.

During an hour of all-out driving on Porsche’s serpentine test track, egged on by a Porsche instructor who encouraged me to probe the car’s limits, the Taycan stayed glued to the asphalt like a roadster and never showed signs of fatigue. I ran out of juice before the car did.

One side-effect, and a positive one, is that Germany is becoming a hub of battery technology.

Read more at NPR...