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Ohio Legislator Who Questioned Black Hygiene To Lead Health Panel

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the state Senate Health Committee.

“Could it just be that African Americans – or the colored population — do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear masks? Or do not socially distance themselves?” state Sen. Stephen Huffman asked a Black health expert in June 11 testimony. “Could that just be the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?”

The comments resulted in calls from Democrats and the ACLU of Ohio for him to resign from the GOP-controlled Senate.

Huffman, of Tipp City, was appointed last week by Senate President Matt Huffman, his cousin, to chair the committee even after he was fired from his job as a Dayton-area emergency room physician for his comments.

In a letter Wednesday, the Ohio Black Legislative Caucus demanded a health committee leader who understands and can respond to the inequities of healthcare in Ohio “without political influence.”

“If the Senate leadership will not replace Sen. Huffman as Chair, then we will expect Sen. Huffman to use his position to improve the health of Ohio’s African-American population by working with OLBC to pass legislation that effectively addresses health disparities in the state of Ohio,” director Tony Bishop said in a news release.

Huffman remains a licensed medical doctor in Ohio.

“Senator Huffman is a medical doctor and highly qualified to chair the Health Committee,” spokesperson John Fortney said Friday in a written statement. “He has a long record of providing healthcare to minority neighborhoods and has joined multiple mission trips at his own expense to treat those from disadvantaged countries.

Fortney added that Huffman apologized at the time “for asking a clumsy and awkwardly worded question.”

“Sincere apologies deserve sincere forgiveness, and not the perpetual politically weaponized judgement of the cancel culture,” he said.”

Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Ohio state Senator Stephen Huffman, a Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored populatio



Ohio state Senator Stephen Huffman, a Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the state Senate Health Committee.

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What Scientists Are Learning About Covid-19 Using the Nation’s Blood Supply

In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to shut down major cities in the U.S., researchers were thinking about blood. In particular, they were worried about the U.S. blood supply — the millions of donations every year that help keep hospital patients alive when they need a transfusion.

The researchers were able to put to rest their initial concerns about the virus spreading via the blood supply. But they quickly realized that all those blood donations might offer a vital source of data on the pandemic.

When Covid-19 infects someone, the immune system’s response to the virus leaves behind detectable proteins in their blood. In March, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, a group of scientists working with blood banks around the country quickly launched a program to surveil the blood supply in certain regions for those traces of Covid-19 infection. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that initial program expanded to a nationwide effort known as the Multistate Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Seroprevalence (MASS) study, which has analyzed roughly 800,000 donations so far.

This kind of research, sometimes called a serosurveillance or seroprevalence study, is one of the best ways to track the still-expanding pandemic, say researchers involved with the project. It also represents one of the largest federal government efforts to estimate the full scale of a virus that has produced more than 22 million confirmed infections in the U.S. — but that, experts say, has actually infected perhaps twice as many people, sometimes without causing any symptoms.

Some researchers question how effectively blood donor studies can be used to estimate the true extent of Covid-19’s spread, in particular because blood donors are not representative of the nation as a whole. And some other seroprevalence studies have set off fierce debates among researchers and policymakers, who have raised questions about the accuracy and implications of specific methods. Still, experts say large studies like MASS have provided irreplaceable data on the pandemic’s spread, and that they will continue to do so as vaccines roll out.

In the spring, “the big question was how many people really got infected,” said Michael Busch, an adjunct professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the nonprofit Vitalant Research Institute, which studies blood donors and the blood supply. Today, said Busch, he and other researchers working on the MASS study are watching the blood supply to understand the effect and persistence of the vaccine response. “Now people are saying, ok, well, people were infected once, what’s the durability of the protective immune response, especially as we’ve gotten resurgent outbreaks?”

Most people who get Covid-19 produce proteins that mark the invading virus, even if they never show symptoms. These proteins, called antibodies, are critical elements of the human body’s immune response to infections. Once the virus disappears, antibodies can stick around in the blood for months after an infection, where they can be detected by simple diagnostic tests. Because it’s nearly impossible to have specific antibodies to Covid-19 without being infected — at least before a vaccine is widely available — they’re a good, though not perfect, sign of a past infection.

Since early in the pandemic, scientists have used antibodies to try to estimate the true number of Covid-19 infections in the community, mapping the invisible scale of the pandemic. Some of those studies work a bit like a public opinion survey, taking samples from randomly selected people. Others look at specific groups, like dialysis patients or hospital workers.

MASS is taking the second approach, but on a much larger scale. The program is split into two studies, one relying on blood from the hundreds of thousands of people who donate blood every month, and the other on people who have had blood drawn as part of their medical care, such as for a cholesterol test.

Each month, more than a hundred thousand samples from nonprofit blood donation organizations around the country are shipped to testing laboratories to search for antibodies. A similar process takes place with clinical samples.

Their data so far suggest that a lot of people have had Covid-19 without ever receiving a diagnosis. Confirmed case counts suggest that almost 7 percent of people in the U.S. have had the virus. Data from the arm of the study looking at blood from clinical laboratory tests from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico found rates of antibody positivity that at times ranged from under 1 percent in some states to 23 percent in New York.

Data from the American Red Cross, which is providing serosurveillance data as part of the MASS study, indicated that 8.4 percent of U.S. blood donors it tested in a week in late November carried antibodies to Covid-19 in their blood, wrote Susan Stramer, vice president of scientific affairs at the American Red Cross Biomedical Services, in an email. That was roughly double the percentage of the U.S. population that had had confirmed cases by that time.

Earlier in the pandemic, some experts and pundits drew on seroprevalence studies to suggest that Covid-19 may be less dangerous than feared, and that the virus could be left to spread widely until much of the population achieved immunity. But, researchers say, the MASS data indicates that herd immunity, something President Donald J. Trump has consistently touted as a solution to the pandemic, is still far out of reach. In most states, MASS finds that less than 10 percent of people test positive for Covid-19 antibodies, far less than the roughly two-thirds, or more, most experts say is likely necessary to reach herd immunity. That means achieving herd immunity without a vaccine would entail allowing many more people to become sick, adding to a death toll that has topped more than 375,000 people in the U.S.

“The main message is that most people have not gotten sick yet,” said CDC epidemiologist Chris Edens, who is involved in the MASS study. “And so following public health guidance, including wearing masks, maintaining social distance, avoiding crowds, remains the best way to prevent yourself or someone you love from getting sick.”

Some experts have reservations about the use of blood donation data to estimate the prevalence of Covid-19. “The problem with blood donors — and this is also supported by evidence from other epidemics like HIV, and previous pandemics — is that blood donors are weird people” from a statistical point of view, said Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong. “And blood donors who give blood during a pandemic, when the country is in lockdown in particular, are very weird people.”

Donors tend to be younger and healthier, and more likely to be White, than the U.S. population at large, said Edens. Blood donors also need to be at least 16 years old in most states, meaning serosurveillance studies of donors don’t include data from children.

Meyerowitz-Katz is a co-author of two large review studies that estimate the true fatality rate of Covid-19 — a number they get by dividing the number of people who have died from Covid-19 by the estimated total number of infections. He and his colleagues decided to completely exclude studies like MASS from their analysis, largely over concerns that the population of donors is not representative of the public at large.

Meyerowitz-Katz said he’s still puzzled that the U.S. hasn’t conducted a truly random national serosurveillance study, as has been done in Spain, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. “The CDC wrote the book, literally the book, on how to run a randomly-selected national sample,” he said.

Busch points out that there have been smaller randomly selected serosurveillance studies in the U.S. There have been studies in Georgia and Utah, for example, that tested for antibodies in randomly selected census blocks and households within a region. “The goal is to piece all these datasets together and see what we see, and see to what extent are these different samples biased,” he said.

Researchers also say they can correct for those biases. “We do know the demographics of all these donors,” Busch said, allowing the researchers to adjust their results to better reflect the demographics of the U.S. as a whole. Edens said clinical blood tests also help to balance out some of the biases in the blood donor sample.

Studies of blood donors and samples from clinical blood tests have other advantages, too, said Mars Stone, a UCSF adjunct professor and virologist at Vitalant who’s helping run the MASS study. The technique, she said, offers “a very cost-effective and convenient sampling of the general population.”

Any serosurveillance study, regardless of type, will have some limitations. Antibodies fade from the blood over time, meaning people infected at the beginning of the pandemic might not test positive now. And some people seem to simply never develop antibodies in their blood at all, Busch said, meaning there’s nothing for a blood test to pick up.

Regardless of the specific methods used in the surveys, many experts agree that serosurveillance studies have offered evidence that Covid-19 is uniquely dangerous, especially for certain age groups. “By the time you’re in your 50s, even, or 40s, you’re at a risk that is tens of times higher than your risk of dying in an automobile fatality, or a dozen times higher than influenza,” said Meyerowitz-Katz.

While Meyerowitz-Katz may be skeptical of the role that blood donor studies play in estimating the true infection rates, he argues that the data has value. “I think blood donors and clinical samples are really useful as sentinels,” Meyerowitz-Katz said. “You may not be able to get a precise number out of them that gives you an exact idea of the prevalence in the population, but you can see the trends. And sometimes that’s as important.”

That sentinel role may be especially relevant as the nationwide Covid-19 vaccine rollout progresses. The MASS data will help track, for example, how many people who get a Covid-19 vaccine get the disease anyway, according to Busch. And he said some tests used in serosurveillance studies can show how quickly antibodies fade after an infection or immunization, potentially leaving people susceptible to being infected with Covid-19 again.

This work will also grow more complex as vaccines become available, leaving some people with antibodies they received from the immunization, not the infection. MASS is already picking out people who are taking part in large-scale vaccine trials. Indeed, as public vaccination begins, MASS researchers now find themselves tackling a more encouraging task in the days ahead: to find ways to distinguish between those who got the vaccine and those who were actually infected with Covid-19.

Nathaniel Scharping is a science writer based in Milwaukee.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

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Massive Binary Stars Huddle Up Surprisingly Quickly

Dancing is a favorite pastime of many couples.  Swinging around a dance floor, using the laws of physics to twirl at just the right moment, and hopefully not step on any toes, is an art unto itself.  The same laws of physics that govern couples on a dance floor also govern (to some extent) the much larger dance of stellar objects.  And recently astronomers have started to understand the intricacies of how binary stars dance with each other – turns out it’s not quite as simple as doing the tango.

As with many dance styles, two stars are required to begin.  Binary star systems usually form in clouds of dust and gas known as stellar nurseries.  Sometimes those nurseries birth massive stars approximately eight times the size of the sun.  Usually these massive new stars form a smaller star in their stellar neighborhood, for reasons that are as yet unknown, and the two pair up to become a binary star system.

Young binary stars. Image credit: NASA

Scattered throughout the universe, these stellar nurseries can vary widely in age.  The team, led by Dr. Maria Claudia Ramirez-Tannus from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, found that the orbital speeds of these binary star systems seem to vary significantly based on the age of the nursery they are birthed from.

Data supporting this idea was gathered by the spectrographs at the Very Large Telescope, where the researchers used shifts in the spectral lines of stars to calculate their radial velocity.  What that data showed is that massive binary stars in younger nurseries are more likely to have slower radial velocity between the paired stars than those born from older nurseries.

The researchers point out that the most likely explanation for the differences in radial velocity comes from a commonly understood physical phenomena – the conversation of angular momentum.   This simply states that when two bodies more closely orbit each other, their radial velocity increases.  The paper also notes that, while the results they have found are not due solely to this physical law, it certainly does play some part.

There are two possible explanations that might cause the two stars to rapidly decrease their orbital size around another, thereby increasing their radial velocity.   One is due simply to friction, while the other might result from the interference of another dance partner.

MAXI J1820+070 is a binary pair that has one black hole and one star. The black hole is emitting relativistic jets, and Chandra made a movie of it. Image Credit: Chandra X-Ray Observatory

A third star might disrupt the more mundane motion of the two stars in a binary system, in an elaborate example of the three-body problem.  The gravity well of this additional dance partner could throw the two stars of the binary system into a more elliptical orbit that eventually degenerates into a much smaller orbital radius.  In some cases, that interference throws the third partner completely off the dance floor and out of the gravitational fields of the two remaining stars, making it difficult for astronomers to tell if it was ever even there.

The other potential explanatory scenario is slightly more mundane, and can be thought of as the dance floor not being waxed well enough.  Friction with the gas and dust that remains in the stellar nursery can cause the orbital distance of the two stars in a system to decrease dramatically, thereby increasing their orbital velocities.

The results from this study points to the complexities in trying to understand not only how binary star systems move in relation to one another, but even how they started doing so in the first place.  No matter how hard it might seem to not step on your partner’s foot during the samba, the intricacies of interstellar physics are much more complicated.

Learn More:
MPIA: The dance of massive stellar couples
UT: This is a Binary Star in the Process of Formation
UT: Binary Stars Orbiting Each Other INSIDE a Planetary Nebula

Lead Image: Illustrations of the two scenarios explained. Credit: MPIA Graphics Team

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Science

Infrastructure Improvements to Get More Electric Cars on the Road

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More Electric Cars on the Road

MIT researchers have found that installing charging stations on residential streets and along highways could lead to wider adoption of clean vehicles. Credit: Courtesy of Trancik Lab

Study measures which kinds of infrastructure improvements could lead to wider adoption of clean vehicles.

A new study from researchers at MIT uncovers the kinds of infrastructure improvements that would make the biggest difference in increasing the number of electric cars on the road, a key step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

The researchers found that installing charging stations on residential streets, rather than just in central locations such as shopping malls, could have an outsized benefit. They also found that adding on high-speed charging stations along highways and making supplementary vehicles more easily available to people who need to travel beyond the single-charge range of their electric vehicles could greatly increase the vehicle electrification potential.

The findings are reported in the journal Nature Energy, in a paper by MIT associate professor of energy studies Jessika Trancik, graduate student Wei Wei, postdoc Sankaran Ramakrishnan, and former doctoral student Zachary Needell SM ’15, PhD ’18.

The researchers developed a new methodology to identify charging solutions that would conveniently fit into people’s daily activities. They used data collected from GPS tracking devices in cars, as well as survey results about people’s daily driving habits and needs, including detailed data from the Seattle area and more general data from the U.S. as a whole. Greatly increasing the penetration of electric cars into the personal vehicle fleet is a central feature of climate mitigation policies at local, state, and federal levels, Trancik says. A goal of this study was “to better understand how to make these plans for rapid vehicle electrification a reality,” she adds.

In deciding how to prioritize different kinds of improvements in vehicle charging infrastructure, she says, “the approach that we took methodologically was to emphasize building a better understanding of people’s detailed energy consuming behavior, throughout the day and year.”

To do that, “we examine how different people are moving from location to location throughout the day, and where they are stopping,” she says. “And from there we’re able to look at when and where they would be able to charge without interrupting their daily travel activities.”

The team looked at both regular daily activities and the variations that occur over the course of a year. “The longitudinal view is important for capturing the different kinds of trips that a driver makes over time, so that we can determine the kinds of charging infrastructure needed to support vehicle electrification,” Wei says.

While the vast majority of people’s daily driving needs can be met by the range provided by existing lower-cost electric cars, as Trancik and her colleagues have reported, there are typically a few times when people need to drive much farther. Or, they may need to make more short trips than usual in a day, with little time to stop and recharge. These “high-energy days,” as the researchers call them, when drivers are consuming more than the usual amount of energy for their transportation needs, may only happen a handful of times per year, but they can be the deciding factor in people’s decision making about whether to go electric.

Even though battery technology is steadily improving and extending the maximum range of electric cars, that alone will not be enough to meet all drivers’ needs and achieve rapid emissions reductions. So, addressing the range issue through infrastructure is essential, Trancik says. The highest-capacity batteries tend to be the most expensive, and are not affordable to many, she points out, so getting infrastructure right is also important from an equity perspective.

Being strategic in placing infrastructure where it can be most convenient and effective — and making drivers aware of it so they can easily envision where and when they will charge — could make a huge difference, Trancik says.

“There are various ways to incentivize the expansion of such charging infrastructures,” she says. “There’s a role for policymakers at the federal level, for example, for incentives to encourage private sector competition in this space, and demonstration sites for testing out, through public-private partnerships, the rapid expansion of the charging infrastructure.” State and local governments can also play an important part in driving innovation by businesses, she says, and a number of them have already signaled their support for vehicle electrification.

Providing easy access to alternative transportation for those high-energy days could also play a role, the study found. Vehicle companies may even find it advantageous to provide or partner with convenient rental services to help drive their electric car sales.

In their analysis of driving habits in Seattle, for example, the team found that the impact of either adding highway fast-charging stations or increasing availability of supplementary long-range vehicles for up to four days a year meant that the number of homes that could meet their driving needs with a lower cost electric vehicle increased from 10 percent to 40 percent. This number rose to above 90 percent of households when fast-charging stations, workplace charging, overnight public charging, and up to 10 days of access to supplementary vehicles were all available. Importantly, charging options at residential locations (on or off-street) is key across all of these scenarios.

The study’s findings highlight the importance of making overnight charging capabilities available to more people. While those who have their own garages or off-street parking can often already easily charge their cars at home, many people do not have that option and use public parking. “It’s really important to provide access — reliable, predictable access — to charging for people, wherever they park for longer periods of time near home, often overnight,” Trancik says.

That includes locations such as hotels as well as residential neighborhoods, she says. “I think it’s so critical to emphasize these high-impact approaches, such as figuring out ways to do that on public streets, rather than haphazardly putting a charger at the grocery store or at the mall or any other public location.” Not that those aren’t also useful, she says, but public planning should be aiming to expand accessibility to a greater part of the population. Being strategic about infrastructure expansion will continue to be important even as fast chargers fall in cost and new designs begin to allow for more rapid charging, she adds.

More Electric Cars on the Road

Being strategic in placing infrastructure where it can be most convenient and effective could make a huge difference in the wider adoption of clean vehicles, Trancik says. Credit: Courtesy of Trancik Lab

The study should help to provide some guidance to policymakers at all levels who are looking for ways to facilitate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, since the transportation sector accounts for about a third of those emissions overall. “If you have limited funds, which you typically always do, then it’s just really important to prioritize,” Trancik says, noting that this study could indicate the areas that could provide the greatest return for those investments. The high-impact charging solutions they identify can be mixed and matched across different cities, towns, and regions, the reseachers note in their paper.

The researchers’ approach to analyzing high-resolution, real-world driving patterns is “valuable, enabling several opportunities for further research,” says Lynette Cheah, an associate professor of engineering systems and design at Singapore University of Technology and Design, who was not associated with this work. “Real-world driving data can not only guide infrastructure and policy planning, but also optimal EV charging management and vehicle purchasing and usage decisions. … This can provide greater confidence to drivers about the feasibility and operational implications of switching to EVs.”

Reference: “Personal vehicle electrification and charging solutions for high-energy days” by Wei Wei, Sankaran Ramakrishnan, Zachary A. Needell and Jessika E. Trancik, 21 January 2021, Nature Energy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41560-020-00752-y

The study was supported by the European Regional Development Fund, the Lisbon Portugal Regional Development Program, the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Ohio Legislator Who Questioned Black Hygiene To Lead Health Panel

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the state Senate Health Committee.

“Could it just be that African Americans – or the colored population — do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear masks? Or do not socially distance themselves?” state Sen. Stephen Huffman asked a Black health expert in June 11 testimony. “Could that just be the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?”

The comments resulted in calls from Democrats and the ACLU of Ohio for him to resign from the GOP-controlled Senate.

Huffman, of Tipp City, was appointed last week by Senate President Matt Huffman, his cousin, to chair the committee even after he was fired from his job as a Dayton-area emergency room physician for his comments.

In a letter Wednesday, the Ohio Black Legislative Caucus demanded a health committee leader who understands and can respond to the inequities of healthcare in Ohio “without political influence.”

“If the Senate leadership will not replace Sen. Huffman as Chair, then we will expect Sen. Huffman to use his position to improve the health of Ohio’s African-American population by working with OLBC to pass legislation that effectively addresses health disparities in the state of Ohio,” director Tony Bishop said in a news release.

Huffman remains a licensed medical doctor in Ohio.

“Senator Huffman is a medical doctor and highly qualified to chair the Health Committee,” spokesperson John Fortney said Friday in a written statement. “He has a long record of providing healthcare to minority neighborhoods and has joined multiple mission trips at his own expense to treat those from disadvantaged countries.

Fortney added that Huffman apologized at the time “for asking a clumsy and awkwardly worded question.”

“Sincere apologies deserve sincere forgiveness, and not the perpetual politically weaponized judgement of the cancel culture,” he said.”

Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Ohio state Senator Stephen Huffman, a Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored populatio



Ohio state Senator Stephen Huffman, a Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the state Senate Health Committee.

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Science

What Scientists Are Learning About Covid-19 Using the Nation’s Blood Supply

In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to shut down major cities in the U.S., researchers were thinking about blood. In particular, they were worried about the U.S. blood supply — the millions of donations every year that help keep hospital patients alive when they need a transfusion.

The researchers were able to put to rest their initial concerns about the virus spreading via the blood supply. But they quickly realized that all those blood donations might offer a vital source of data on the pandemic.

When Covid-19 infects someone, the immune system’s response to the virus leaves behind detectable proteins in their blood. In March, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, a group of scientists working with blood banks around the country quickly launched a program to surveil the blood supply in certain regions for those traces of Covid-19 infection. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that initial program expanded to a nationwide effort known as the Multistate Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Seroprevalence (MASS) study, which has analyzed roughly 800,000 donations so far.

This kind of research, sometimes called a serosurveillance or seroprevalence study, is one of the best ways to track the still-expanding pandemic, say researchers involved with the project. It also represents one of the largest federal government efforts to estimate the full scale of a virus that has produced more than 22 million confirmed infections in the U.S. — but that, experts say, has actually infected perhaps twice as many people, sometimes without causing any symptoms.

Some researchers question how effectively blood donor studies can be used to estimate the true extent of Covid-19’s spread, in particular because blood donors are not representative of the nation as a whole. And some other seroprevalence studies have set off fierce debates among researchers and policymakers, who have raised questions about the accuracy and implications of specific methods. Still, experts say large studies like MASS have provided irreplaceable data on the pandemic’s spread, and that they will continue to do so as vaccines roll out.

In the spring, “the big question was how many people really got infected,” said Michael Busch, an adjunct professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the nonprofit Vitalant Research Institute, which studies blood donors and the blood supply. Today, said Busch, he and other researchers working on the MASS study are watching the blood supply to understand the effect and persistence of the vaccine response. “Now people are saying, ok, well, people were infected once, what’s the durability of the protective immune response, especially as we’ve gotten resurgent outbreaks?”

Most people who get Covid-19 produce proteins that mark the invading virus, even if they never show symptoms. These proteins, called antibodies, are critical elements of the human body’s immune response to infections. Once the virus disappears, antibodies can stick around in the blood for months after an infection, where they can be detected by simple diagnostic tests. Because it’s nearly impossible to have specific antibodies to Covid-19 without being infected — at least before a vaccine is widely available — they’re a good, though not perfect, sign of a past infection.

Since early in the pandemic, scientists have used antibodies to try to estimate the true number of Covid-19 infections in the community, mapping the invisible scale of the pandemic. Some of those studies work a bit like a public opinion survey, taking samples from randomly selected people. Others look at specific groups, like dialysis patients or hospital workers.

MASS is taking the second approach, but on a much larger scale. The program is split into two studies, one relying on blood from the hundreds of thousands of people who donate blood every month, and the other on people who have had blood drawn as part of their medical care, such as for a cholesterol test.

Each month, more than a hundred thousand samples from nonprofit blood donation organizations around the country are shipped to testing laboratories to search for antibodies. A similar process takes place with clinical samples.

Their data so far suggest that a lot of people have had Covid-19 without ever receiving a diagnosis. Confirmed case counts suggest that almost 7 percent of people in the U.S. have had the virus. Data from the arm of the study looking at blood from clinical laboratory tests from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico found rates of antibody positivity that at times ranged from under 1 percent in some states to 23 percent in New York.

Data from the American Red Cross, which is providing serosurveillance data as part of the MASS study, indicated that 8.4 percent of U.S. blood donors it tested in a week in late November carried antibodies to Covid-19 in their blood, wrote Susan Stramer, vice president of scientific affairs at the American Red Cross Biomedical Services, in an email. That was roughly double the percentage of the U.S. population that had had confirmed cases by that time.

Earlier in the pandemic, some experts and pundits drew on seroprevalence studies to suggest that Covid-19 may be less dangerous than feared, and that the virus could be left to spread widely until much of the population achieved immunity. But, researchers say, the MASS data indicates that herd immunity, something President Donald J. Trump has consistently touted as a solution to the pandemic, is still far out of reach. In most states, MASS finds that less than 10 percent of people test positive for Covid-19 antibodies, far less than the roughly two-thirds, or more, most experts say is likely necessary to reach herd immunity. That means achieving herd immunity without a vaccine would entail allowing many more people to become sick, adding to a death toll that has topped more than 375,000 people in the U.S.

“The main message is that most people have not gotten sick yet,” said CDC epidemiologist Chris Edens, who is involved in the MASS study. “And so following public health guidance, including wearing masks, maintaining social distance, avoiding crowds, remains the best way to prevent yourself or someone you love from getting sick.”

Some experts have reservations about the use of blood donation data to estimate the prevalence of Covid-19. “The problem with blood donors — and this is also supported by evidence from other epidemics like HIV, and previous pandemics — is that blood donors are weird people” from a statistical point of view, said Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong. “And blood donors who give blood during a pandemic, when the country is in lockdown in particular, are very weird people.”

Donors tend to be younger and healthier, and more likely to be White, than the U.S. population at large, said Edens. Blood donors also need to be at least 16 years old in most states, meaning serosurveillance studies of donors don’t include data from children.

Meyerowitz-Katz is a co-author of two large review studies that estimate the true fatality rate of Covid-19 — a number they get by dividing the number of people who have died from Covid-19 by the estimated total number of infections. He and his colleagues decided to completely exclude studies like MASS from their analysis, largely over concerns that the population of donors is not representative of the public at large.

Meyerowitz-Katz said he’s still puzzled that the U.S. hasn’t conducted a truly random national serosurveillance study, as has been done in Spain, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. “The CDC wrote the book, literally the book, on how to run a randomly-selected national sample,” he said.

Busch points out that there have been smaller randomly selected serosurveillance studies in the U.S. There have been studies in Georgia and Utah, for example, that tested for antibodies in randomly selected census blocks and households within a region. “The goal is to piece all these datasets together and see what we see, and see to what extent are these different samples biased,” he said.

Researchers also say they can correct for those biases. “We do know the demographics of all these donors,” Busch said, allowing the researchers to adjust their results to better reflect the demographics of the U.S. as a whole. Edens said clinical blood tests also help to balance out some of the biases in the blood donor sample.

Studies of blood donors and samples from clinical blood tests have other advantages, too, said Mars Stone, a UCSF adjunct professor and virologist at Vitalant who’s helping run the MASS study. The technique, she said, offers “a very cost-effective and convenient sampling of the general population.”

Any serosurveillance study, regardless of type, will have some limitations. Antibodies fade from the blood over time, meaning people infected at the beginning of the pandemic might not test positive now. And some people seem to simply never develop antibodies in their blood at all, Busch said, meaning there’s nothing for a blood test to pick up.

Regardless of the specific methods used in the surveys, many experts agree that serosurveillance studies have offered evidence that Covid-19 is uniquely dangerous, especially for certain age groups. “By the time you’re in your 50s, even, or 40s, you’re at a risk that is tens of times higher than your risk of dying in an automobile fatality, or a dozen times higher than influenza,” said Meyerowitz-Katz.

While Meyerowitz-Katz may be skeptical of the role that blood donor studies play in estimating the true infection rates, he argues that the data has value. “I think blood donors and clinical samples are really useful as sentinels,” Meyerowitz-Katz said. “You may not be able to get a precise number out of them that gives you an exact idea of the prevalence in the population, but you can see the trends. And sometimes that’s as important.”

That sentinel role may be especially relevant as the nationwide Covid-19 vaccine rollout progresses. The MASS data will help track, for example, how many people who get a Covid-19 vaccine get the disease anyway, according to Busch. And he said some tests used in serosurveillance studies can show how quickly antibodies fade after an infection or immunization, potentially leaving people susceptible to being infected with Covid-19 again.

This work will also grow more complex as vaccines become available, leaving some people with antibodies they received from the immunization, not the infection. MASS is already picking out people who are taking part in large-scale vaccine trials. Indeed, as public vaccination begins, MASS researchers now find themselves tackling a more encouraging task in the days ahead: to find ways to distinguish between those who got the vaccine and those who were actually infected with Covid-19.

Nathaniel Scharping is a science writer based in Milwaukee.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

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Obesity, Impaired Metabolic Health and COVID-19: The Interconnection of Global Pandemics

Obesity, Impaired Metabolic Health and COVID 19

Obesity and cardiometabolic diseases do not only trigger a more severe course of COVID-19, the SARS-CoV-2 infection could promote the development of these conditions. Credit: Norbert Stefan

In a Nature Reviews Endocrinology article authors from the German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD) highlight the interconnection of obesity and impaired metabolic health with the severity of COVID-19. First, they provide information about the independent relationships of obesity, disproportionate fat distribution and impaired metabolic health with the severity of COVID-19. Then they discuss mechanisms for a complicated course of COVID-19 and how this disease may impact on the global obesity and cardiometabolic pandemics. Finally, they provide recommendations for prevention and treatment in clinical practice and in the public health sector to combat these global pandemics.

Norbert Stefan, Andreas Birkenfeld and Matthias Schulze summarize and discuss data from large and well-performed studies that investigated independent relationships of obesity with the severity of COVID-19. Thereby, they can disentangle the contribution of obesity, visceral fatness and impaired metabolic health for the course of COVID-19. In this respect they found convincing evidence that obesity and overt diabetes, but also visceral obesity and even mild hyperglycemia, represent important risk factors for the disease course. Thus, these risk factors most probably may have an additive effect on the severity of COVID-19.

Then they discuss the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 infection on organ function, focusing on the cardiometabolically relevant tissues and organs as the vessel wall, heart, kidneys, liver, gut and pancreas. Thereby, they address both, the immediate damage of COVID-19 to the organs and the long-term effects of the disease, most probably boosting the development of obesity and cardiometabolic diseases. Thus, obesity and cardiometabolic diseases do not only trigger a more severe course of COVID-19, the SARS-CoV-2 infection does promote the development of these conditions.

The authors further highlight how treatment of obesity and impaired cardiometabolic health helps to avert a severe COVID-19 in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2. In this respect health professionals and politicians should now, more than ever, promote the health benefits of physical activity and support efforts to implement programs and policies to facilitate increased physical activity and to promote a healthy diet. This might not only be relevant to directly reduce the burden of COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality among those infected, but may also be important in the context of SARS-CoV-2 vaccination, where response should be carefully evaluated in patients with obesity and/or diabetes mellitus, because of a potentially reduced or shortened response.

Reference: “Global pandemics interconnected — obesity, impaired metabolic health and COVID-19” by Norbert Stefan, Andreas L. Birkenfeld and Matthias B. Schulze, 21 January 2021, Nature Reviews Endocrinology.
DOI: 10.1038/s41574-020-00462-1

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Ohio Legislator Who Questioned Black Hygiene To Lead Health Panel

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the state Senate Health Committee.

“Could it just be that African Americans – or the colored population — do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear masks? Or do not socially distance themselves?” state Sen. Stephen Huffman asked a Black health expert in June 11 testimony. “Could that just be the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?”

The comments resulted in calls from Democrats and the ACLU of Ohio for him to resign from the GOP-controlled Senate.

Huffman, of Tipp City, was appointed last week by Senate President Matt Huffman, his cousin, to chair the committee even after he was fired from his job as a Dayton-area emergency room physician for his comments.

In a letter Wednesday, the Ohio Black Legislative Caucus demanded a health committee leader who understands and can respond to the inequities of healthcare in Ohio “without political influence.”

“If the Senate leadership will not replace Sen. Huffman as Chair, then we will expect Sen. Huffman to use his position to improve the health of Ohio’s African-American population by working with OLBC to pass legislation that effectively addresses health disparities in the state of Ohio,” director Tony Bishop said in a news release.

Huffman remains a licensed medical doctor in Ohio.

“Senator Huffman is a medical doctor and highly qualified to chair the Health Committee,” spokesperson John Fortney said Friday in a written statement. “He has a long record of providing healthcare to minority neighborhoods and has joined multiple mission trips at his own expense to treat those from disadvantaged countries.

Fortney added that Huffman apologized at the time “for asking a clumsy and awkwardly worded question.”

“Sincere apologies deserve sincere forgiveness, and not the perpetual politically weaponized judgement of the cancel culture,” he said.”

Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Ohio state Senator Stephen Huffman, a Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored populatio



Ohio state Senator Stephen Huffman, a Republican lawmaker and doctor who questioned whether members of “the colored population” were disproportionately contracting the coronavirus because of their hygiene is drawing new criticism from Black lawmakers after his appointment to lead the state Senate Health Committee.

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What Scientists Are Learning About Covid-19 Using the Nation’s Blood Supply

In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to shut down major cities in the U.S., researchers were thinking about blood. In particular, they were worried about the U.S. blood supply — the millions of donations every year that help keep hospital patients alive when they need a transfusion.

The researchers were able to put to rest their initial concerns about the virus spreading via the blood supply. But they quickly realized that all those blood donations might offer a vital source of data on the pandemic.

When Covid-19 infects someone, the immune system’s response to the virus leaves behind detectable proteins in their blood. In March, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, a group of scientists working with blood banks around the country quickly launched a program to surveil the blood supply in certain regions for those traces of Covid-19 infection. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that initial program expanded to a nationwide effort known as the Multistate Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Seroprevalence (MASS) study, which has analyzed roughly 800,000 donations so far.

This kind of research, sometimes called a serosurveillance or seroprevalence study, is one of the best ways to track the still-expanding pandemic, say researchers involved with the project. It also represents one of the largest federal government efforts to estimate the full scale of a virus that has produced more than 22 million confirmed infections in the U.S. — but that, experts say, has actually infected perhaps twice as many people, sometimes without causing any symptoms.

Some researchers question how effectively blood donor studies can be used to estimate the true extent of Covid-19’s spread, in particular because blood donors are not representative of the nation as a whole. And some other seroprevalence studies have set off fierce debates among researchers and policymakers, who have raised questions about the accuracy and implications of specific methods. Still, experts say large studies like MASS have provided irreplaceable data on the pandemic’s spread, and that they will continue to do so as vaccines roll out.

In the spring, “the big question was how many people really got infected,” said Michael Busch, an adjunct professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the nonprofit Vitalant Research Institute, which studies blood donors and the blood supply. Today, said Busch, he and other researchers working on the MASS study are watching the blood supply to understand the effect and persistence of the vaccine response. “Now people are saying, ok, well, people were infected once, what’s the durability of the protective immune response, especially as we’ve gotten resurgent outbreaks?”

Most people who get Covid-19 produce proteins that mark the invading virus, even if they never show symptoms. These proteins, called antibodies, are critical elements of the human body’s immune response to infections. Once the virus disappears, antibodies can stick around in the blood for months after an infection, where they can be detected by simple diagnostic tests. Because it’s nearly impossible to have specific antibodies to Covid-19 without being infected — at least before a vaccine is widely available — they’re a good, though not perfect, sign of a past infection.

Since early in the pandemic, scientists have used antibodies to try to estimate the true number of Covid-19 infections in the community, mapping the invisible scale of the pandemic. Some of those studies work a bit like a public opinion survey, taking samples from randomly selected people. Others look at specific groups, like dialysis patients or hospital workers.

MASS is taking the second approach, but on a much larger scale. The program is split into two studies, one relying on blood from the hundreds of thousands of people who donate blood every month, and the other on people who have had blood drawn as part of their medical care, such as for a cholesterol test.

Each month, more than a hundred thousand samples from nonprofit blood donation organizations around the country are shipped to testing laboratories to search for antibodies. A similar process takes place with clinical samples.

Their data so far suggest that a lot of people have had Covid-19 without ever receiving a diagnosis. Confirmed case counts suggest that almost 7 percent of people in the U.S. have had the virus. Data from the arm of the study looking at blood from clinical laboratory tests from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico found rates of antibody positivity that at times ranged from under 1 percent in some states to 23 percent in New York.

Data from the American Red Cross, which is providing serosurveillance data as part of the MASS study, indicated that 8.4 percent of U.S. blood donors it tested in a week in late November carried antibodies to Covid-19 in their blood, wrote Susan Stramer, vice president of scientific affairs at the American Red Cross Biomedical Services, in an email. That was roughly double the percentage of the U.S. population that had had confirmed cases by that time.

Earlier in the pandemic, some experts and pundits drew on seroprevalence studies to suggest that Covid-19 may be less dangerous than feared, and that the virus could be left to spread widely until much of the population achieved immunity. But, researchers say, the MASS data indicates that herd immunity, something President Donald J. Trump has consistently touted as a solution to the pandemic, is still far out of reach. In most states, MASS finds that less than 10 percent of people test positive for Covid-19 antibodies, far less than the roughly two-thirds, or more, most experts say is likely necessary to reach herd immunity. That means achieving herd immunity without a vaccine would entail allowing many more people to become sick, adding to a death toll that has topped more than 375,000 people in the U.S.

“The main message is that most people have not gotten sick yet,” said CDC epidemiologist Chris Edens, who is involved in the MASS study. “And so following public health guidance, including wearing masks, maintaining social distance, avoiding crowds, remains the best way to prevent yourself or someone you love from getting sick.”

Some experts have reservations about the use of blood donation data to estimate the prevalence of Covid-19. “The problem with blood donors — and this is also supported by evidence from other epidemics like HIV, and previous pandemics — is that blood donors are weird people” from a statistical point of view, said Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong. “And blood donors who give blood during a pandemic, when the country is in lockdown in particular, are very weird people.”

Donors tend to be younger and healthier, and more likely to be White, than the U.S. population at large, said Edens. Blood donors also need to be at least 16 years old in most states, meaning serosurveillance studies of donors don’t include data from children.

Meyerowitz-Katz is a co-author of two large review studies that estimate the true fatality rate of Covid-19 — a number they get by dividing the number of people who have died from Covid-19 by the estimated total number of infections. He and his colleagues decided to completely exclude studies like MASS from their analysis, largely over concerns that the population of donors is not representative of the public at large.

Meyerowitz-Katz said he’s still puzzled that the U.S. hasn’t conducted a truly random national serosurveillance study, as has been done in Spain, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. “The CDC wrote the book, literally the book, on how to run a randomly-selected national sample,” he said.

Busch points out that there have been smaller randomly selected serosurveillance studies in the U.S. There have been studies in Georgia and Utah, for example, that tested for antibodies in randomly selected census blocks and households within a region. “The goal is to piece all these datasets together and see what we see, and see to what extent are these different samples biased,” he said.

Researchers also say they can correct for those biases. “We do know the demographics of all these donors,” Busch said, allowing the researchers to adjust their results to better reflect the demographics of the U.S. as a whole. Edens said clinical blood tests also help to balance out some of the biases in the blood donor sample.

Studies of blood donors and samples from clinical blood tests have other advantages, too, said Mars Stone, a UCSF adjunct professor and virologist at Vitalant who’s helping run the MASS study. The technique, she said, offers “a very cost-effective and convenient sampling of the general population.”

Any serosurveillance study, regardless of type, will have some limitations. Antibodies fade from the blood over time, meaning people infected at the beginning of the pandemic might not test positive now. And some people seem to simply never develop antibodies in their blood at all, Busch said, meaning there’s nothing for a blood test to pick up.

Regardless of the specific methods used in the surveys, many experts agree that serosurveillance studies have offered evidence that Covid-19 is uniquely dangerous, especially for certain age groups. “By the time you’re in your 50s, even, or 40s, you’re at a risk that is tens of times higher than your risk of dying in an automobile fatality, or a dozen times higher than influenza,” said Meyerowitz-Katz.

While Meyerowitz-Katz may be skeptical of the role that blood donor studies play in estimating the true infection rates, he argues that the data has value. “I think blood donors and clinical samples are really useful as sentinels,” Meyerowitz-Katz said. “You may not be able to get a precise number out of them that gives you an exact idea of the prevalence in the population, but you can see the trends. And sometimes that’s as important.”

That sentinel role may be especially relevant as the nationwide Covid-19 vaccine rollout progresses. The MASS data will help track, for example, how many people who get a Covid-19 vaccine get the disease anyway, according to Busch. And he said some tests used in serosurveillance studies can show how quickly antibodies fade after an infection or immunization, potentially leaving people susceptible to being infected with Covid-19 again.

This work will also grow more complex as vaccines become available, leaving some people with antibodies they received from the immunization, not the infection. MASS is already picking out people who are taking part in large-scale vaccine trials. Indeed, as public vaccination begins, MASS researchers now find themselves tackling a more encouraging task in the days ahead: to find ways to distinguish between those who got the vaccine and those who were actually infected with Covid-19.

Nathaniel Scharping is a science writer based in Milwaukee.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

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The Largest Sea On Titan Could Be Over 300 Meters Deep

The Earth’s oceans are notoriously unexplored, and stand as a monument to the difficult of exploring underwater.  But they aren’t the only unexplored seas in the solar system.  Titan’s vast collection of liquid methane lakes are another challenge facing future solar system explorers. 

A submarine mission to Saturn’s largest moon has long been under discussion.  More recently, scientists have discovered that if such a mission was ever launched, it would have plenty of room to operate, because Titan’s largest sea is likely more than 300 m (1000 ft) deep.

That sea, befittingly named Kraken Mare, was the subject of a recent study by lead author Valerio Poggiali from Cornell and his colleagues, as was the not quite so befittingly named Moray Sinus, an estuary at the northern end of the sea.  They analyzed data from one of Cassini’s last fly-bys of Titan in August of 2014.  That data included radar measurements of Kraken Mare and it’s estuary.  

False color visualization of Titan's northern lakes, including Kraken Mare.
False-color mosaic of Titan’s northern lakes, made from infrared data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The height from the sea surface to its bottom was calculated using time differentials in those radar signals.  Additionally, the percentage of the signal that was rebounded back to Cassini was used to determine a baseline understanding of the sea’s composition.

The radar signal was not actually able to penetrate all the way to the depths of central Kraken Mare, meaning the sea was deeper than the expected 1000 meter range the scientists estimated for the effective distance the radar signal was able to penetrate.  Given that the sea is the size of all five Great Lakes combined, it is not particularly surprising the Cassini couldn’t find the bottom of the middle of the sea.  However, it was able to reach the depths of Moray Sinus, which was noted at approximately 85 m (280 ft) deep.

In addition, the signal attenuation they found pointed to something unexpected: Kraken Mare is actually made up of more methane than ethane. Scientists had expected ethane to dominate in the sea, largely because of its size and equatorial location.  In fact, Kraken Mare’s composition is largely similar to other, smaller lakes in the region, with a methane dominant hydrology.  

All of this data analysis and hypothesis development can feed right into the development process of any future submarine mission to one of the Solar System’s largest moons.  While there will be many considerations that go into the design of any future mission, it is now clear that no matter what the craft’s size, it will have plenty of room to operate in the alien seas it is designed for.

Learn More:
Cornell: Astronomers estimate Titan’s largest sea is 1,000 feet deep
UT: Whoa. Lakes on Titan Might be the Craters from Massive Underground Explosions
UT: How Habitable is Titan? NASA is Sending the Titan Dragonfly Helicopter to Find Out

Lead Image: Artist rendering of Kraken Mare.
Credit: NASA/John Glenn Research Center