Ebola Comes To U.S. Shores; Will Panic Follow?

Earlier today the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States was reported.  Discovered in Dallas, the affected patient had been traveling in West Africa and was not exhibiting symptoms on return to the United States earlier this month.  The patient is presently in what the hospital describes as “strict isolation.”

As the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control have treated people in the United States who had been infected in Africa, this case is not the first connected to this outbreak that U.S. facilities have dealt with.  The key factor for containing the spread of the disease is not only isolation of the patient, but tracking and monitoring of those who have interacted with that patient since entering the country.

That said, I am concerned about panic.  The threat of Ebola was used in recent political squabbling over immigration, and others advocated for not transferring infected assistance workers to the United States.  I’d be really surprised if this diagnosis was not the source of some overreaction in some quarters.

The United States is in a much better position than the African nations currently suffering from the outbreak and the associated strains on its limited medical infrastructure.  The relevant federal agencies have been preparing to deal with Ebola, and can transfer methods used in Africa to a United States context with a very, very small fraction of the thousands of cases currently in Africa.

It won’t be easy, but the U.S. has the tools, the people, and the infrastructure to contain Ebola.

What’s Missing In Your Next Halifax Vacation – Science Policy

The 2014 Canadian Science Policy Conference will take place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, next month.  The early bird registration period closes on Sunday, so I’d encourage you to register right now.  The conference isn’t cheap, but I challenge you to find anything similar to it in the English-speaking world of science and technology policy.

Amongst the keynote speakers is the new Minister of State for Science and Technology, Ed Holder.  There’s a whopping 14 different panels on various science and technology matters, focused on issues of particular interest to Canada.  If I were to pick just one to recommend, it would be the panel on auditing science and technology programs.  There will be a presenter from the Office of the Auditor General (comparable, I think, to the U.S. Government Accountability Office) there to discuss recent reports on topics related to science and technology.  The discussion, at least per the panel description, would cover the value in conducting similar programs in science and technology.

But that’s just my particular interest.  The Conference is now so big that I think most anyone could find at least one panel related to their particular interests.  If you want to go to Halifax (and there are certainly plenty of reasons to visit the city) and talk science policy, October 15-17 is the time to do it.  Register now, to avoid future disappointment.

Did India Borrow From NASA’s Goldin?

The Indian Mars craft (Mangalyaan in Hindi) entered Martian orbit yesterday.  The successful mission makes India the fourth spacefaring power, after the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency, to orbit another planet.  Congratulations!  India successfully landed a craft on the moon back in 2008, and this week’s accomplishments further the nation’s standing as a space power, perhaps on par with China.

It’s a remarkable achievement, even if you don’t factor in the rarity of such an accomplishment.  The mission was India’s first attempt at orbiting another planet.  It cost $74 million U.S.  By comparison, a NASA craft that entered Martian orbit earlier this week cost $671 million.  If you thought that India was trying to follow former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s philosophy of ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper,” I could certainly understand.  But India’s Cheaper seems to come from making it Simpler.  As the BBC noted, the Mangalyaan’s payload is small and more focused (methane detection is a major emphasis) compared to similar craft from the United States and Europe.  The country may also be more comfortable with the smaller margins for error that lower budgets often require.  As this is a robotic exploration, I think it’s a reasonable strategy.  Once India gets to having crew on its spacecraft, then I would expect it to adjust accordingly.

For me, having more countries (and private companies) participating in space travel brings us all closer to having such accomplishment’s as this week’s Martian orbits become more commonplace.  And that’s a good thing.

Google Science Fair Winners Once Again Span The Globe

Earlier this week Google announced the winners in its fourth annual Science Fair.  A truly global affair, entrants to the Fair submit their projects online and 18 finalists were recognized at Google’s headquarters for their efforts.

The top three winning teams were from Ireland, Canada and the United States.  A trio of Irish 16 year-olds took top honors for their work on bacteria for aiding in cereal crop growth.  A 17 year-old Canadian was tops in the 17-18 year-old division for her work on exploring the applicability of sand filters to biodegrading oil sands contaminants (the project also received special recognition from local area judges).  A 14 year-old from Pennsylvania won in the 13-14 year-old division for his work on fruit-fly inspired robotics.

Aside from the winners in each of the age divisions (one of which is always the Grand Prize winner), there are three other competition-wide prizes.  The Computer Science Award (new this year) went to the 14 year-old roboticist who won his age division.  The Science In Action Award (sponsored by Scientific American) recognized a 15 year old from New York who developed a wearable sensor that will help caregivers by warning when their patients are mobile.  The Voters’ Choice Award recognized a 15 year old finalist from India who has developed a breath-to-speech device that can assist those with disabilities to speak.

Congratulations to all the entrants, and the winners.  You can sign up for notices about the 2015 Google Science Fair and follow the competition year round.

New Ebola Projections Should Give You Pause

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have each released new studies of the current Ebola outbreak in Africa (H/T ScienceInsider).  The current totals related to the outbreak are over 5800 infected, with more than 2800 dead.  The current outbreak has affected more people than all of the previous reported outbreaks combined.

The new reports suggest things could well get a lot worse, making me think there’s a non-trivial chance this outbreak may not go away.  Of course, I am not a virologist.  But given how little attention the outbreak is getting outside of Africa, I’m not optimistic.

The WHO projections were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  I encourage you to read them in detail, but this language in the summary should stop you cold.

“These data indicate that without drastic improvements in control measures, the numbers of cases of and deaths from [Ebola virus disease] are expected to continue increasing from hundreds to thousands per week in the coming months.”

Control measures, including procedures for tracing the infected, controlling their contact with uninfected populations, and sufficient medical infrastructure, are not currently sufficient to handle the need, certainly while production in therapeutic medicines and vaccines is ramping up to address the outbreak.  The American response to the outbreak is good, but if not backed up by sufficient resources, it may not be enough. Continue reading

Next European Research Commissioner Used To Be An Engineer

We have a new Commissioner (H/T ScienceInsider) for Research, Science and Innovation at the European Commission.  (There are separate Commissioners for climate change and energy and for the environment and marine affairs.)  Carlos Moedas, currently the secretary of state to the Portuguese Prime Minister, will take over the research portfolio from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.  Incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outlined his expectations for the portfolio in a letter to Moedas.  The Commissioner-designate will have responsibility over the Horizon 2020 research programme as well as the following elements of Commission agencies:

  • Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (RTD)
  • The relevant parts of the European Research Council executive agency (ERCEA)
  • The relevant parts of the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME)
  • The relevant parts of the Innovation and Networks executive agency (INEA)
  • The relevant parts of the Research Executive Agency (REA)

(The European Parliament must approve the full slate of Commissioners, and is expected to vote on them later this year.)

Moedas was in investment banking prior to his government service in Portugal.  But his education was in civil engineering, and he worked for five years after school for a French engineering concern.  That was almost 20 years ago.  His relatively lack of experience in research is consistent with his predecessors in the position.

Also worth noting in the slate of designated Commissioners is that the Commission will be reorganized, with an eye toward encouraging more teamwork amongst the Commissioners.

Ebola Roadmap And U.S. Response Should Remind Us That It’s A Big Deal

By the best estimates of people at the World Health Organization (WHO), we are at least six months, and probably nine, away from successfully containing the current outbreak of Ebola (the largest outbreak ever recorded).

At least that’s the goal.

The agency released a roadmap in late August to outline the necessary response to the disease.  There have already been over 3,500 reported cases, and the death toll is approaching 2,000 (or has surpassed it, depending on your source), making this outbreak larger than any previous recorded outbreak combined).  The estimates within the roadmap are sobering, with the possibility of over 20,000 people suffering from the virus.  By the end of September the WHO will do all it can to establish full coverage of Ebola response activities in the affected countries.

The United States will contribute to the effort.  More than 100 experts, and $100 million, have been committed to the region, with more money and personnel expected.  The U.S. military will be involved, according to an interview with President Obama broadcast over the weekend.  This re-emphasizes the severity of the problem, in part because Doctors Without Borders typically eschews military involvement in outbreak responses.  But the organization is stretched too thin to turn down such help.  With much of the outbreak area emerging from civil war, infrastructure and institutions are either broken or strained close to breaking.  Perhaps this lack of capacity has contributed to the spread of the outbreak.  If this is true (and we simply don’t know), addition resources applied to the region in a systematic fashion should help contain and better understand this outbreak before the virus has an opportunity to mutate.

While I’m certain that the U.S. public health infrastructure is in better shape than it’s West African counterparts, this crisis has made me mindful that maintaining such infrastructure involves constant investment and participation.  Without the facilities, regular training, and meaningful information provided by patients using those facilities, it becomes much harder to track diseases and be in a better position to contain or anticipate outbreaks.  In other words, for the grace of preparation go us.