Before The Zika Panic Sets In

In tonight’s Republican candidate debate, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson both said they would consider a quarantine to help contain the spread of the Zika virus in the U.S.  As of February 3, there have been 45 cases reported in the U.S., with only 9 of them locally acquired.  All of the locally acquired cases have been limited (so far) to U.S. territories.

While there have been reports about transfer of the virus through sexual activity and about the presence of the virus in both urine and saliva, mosquito bites remain the predominant means of transmission.  Those infected with the virus that develop symptoms usually suffer from a mild flu-like illness, though there have been reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome.  More concerning is a possible link to microcephaly –  a serious birth defect causing small heads and brains.  This has prompted the calls in some Latin American countries for women to avoid pregnancy.  (Restrictions on birth control and/or abortion in many of the same countries complicate this recommendation.)

It seems to me that a quarantine for the Zika seems premature, if not ill-advised.  Focusing on the virus carriers – mosquitos – makes much more sense.  The CDC guidance is for pregnant women to avoid travel to areas affected by the virus, and take strict steps to avoid mosquito bites should they travel to those areas.

More attention is necessary on both diagnostic tests and vaccines for Zika.  Vaccines are currently unavailable and diagnostic tests are limited to the CDC and some state and local health departments.  The World Health Organization has declared the recent spread of Zika a Public Health Concern, primarily due to the cluster of Guillain-Barre and microcephaly in Brazil.  Part of the advice presented on dealing with the virus is to not ban travel to Zika-affected regions, but to provide travelers with up-to-date information on the virus and means of preventing transmission.  That probably won’t stop Governor Christie from instituting a quarantine in New Jersey if he thinks it necessary.  He overstepped with his quarantine on Ebola, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries it again.

Video Update – New Science Rap Academy Video, Slingshot On DVD

Yesterday Tom McFadden released the latest effort from this year’s Science Rap Academy.  Titled “Wild-Type Genes” the video reworks Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”

Slingshot, a documentary about Dean Kamen and the development of the water purification device of the same name, is now available on DVD (there are two versions also available for classroom use), through iTunes, and on the streaming service Netflix.

While there is mention on the Slingshot Facebook page of the recent debacle involving the water in Flint, Michigan, there is no word yet on whether the Slingshot is up to the challenge of handling the amount of lead contamination.  The device works on vapor compression evaporation to distill pure water.  This technique should be able to remove lead, but I can’t be sure whether or not the contamination in Flint is too much for the technology.  In at least some locations it has exceeded 150 parts per billion, which exceeds the capabilities of the filters provided to the population.

Cancer ‘Moonshot’ Task Force Holds First Meeting

While I’m on record about having problems with the rhetoric of moonshots, I am encouraged by other aspects of the cancer initiative pushed by Vice President Biden mentioned in the 2016 State of The Union address (though started last year).  On Monday the Task Force for the effort held its first meeting, just days after the White House circulated this memo concerning the Task Force.

Chaired by the Vice President, the task force is big and composed of top level executive branch and White House officials.  Members include heads of the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Energy and Veterans Affairs.  Members also include heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.  The National Cancer Board is not represented in the Task Force, but is named as one of the many experts the Task Force could

Perhaps the number of different agencies involved demonstrates the breadth of cancer research across the federal government and underlies the challenges in coordinating those efforts.

The Task Force must act quickly.  Per the memorandum, it has until December 31 of this year to conduct its review of existing cancer research, therapy and treatments and provide its recommendations.  They will cover, at a minimum, how to:

  • Accelerate our understanding of cancer, and its prevention, early detection, treatment, and cure;
  • Improve patient access and care;
  • Support greater access to new research, data, and computational capabilities;
  • Encourage development of cancer treatments;
  • Identify and address any unnecessary regulatory barriers and consider ways to expedite administrative reforms;
  • Ensure optimal investment of Federal resources; and
  • Identify opportunities to develop public-private partnerships and increase coordination of the Federal Government’s efforts with the private sector, as appropriate.

This does appear to be a long list, but keep in mind that the Vice President was inquiring about this effort at least as early as last fall, and the focus of the project – all moonshot notions to the contrary – is to focus on changes that can be done relatively easily.

The Task Force meeting was paired with another White House announcement – of increased federal money for the effort.  The initiative will have $195 million of the fiscal year 2016 National Institutes of Health (NIH) allotment, and $755 million of dedicated cancer money in the fiscal year 2017 budget from the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration.  With additional investments from the Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Departments the total investment will top $1 billion over two years.

And while that is a large amount, the expense of biomedical research highlights how much this project isn’t really a moonshot.  The money is going to support increased access and availability at least as much as it will boost new research and treatments.  The goal is to make finding the cure(s) easier, not to find those cures.  And by the time people become disappointed that this project didn’t really get to the ‘moon’ everyone directly involved will be out of office.

Is The Vice President’s Cancer ‘Moon Shot’ Really A Moon Shot?

As part of President Obama’s State of the Union address this year, he placed Vice President Biden in charge of an effort to boost the ongoing war on cancer.  From the prepared remarks:

“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they’ve had in over a decade. So tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.”

So, press reports to the contrary, this ‘moon shot’ isn’t really new to the President’s remarks  The Vice President first announced his intentions last October.  And as with most things in a State of the Union, the details are found elsewhere.  Vice President Biden describes the plan in this Medium post.  The large goal is to achieve a decade’s work of advances in half the time.  To that end the Vice President is going to increase resources for cancer research and make it easier for researchers and others in the fight against cancer to share information and communicate.

I’ve expressed my disdain for the rhetoric of the moon shot before and nothing has changed for me since then.  What the Vice President wants to do make sense.  Boosting resources can help, but making it easier to use those resources and to make it easier for thousands of disparate researchers share progress and information helps stretch those resources even further.

But the details don’t mesh well with the concrete goal and timeframe of the Apollo project.  The original declaration of the ‘war on cancer’ in President Nixon’s 1971 State of the Union was closer in rhetoric to Apollo, but not as specific in its goals.

And, bottom line, while rocket science is complicated, ending just one kind of cancer is at least as hard.  And I think the history of the actual moonshot downplays that complexity.  So no, the Vice President’s ‘moon shot’ isn’t really one.  It’s another example of the politics of a program not matching the policy goals.  Aside from my cognitive dissonance over this mismatch, I just don’t know if it helps to invoke this rhetoric.  The Vice President was already working on this effort, and the vast majority of the researchers involved know how complex the endeavor is.  Why simplify it for the masses?  I don’t think it’s necessary, but I suppose it helps make a better speech.

We Might Get A Vaccine Ready For The Next Ebola Epidemic

Back in July a vaccine for Ebola was shown to provide 100 percent protection in a  clinical trial.  The test was on a small population, and only addressed short term protection.  But if deployed widely, the vaccine could be a very useful tool in containing a major outbreak.

But vaccines aren’t cheap, and ensuring that they are viable and produced in quantity takes time and money.  For better or worse, vaccines for major contagious diseases in Africa aren’t considered lucrative, but there are organizations trying to overcome that obstacle.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance has taken a step to make it easier to have a major vaccine response available for the next Ebola outbreak.  Nature is reporting that Gavi has paid Merck, the manufacturer of this vaccine, $5 million to have 300,000 doses of the vaccine ready for use by May 2016.  The virus could be used for clinical trials, or possibly for the next Ebola outbreak, should it happen prior to Merck having the vaccine licensed.  Merck has promised to have the vaccine licensed by the end of 2017, and to obtain emergency approval from the World Health Organization to use the vaccine in an outbreak prior to licensure.  That process is already underway.

Gavi is a public-private partnership combining the contributions of several governments, companies and foundations to develop and stockpile vaccines for future outbreaks.  Once this particular Ebola vaccine is licensed, Gavi will develop stockpiles for use, and distributing the vaccines should be much easier.

Science Goes To The Movies Gets Inside An Athlete’s Head

The 12th episode of Science Goes To The Movies went online over the weekend.  The material for this episode focused on teamwork and the psychology of competitive sports.  The HBO television series Ballers and the 2015 film Everest were the works selected, though the conversation might well have taken place if the show focused on the recent film Concussion.  As the series does tape several weeks in advance, that film may pop up for later conversation.  (Though for a show that spends many episodes on psychology and related neurological processes, I’m surprised it has yet to tackle the Pixar film Inside Out.)

Co-hosts Heather Berlin and Faith Salie were joined by former NFL linebacker Carl Banks.  Banks spent most of his 12 season professional career with the New York Giants and is currently an analyst for the team’s radio broadcasts.  Knowing that you might not be surprised that the conversation focused primarily on Ballers, the issues that show brings up about adjusting to life after professional sports, and what factors – not just traumatic head injury – that might influence someone to take their life.  I’d hope that Banks could come back should the show dive into the issues raised by Concussion, as he proves him self an excellent guest.  While providing great information about his playing experience, he was very good in asking questions and articulating concerns about other factors that could contribute to suicide.  If Mr. Banks is unavailable, I’d recommend the show reach out to Dominique Foxworth, a former player who wrote about his experience watching the film

Well, That Didn’t Take Long

A day after the World Health Organization declared Liberia free from the Ebola virus, it confirmed that a new case has emerged in Sierra Leone. That country was still under a period of enhanced surveillance following the November 7 declaration that it was free of disease transmission.  What follows now is tracking of the new case and the contacts with that person to determine the lines of transmission and identify other possible infected people.

Hopefully what comes next is that the patient is successfully treated and any who came in contact either test negative or are effectively treated.  Flare ups are likely to happen again in each of the affected countries, but hopefully transmission can be limited, if not eliminated.