Curious Bends – sugarcane cultivation, Ebola in India, the cost of sanitation and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter science, tech. and data news from around South Asia. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. It costs nothing to sign up. If you’d like a sample, check out the one below.

1. A brief history of sugarcane cultivation in India

“Even earlier than Nehru, Professor C.V. Raman saw the spark in her and made her a Foundation Fellow of the Academy. Years later, in 1957, she was elected to INSA — the first woman scientist elected to any of the science academies in India. She was also awarded the Padma Shri in 1957. Having led a full life, she breathed her last on February 4, 1984. Think about it; every time you bite a sugarcane, or a lump of gud or vellam, you are enjoying the fruits of toil of Barber, Venkataraman and Janaki.” (5 min read)

2. How would India handle an Ebola outbreak?

“That’s why in Nigeria’s largest city Lagos, where the majority of the country’s 20 cases were discovered, authorities urged people not to urinate or defecate in drains, dump sites and open spaces. The move is perhaps one reason why Nigeria has successfully contained the epidemic, with no new cases since Sept. 8. In India, around 600 million people defecate in the open. A lack of toilets and in some parts a cultural preference for going outdoors would make it almost impossible for similar public health advice to have the same effect.” (8 min read)

3. Five reasons why India’s first mental health policy is impressive

“Desai believes it is commendable that the policy goes beyond treatment of mental illness to prevention and promotion of mental health, but hopes that the Action Plan keeps Indian cultural contexts in mind while implementing policies for prevention and promotion. “While talking about policies for treatment of mental ailments, there is reasonable uniformity in approach,” said Desai. “But when it comes to personality development and seeking happiness, the Action Plan must keep cultural aspects in mind.”” (4 min read)

4. What is the true cost of sanitation?

“This is just a snapshot of what it will take to achieve sanitation that delivers on the promise of public health and personal dignity that we as a society seek. Are we prepared to bear this true cost? Let’s just take the Rs.12,000 subsidy the government has promised those who will construct toilets. There are 111.10 million households that would need toilets. That totals up to Rs.1.34 trillion for the toilet construction alone. It becomes easier to choose when we look at the true cost of not providing safe sanitation to all. A study by the Water and Sanitation Programme and others has estimated this at 6.4% of GDP of India in 2006. Not included in this is the cost of wasting the fertilizer and soil regeneration value of the human waste of a billion people.” (6 min read)

5. Featured longread: A new statistical law that’s popping up everywhere for unknown reasons

“Systems of many interacting components — be they species, integers or subatomic particles — kept producing the same statistical curve, which had become known as the Tracy-Widom distribution. This puzzling curve seemed to be the complex cousin of the familiar bell curve, or Gaussian distribution, which represents the natural variation of independent random variables like the heights of students in a classroom or their test scores. Like the Gaussian, the Tracy-Widom distribution exhibits “universality,” a mysterious phenomenon in which diverse microscopic effects give rise to the same collective behavior. “The surprise is it’s as universal as it is,” said Tracy, a professor at the University of California, Davis.”” (12 min read)

Chart of the week

“When the price of black gold falls, businesses and individuals cheer but oil-exporting countries suffer. According to research from Deutsche Bank, seven of the 12 members of OPEC, an oil cartel, fail to balance their budgets when prices are below $100. Last month Venezuela, a particularly inefficient member of the cartel, saw its bonds downgraded. One non-OPEC member in particular is in trouble: Russia. Economic growth is already poor. Further drops in the oil price could be very painful. After all, oil and gas make up 70% of Russia’s exports and half of the federal budget.” The Economist has the full story.

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Curious Bends – Hudhud, fewer cyclone deaths, population control and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter science, tech. and data news from around South Asia. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. It costs nothing to sign up. If you’d like a sample, check out the one below.

India went from 15,000 cyclone deaths in 1999 to just 38 last year

“The difference in the number of fatalities between Cyclone Phailin and the Uttarakhand cloudburst is instructive here. Both storms happened last year, yet Uttarakhand left more than 5,700 dead and millions affected. Although Phailin would also affect millions, its casualty count was kept to double digits. A big part of this was simply that there was no advance warning about the Uttarakhand cloudburst, while the Met department and local authorities had been tracking Phailin for weeks.” (4 min read, scroll.in)

How supercyclone Hudhud got its name

“For years cyclones that originated in the north Indian ocean were anonymous affairs. One of the reasons, according to Dr M Mahapatra, who heads India’s cyclone warning centre, was that in an “ethnically diverse region we needed to be very careful and neutral in picking up the names so that it did not hurt the sentiments of people”. But finally in 2004 the countries clubbed together and agreed on their favourite names.” (3 min read, bbc.co.uk)

Central government officials’ attendance record is now public. Thanks to Ram Sewak Sharma.

“The website is a near-complete digital dashboard of employee attendance—it logs the entry and exit time, among other things. The entire system is searchable, down to the names of individual central government employees, and all the data is available for download. And with that single step—making the entire platform publicly accessible—the government has introduced a level of accountability and transparency that India’s sprawling bureaucracy is unaccustomed to.” (5 min read, qz.com)

Indian women pay the price for population control

“23-year-old Pushpa, narrates a similar tale of pain. The nurse at a public health facility inserted her with an IUD after she delivered her first child. Her consent was not sought. The procedure was done after getting the consent form signed by her husband, a daily wage labourer who had studied up to Class V. He wasn’t explained what an IUD is and what the form was for.” (13 min read, tehelka.com)

After 67 years of independence, India gets a mental healthy policy

“Dr Harsh Vardhan pointed out that earlier laws governing the mentally ill, the Indian Lunatic Asylum Act, 1858, and Indian Lunacy Act, 1912, ignored the human rights aspect and were concerned only with custodial issues. After Independence it took 31 years for India to attempt the first enactment, which resulted another nine years later in the Mental Health Act, 1987. But due to many defects in this Act, it never came into force in any of the states and union territories.” (3 min read, pub.nic.in)

Chart of the week

“The survey of 44 countries, a quarter of them in Asia, shows that economic optimism has followed economic growth: eastward. The continent with the highest proportion of respondents believing their children will be better-off than they are is Asia, with 58%.” (2 min read, economist.com)

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Earth, unlike Venus and Mars, exhaled nitrogen

One element that forms a unique part of the life-friendly chemical environment on Earth is the gas nitrogen. Its cyclic movement through the soil and the atmosphere via plants is a crucial part of how they produce energy.

Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen; the remainder includes carbon dioxide, methane and noble gases like argon and neon. In stark contrast, the ratio of nitrogen to argon by volume is almost ten times lower in the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.

There are competing explanations for why Earth’s atmosphere is rich in nitrogen, including physical similarities between the three rocky bodies, their distances from the Sun, etc. Now, a new study conducted by geologists from two American labs gives one of those explanations an upper hand. Unfortunately, it could also make the search for alien life harder.

According to them, Earth’s tectonic activity has allowed the planet to steadily exhale nitrogen from its interior into the atmosphere. Their findings were published in the journal Nature Geoscience on October 19.

Such activity has “added about 85% more nitrogen to Earth’s atmosphere over the course of geological time,” said Sami Mikhail, a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institute of Washington and lead author of the published paper.

The uppermost layer of Earth, on which we live, is not a continuous surface but a jigsaw of slowly moving plates called tectonic plates. They often grind into, slide over or under each other, forming mountains and deep trenches as the case may be. When one plate rises and another dives beneath it, the region where they meet is called a subduction zone. Often, a section of Earth’s mantle gets wedged between the two plates (see image).

How subduction zones could promote nitrogen degassing.
How subduction zones could promote nitrogen degassing. Image: Sami Mikhail

Mikhail and Dimitri Sverjensky, of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, together developed a model to understand how the mantle could pump out nitrogen into the atmosphere in a continuous process. They found that if ammonium sediments brought downward by the diving plate entered the mantle, they would react with oxygen to form nitrogen. While ammonium can get trapped in minerals, nitrogen can’t and escapes through vents in the tectonic plates and volcanoes into the atmosphere.

“Because subduction only happens on Earth, this has not happened on Mars and Venus. So the atmospheric composition of the three planets diverged once plate tectonics got going on Earth,” Mikhail said.

The duo also thinks the oxidation of ammonium in the mantle wedge would also have lead to the formation of more water, deposited on Earth’s surface.

The search for alien life – whether within the Solar System or on faraway exoplanets – has taken many forms. Astronomers aren’t looking for a fixed set of conditions but some minimum requirements for life. On Earth, these have been the presence of liquid water, periodically changing seasons and the chemical environments necessary for the formation of macromolecules like DNA, among others.

A nitrogen-rich atmosphere is an important part of such an environment. If Mikhail’s conclusions are true, the search for alien life becomes trickier because Earth is the only known planet with subduction zones.

“Maybe life would have survived for billions of years without subduction zones, but without subduction zones the atmosphere would be drastically different and therefore so would life,” Mikhail speculated.

In September 2014, another study published in Nature Geoscience found that Jupiter’s moon Europa also harbored tectonic activity. The announcement raised scientists’ hopes of finding life because Europa also has a subsurface ocean of liquid water. However, Europa’s surface is nothing like Earth’s, and it’s hard to say if subduction can do for Europa what it did for Earth.

Exploding firecrackers.

Measuring loudness on Deepavali nights

The Indian festival of Deepavali gets its name from the Sanksrit for “display of lights”, “Deepaanaam aavali“. These days, the festival is anything but about lights, especially in urban centers where the bursting of loud firecrackers has replaced the gentler display of lamps. Sometimes, Bangalore – where I live – sounds like a warzone. People I’ve spoken to have defended the way they celebrated it, saying, “It’s a tradition thousands of years old!” No, it’s not.

The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000 (“Rules”) limits the amount of environmental noise by area and time of day. In residential areas, for example, the maximum allowable noise level between 6 am and 10 pm (‘daytime’) is 55 dB(A) Leq.

A Central Pollution Control Board document released on October 24 reports the results of an exercise where noise-level monitors listened in in five areas of the national capital, Delhi, for the week leading up to Deepavali: October 15 to October 23. Without exception, the dB(A) Leq readings in all five areas – Pragati Maidan, East Arjun Nagar, NSIT Dwarka, IHBAS Dilshad Garden and DCE Bawana – have increased from 2013 to 2014. The nighttime readings breach the Rules limits by at least 10 dB(A), which warrants a complaint.

Insofar as the Rules is concerned, the units of measurement play a defining role in how meaningful the limits are.

For starters, dB stands for decibels, a logarithmic measure of noise levels. According to ISO standards, a doubling of noise levels is equal to an increase of 3 dB.

Because noise levels during many kinds of measurements – including during Deepavali – keep changing, Leq is used because it denotes an average noise level during a specified period. Moreover, because dB is a logarithmic measure, Leq cannot be calculated like a simple average. Instead, sound-meters usually convert dB into the corresponding sound pressure levels and then calculate the average. In the process, the A-setting is also applied: it is a scale to measure the perceived human loudness.

As it is, the Rules don’t explicitly specify the time period across which the noise levels are to be measured. The only mention of periods, in fact, is when the document defines daytime (6 am to 10 pm) and nighttime (10 pm to 6 am). So the noise level of 55 dB(A) Leq is presumably defined for a 16-hour period (daytime; residential area). An obvious outcome of this is that infrequent loud noises in a generally quiet residential area will not breach the legal limits during daytime.

But what about during Deepavali? Let’s say the festival is being celebrated on a weekday: the bursting of firecrackers will start around 4 pm (once the kids have returned from school) and last until 9 pm. Could noise levels in this five-hour period push the daytime average beyond 55 dB(A) Leq?

I used the NoiseTube project’s mobile app (of the same name) that makes per-second measurements and calculates the minimum, maximum and average dB(A) Leq over a specified duration. Sitting about 80 m from a bunch of kids bursting firecrackers in our apartment driveway, I used the app to make 300 measurements over 5 minutes for the following results:

Min.: 41.51 dB(A) Leq
Max.: 83.88 dB(A)Leq
Avg.: 66.41 dB(A) Leq

Earlier in the day, I’d made a five-minute measurement when no firecrackers were being burst for an avg. reading of 42 dB(A) Leq. So, assuming that 42 dB(A) Leq was the reading for 11 hours and 66.41 dB(A) Leq for the remaining five, the daytime average reading comes to 56.53 dB(A) Leq. Abiding by the Rules, this isn’t even enough for me to register a complaint, which necessitates the noise levels to exceed the limit by at least 10 dB(A).

At the same time, the noise levels are debilitating. When the cracker-bursting frenzy is in full swing, I’ve recorded noises louder than 100 dB(A). If I spend a day outside, and if the sulfurous fumes don’t give me a migraine, just the noise will.

Because of this, the Rules might be more meaningful – and effective – if a measurement duration is defined, such as between certain times of day according to what time of the year it is (correct me if I’m wrong because I’d love to be wrong about this). In fact, because dB is logarithmic, any average will be biased toward the higher values (as exponentially higher the numbers, higher the logarithms), and even with this boost, 66.41 dB(A) Leq over five hours is not ‘illegal enough’.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons

The Science Central homepage.

India’s OA policy: Learning from Ioannidis

India’s first Open Access policy was drafted by a committee affiliated with the Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology (DBT/DST) in early 2014. It hasn’t been implemented yet. Its first draft accepted comments on its form and function on the DBT website until July 25; the second draft was released last week and is open for comments until November 17, 2014. If it comes into effect, it could really expand the prevalence of healthy research practices in the Indian scientific community at a time when the rest of the world is handicapped by economies of scale and complexity to mandate their practice.

The policy aspires to set up a national Open Access repository, akin to PubMed for biomedical sciences and arXiv for physical sciences in the West, that will maintain copies of all research funded in part or in full by DBT/DST grants. And in the spirit of Open Access publishing, its contents will be fully accessible free of charge.

According to the policy, if a scientist applies for a grant, he/she must provide proof that previous research conducted with grants has been uploaded to the repository, and the respective grant IDs must be mentioned in the uploads. Moreover, the policy also requires institutions to set up their own institutional repositories, and asks that the contents of all institutional repositories be interoperable.

The benefits of such an installation are many and great. It would solve a host of problems that are starting to become more intricately interconnected and giving rise to a veritable Gordian knot of stakeholder dynamics. A relatively smaller research community in India can avoid this by implementing a few measures, including the policy.

For one, calls for restructuring the Indian academic hierarchy have already been made. Here, even university faculty appointments are not transparent. The promotion of scientists with mediocre research outputs to top administrative positions stifles better leaders who’ve gone unnoticed, and their protracted tenancy at the helm often stifles new initiatives. As a result, much of scientific research has become the handmaiden of defence research, if not profitability. In the biomedical sector, for example, stakeholders desire reproducible results to determine profitable drug targets but become loth to share data from subsequent stages of the product development cycle because of their investments.

There is also a bottleneck between laboratory prototyping and mass production in the physical sciences because private sector participation has been held at bay by concordats between Indian ministries. In fact, a DST report from 2013 concedes that the government would like to achieve 50-50 investment from private and public sectors only by 2017, while the global norm is already 66-34 in favour of private.

In fact, these concerns have been repeatedly raised by John Ioannidis, the epidemiologist whose landmark paper in 2005 about the unreliability of most published medical findings set off a wave of concern about the efficiency of scientific research worldwide. It criticized scientists’ favouring positive, impactful results even where none could exist in order to secure funding, etc. In doing so, however, they skewed medical literature to paint a more revolutionary picture than prevailed in real life, and wasted an estimated 85% of research resources in the process.

Ioannidis’s paper was provocative not because it proclaimed the uselessness of a lot of medical results but because it exposed the various mechanisms through which researchers could persuade the scientific method to yield more favourable ones.

He has a ‘sequel’ paper published on the 10th anniversary of the Open Access journal PLOS Med on October 19. In this, he goes beyond specific problems – such as small sample sizes, reliance on outdated statistical measures, flexibility in research design, etc. – to showcase what disorganized research can do to undermine itself. The narrative will help scientists and administrators alike design more efficient research methods, and so also help catalyse the broad-scale adoption of some practices that have until now been viewed as desirable only for this or that research area. For India, implementing its Open Access policy could be the first step in this direction.

Making published results – those funded in part or fully by DBT/DST grants – freely accessible has been known to engender practices like post-publication peer-review and sharing of data. Peer-review is the process of getting a paper vetted by a group of experts before publication in a journal. Doing that post-publication is to invite constructive criticism from a wider group of researchers as well as exposing the experimental procedures and statistical analyses. This in turn inculcates a culture of replication – where researchers repeat others’ experiments to see if they can reach the same conclusions – that reduces the prevalence of bias and makes scientific research as a whole more efficient.

Furthermore, requiring multiple institutional repositories to be interoperable will spur the development of standardised definitions and data-sharing protocols. It will also lend itself to effective data-mining for purposes of scientometrics and science communication. In fact, the text and metadata harvester described in the policy is already operational.

Registration of experiments, which is the practice of formally notifying an authority that you’re going to perform an experiment, is also a happy side-effect of having a national Open Access repository because it makes public funds more tractable, which Ioannidis emphasizes on. By declaring sources of funding, scientists automatically register their experiments. This could siphon as-yet invisible null and negative results to the surface.

A Stanford University research team reported in August 2014 that almost 67% of experiments (funded by the National Science Foundation, USA) that yielded null results don’t see the light of day while only 21% of those sent to journals are published. Contrarily, 96% of papers with strong, positive results are read and 62% are published. As a result, without prior registration of experiments, details of how public funds are used for research can be distorted, detrimental to a country that actually requires more oversight.

It is definitely foolish to assume one policy can be panacea. Ioannidis’s proposed interventions cover a range of problems in research practices, and they are all difficult to implement at once – even though they ought to be. But to have a part of the solution capable of reforming the evaluation system in ways considered beneficial for the credibility of scientific research but delaying its implementation will be more foolish. Even if the Open Access policy can’t acknowledge institutional nepotism or the hypocrisy of data-sharing in biomedical research, it provides an integrated mechanism to deal with the rest. It helps adopt common definitions and standards; promotes data-sharing and creates incentives for it; and emphasizes the delivery of reproducible results.

Second draft of India’s OA policy open for comments

The second draft of India’s first Open Access policy is up on the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) website. Until November 17, 2014, DBT Adviser Mr. Madhan Mohan will receive comments on the policy’s form and function, after which a course for implementation will be charted. The Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society (CIS), a non-profit research unit, announced the update on its website while also highlighting some instructive differences between the first the second drafts of the policy.

The updated policy makes it clear that it isn’t concerned about tackling the academic community’s prevalent yet questionable reliance on quantitative metrics like impact-factors for evaluating scientists’ performance. Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam, one of the members of the committee that drafted the policy, had already said as much in August this year to this blogger.

The draft also says that it will not “underwrite article-processing charges” that some publishers charge to make articles available Open Access. The Elsevier Publishing group, which publishes 25 journals in India, has asked for a clarification on this.

Adhering to the policy’s mandates means scientists who have published a paper made possible by Departments of Biotechnology and Science & Technology should deposit that paper in an Open Access repository maintained either by the government or the institution they’re affiliated with.

They must do so within two weeks of the paper being accepted for publication. If the publisher has instituted an embargo period, then the paper will be made available on the repository after the embargo lifts. CIS, which advised the committee, has recommended that this period not exceed one year.

As of now, according to the draft, “Papers resulting from funds received from the fiscal year 2012-13 onwards are required to be deposited.” A footnote in the draft says that papers under embargo can still be viewed by individuals if the papers’ authors permit it.

The DBT repository is available here, and the DST repository here. All institutional repositories will be available as sub-domains on sciencecentral.in (e.g., xyz.sciencecentral.in), while the domain itself will lead to the text and metadata harvester.

The drafting committee also intends to inculcate a healthier Open Access culture in the country. It writes in the draft that “Every year each DBT and DST institute will celebrate “Open Access Day” during the International Open Access Week by organizing sensitizing lectures, programmes, workshops and taking new OA initiatives.”

‘When you change something in a virus, you lose something else’

The contents of this blog post should have come out earlier (in a different form) but better late than never, eh? The Ebola outbreak has been more threatening than ever of going out of control (even as whether we’re really in control now is doubtful). As doctors and healthcare workers grappled with containment in West Africa, Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, wrote an alarmist opinion piece in The New York Times on September 11 that was more panic-mongering than instigatory. The thrust of Osterholm’s argument was:

The second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air. … If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola. Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.

Sometime soon after, I spoke to a virologist at Columbia University, Dr. Vincent Racaniello, about Osterholm’s statements. I picked out Dr. Racaniello after stumbling on his virology blog (bookmark it, it’s very insightful) which at the time appeared to be one of the few voices of reason advocating caution in the face of the outbreak and pushing against the notion of an airborne Ebola virus with some crucial facts. Below, I reproduce parts of our conversation that address the nature of such facts and how they should guide us.

Note: For the TL;DR version, scroll right to the bottom.

What we know about Ebola based on what we’ve learnt from studying viruses

Some viruses are studied more than others because of their impact on human health. HIV, influenza, the herpes viruses… Herpes viruses infect almost every person on the Earth; influenza infects hundreds of thousands every year; HIV has infected millions and millions of people – so those get most of the attention, so people work on them a lot. Some of the things you find may be generalizable, such as the general need of a virus to get inside of a cell, replicate its genome. But each virus has specifics. Each is very different, the genome is different, the way the genome is encased is different, the way it gets into cells is different, and the ways they spread from person to person are often very different.

For example, if you study transmission of the influenza virus in an animal model, you may learn what controls the transmission of those viruses through the air, but you can’t assume that’s going to be the same for the Ebola virus. So people make the mistake of saying “Because this virus does this, then that virus must do the same thing”. That’s not correct. Unfortunately, it makes it complicated because every virus needs to be studied on its own. We can’t study influenza and hope to prevent Ebola.

How viruses evolve to become deadlier

From what we have seen, if you gain a function, you typically lose something else. When humans impose genetic changes on viruses, they’re doing so from their point of view as opposed to the way it happens in nature, where evolution does the job. When a virus in nature somehow evolves and becomes transmissible in some species, it’s because the virus with the right genome has been selected as opposed to in the lab where a human puts one or two mutations in a virus and gets a phenotype. We don’t know how to achieve gain-of-function in viruses in the lab. We have a lot of hubris, we think we can do anything with viruses. We introduce an amino acid change but who knows what it’s doing to the virus.

What we’ve observed over the years is that when you introduce changes in the virus in the laboratory to get a new property that you want, you lose something else. In terms of transmission, there haven’t been that many transmission experiments done with viruses to understand what controls transmission. H5N1 – avian influenza – ferrets is really the only one – and there, the gain of aerosol transmission caused the loss of virulence. It’s probably because you need other changes to compensate what you’ve done but we’re only looking at transmission.

In nature, perhaps that would be taken care of, so that’s why I say when you change something in a virus you lose something else. But this is not to say that this is always going to be the case. You can’t predict in viruses – you can’t predict in science, often – what’s going to happen. But what we can do is use what we know and use that to inform our thinking. For example, in nature, influenza viruses are very nicely transmitted, but they’re not all that virulent. They don’t have a 90% case-fatality ratio like Ebola, so I think there’s something there that tells us that aerosol transmission is a difficult thing to achieve. But we don’t know what will happen.

An Ebola virus virion.
An Ebola virus virion. Image: CDC/Wikimedia Commons

About what other evolutionary pathways Ebola has at its disposal

Viruses can be transmitted in a number of ways. They can be transmitted through the air, they can be transmitted by close contact of various sorts, they can be transmitted by body fluids, they can be transmitted by sexual contact, intravenous drug use, mother to child during birth, they can be transmitted by insect vectors, and of course some can be transmitted in our DNA – 8% of our genome is a virus. We have never seen a human virus change the way it’s transmitted. Once a virus has already been in people, we have never seen it change.

We’ve been studying viruses for just over a 100 years which is admittedly not a long time – viruses have probably been around since the beginning of the Earth, billions of years – but we go based on what we know, and we’ve never seen a virus change it’s mode of transmission. I’m not particularly worried about Ebola changing its routes of transmission. Right now, it’s spreading by close contact from person to person via body fluids and I think it’s going to stay that way. I don’t think we need to worry about it being picked up by a mosquito for example – that’s very difficult to do because then the virus would have to replicate in the mosquito and that’s a big challenge. And who knows, if it acquired that, what other property would be compromised.

What, according to Dr. Racaniello, we need to focus on

I think we need to really bear down on stopping transmission. It can be done, it’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to require other countries helping out because these West African countries can’t do it themselves. They don’t have a lot of resources and they’re losing a lot of their healthcare people from the epidemic itself. I don’t see what worrying about aerosol transmission would do. I don’t see it changing the way we treat the outbreak at all. I think right now we need to get vaccines and antivirals approved, so that we can get in there and use them. In the meantime, we need to try and interrupt transmission. In past outbreaks, interrupting it has been the way to stop the outbreaks. Admittedly, they’ve been a lot smaller, easier to contain. But SARS infected 10,000 people globally and it was contained by very stringent measures. That was a virus that did transmit by aerosol. So it can be done – it’s just a matter of getting everyone cooperating to do it.

If a virus can become more transmissible after infecting a human population

If you saw the movie ‘Contagion’ – in this movie, the virus mutated and increased its reproductive index, which I thought was one of the weaknesses of the movie. We’ve never seen that happen in nature, which is not to say that it hasn’t. When a virus starts circulating in people, it has everything it needs to circulate effectively. Often, people will bring the 1918 influenza virus which seemed to get more virulent as the outbreak continued but back then we hadn’t even isolated the influenza virus. It wasn’t isolated until 1933. So there’s just no way we can make definitive statements about what did or didn’t happen, but people speculate all the time.

I wish we could go back in time and sample all the viruses that have been out there but we’re going to have to see it happen. For that same reason, no virus has ever changed its transmission route in people. If it had, we could have taken the virus before and after the change and sequence it and say, “Aha! This is what’s important for this kind of transmission!” We don’t have that information so we depend on animals for this.

TL;DR:

  • We can’t study influenza and hope to prevent Ebola.
  • When you introduce changes in the virus in the laboratory to get a new property that you want, you lose something else.
  • In nature, influenza viruses are very nicely transmitted, but they’re not all that virulent. I think there’s something there that tells us that aerosol transmission is a difficult thing to achieve.
  • No virus has ever changed its transmission route in people.
  • SARS infected 10,000 people globally and it was contained by very stringent measures. That was a virus that did transmit by aerosol. So it can be done – it’s just a matter of getting everyone cooperating to do it.

Astronomy, HEP, numbers and the media

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