Week in Review: May 1

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Swine flu looms large, a study finds prayer has no effect on medical treatment, Obama speaks at the National Academy of Sciences, neuroscientists plan to beef up Wikipedia, and a Republican senator switches to the Democratic Party.

Illustration: Mike Pick

We Won’t Grow Tails, Will We?

With an eruption of worldwide tremulousness not seen since last September’s financial panic, the 2004 outbreak of the H5N1 avian flu, or the 2003 SARS pandemic, “swine flu,” or more specifically a strain of H1N1 influenza, burst into worldwide consciousness in the past week about a month after it emerged, probably in California before making a big splash in Mexico. There’s also a real possibility, as Science Blogger Sandra Porter has argued, that the present virus might be one isolated at a county fair in Ohio in 2007. Regardless, A typical seasonal influenza kills about 30,000 people each year. To date, a few hundred have died of the swine flu. But the potential for a million-killing pandemic is undeniable, and the panic is in high gear.

There are plenty of reasons for concern, to be sure. The 1918-1919 flu began in the spring in the Northern Hemisphere, whereupon it became dormant in that region until the autumn, when it erupted with far more virulence than it had had in the spring. Something similar is possible this year. The end of spring marks the end of flu season in the north, so many experts expect the virus to fade there. “We’re in a good position,” as Ruben Donis of the CDC put it in an interview with ScienceInsider. “The folks in Buenos Aires are in trouble.” And maybe the people in the north, come late fall: The virus will continue to evolve during the austral winter, and could well become more dangerous when it returns north later this year.

But even as the appointment with destiny looms, there are many reasons to hope that 2009 will not see a pandemic matching the lethality of the 1918 flu. We have antiviral medications; better clinical medical care; a better grasp of epidemiology: the ability to make a vaccine that incorporates the new virus by late fall. Unfortunately, we also have politicians who want to close borders and kill pigs — there is no reason to assume that the best courses of action will be those that are chosen.

The public ought not to panic. Indeed, the public, too, can take positive action to defeat the swine flu. Washing hands is the most important step. But there’s another, too: one that might be able to control how the virus evolves. As both evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald and medical historian Carol Byerly have argued, the camps and trenches of the First World War — and the soldiers in them, dwelling in close quarters for months on end — provided an ideal Petri dish for culturing an especially virulent disease. For any infectious organism, its virulence — the damage it can do to its host — exists in an inverse relationship to its communicability. Essentially, the faster a disease debilitates or kills, the less likely it is to find a new host. The trenches would have been an ideal spot to evolve greater virulence because jumping from host to host who were, after all, living cheek-by-jowl in dugouts and shelters, would have been straightforward even if it quickly made its hosts seriously ill. That doesn’t exist today.

But we do have subways and jumbo jets, and office buildings with stuffy air. Staying home when sick can likely curtail virulence by changing the ecology of the virus. Sick people release the most virus particles in the first four to five days of infection. By staying home, sick people can encourage the evolution of the least virulent viruses — those that cause mild or imperceptible symptoms — because only those people infected with the mildest viruses will be out and about. Those viruses will be the only ones to find new hosts.

So please, keep your hands clean. And treat yourself with bed-rest and soup before reaching for an over the counter remedy just to let you slog miserably through your day. If you feel like you can’t get out of bed, don’t get out of bed. You’ll be happier, and we’ll all be healthier.

Haven’t Got a Prayer

A team lead by Leanne Roberts at the University of Oxford has declared the book closed on studies of the efficacy of prayer in treating illness. Undertaking a meta-study of 10 projects involving more than 7,000 participants, Roberts and her colleagues found that there was no reason to expect that prayer would help either cure or prevent disease. This is not surprising to atheists, or even those who have found themselves reading When Bad Things Happen to Good People. What is important is that the paper calls for an end for further studies of intercessory prayer: There’s no reason to think it will work, they argue, and so no reason to expend further resources examining it. Their argument is unlikely to satisfy proponents of the “treatment,” but let’s hope funding agencies, medical school tenure committees, and others use this paper as the reason to tell researchers sternly that, if they expect to continue working in academic environments, they should find better uses for their time and all of our money.

Obama at NAS

President Obama gave a speech on Monday at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in which he promised to double the budget for both the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, two of the primary channels through which the US government supports basic scientific research. Perhaps the most striking announcement in the speech had nothing to do with increasing funding for existing efforts and agencies, but the president’s launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, or ARPA-E. Based on the organization currently known as the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, ARPA-E was first mooted in the NAS report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” completed in 2005, and was established in the 2007 America COMPETES Act. However, it wasn’t funded until the passage of the stimulus bill was passed this past winter, when it received $400 million

Although long championed by Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat and the chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology, the need for ARPA–E is not universally apparent. DARPA itself, for one thing, already funds alternative-energy research, although an organization that is not part of the American defense establishment might be able to attract investigators who would have hesitated to participate in research that would further military objectives. Other critics argue that there is nothing that ARPA–E can do that the Department of Energy doesn’t do already.

Despite the critics the funding of ARPA–E is indicative of awareness in Washington that the winner of the clean-energy beauty pageant cannot be chosen in advance. Subsidies for corn ethanol, for example, have skewed crop production, created a class of agricultural welfare queens, and done nothing to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. And no other low-carbon technology as it exists today — with the exception of nuclear fission reactors — stands to supplant coal burning as our electricity source of choice. It may seem difficult to believe that the relatively small amounts of money, for the US government anyway, offered by ARPA–E will be enough to get us on the way to a world no longer dependent on fossil fuels. Well, a similar model gave us driverless cars. Let’s see what else it can do.

Wikipedia on the Brain

The Society for Neuroscience issued a call on Wednesday for its members to become actively involved in the writing, editing, and improvement of Wikipedia entries dealing with neuroscience. Concerns about Wikipedia’s accuracy and even its “digital Maoism” have become clichéd, but there remains an element of truth to them. Hats off to the neuroscientists then, if they do brave the online struggle sessions to bring some rigor to the wisdom of the crowds.

The Democratic Specter

The announcement that Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican from Pennsylvania, is switching to the Democratic Party ought to impact science-related policy in a hundred ways. Once Al Franken joins the Senate, the filibuster — assuming that independent Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman doesn’t start voting with the Republicans on procedural matters — as a tool for Republican intransigence is dead. Obama appointees will get quicker hearings. Legislation regarding environmental bills — such as the much-anticipated cap-and-trade bill working its way presently through the House — will be surer of getting full hearings. And audacious plans, such as the promised doubling of the NSF budget mentioned above, or the funding of ARPA–E, which languished in the previous Congress because of insufficient senatorial support, are more likely to survive. Now the trick is to make sure that a Senate in a position to take bold actions takes the best ones. As will no doubt become obvious at various points in the future, the Democrats are not guaranteed to act with the best of scientific knowledge in mind. It is incumbent on politically oriented scientists and science-supporters to make sure that they do.

Originally published May 1, 2009

Tags diplomacy disease ethics information pandemics politics

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