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Technology, science, and math

FDA suggests annual COVID booster

I like the idea of this, which is to make COVID shots simpler and thus hopefully more likely to be taken, but it seems to be more nuanced than that.

The US Food and Drug Administration wants to simplify the Covid-19 vaccine process to look more like what happens with the flu vaccine, according to documents posted online on Monday. That could include streamlining the vaccine composition, immunization schedules and periodic updates of Covid-19 vaccines.

The FDA said it expects to assess circulating strains of the coronavirus at least annually and decide in June which strains to select for the fall season, much like the process to update annual flu vaccines.

Moving forward, the agency said, most people may need only one dose of the latest Covid-19 shot to restore protection, regardless of how many shots they’ve gotten before. Two doses may be needed for people who are very young and haven’t been exposed, who are elderly or who have weakened immune systems, according to the FDA’s briefing document for its vaccine advisers.

The agency is urging a shift toward only one vaccine composition rather than a combination of monovalent vaccines – which are currently used for primary shots and target only one strain – and bivalent vaccines – which are currently used for booster doses and target more than one strain.

The FDA briefing documents do not say whether the annual shot would contain a single strain, two strains or more. The annual influenza vaccine immunizes against four strains.

“This simplification of vaccine composition should reduce complexity, decrease vaccine administration errors due to the complexity of the number of different vial presentations, and potentially increase vaccine compliance by allowing clearer communication,” the FDA said.

The agency’s independent vaccine advisers, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the future of Covid-19 vaccine regimens and will be asked to vote on whether they recommend parts of the FDA’s plan.

Vaccine experts had mixed responses.

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said he sees the plan for an annual update as a balance between what science says is needed to fight the virus and what’s actually practical.

“I think it’s a balance, trying to do what the science says, which is the need for adaptability and flexibility. Yet the practicality that’s unlikely the companies can probably make that switch more than once a year,” he said.

But this plan also has some weaknesses, he notes. Annual updates are fine as long as the virus continues to evolve incrementally, based on previously circulating viruses. But he questions whether the world has enough genomic surveillance to catch a radically different variant that pops out of left field, as Omicron did.

“We don’t have the surveillance mechanisms in place globally. We don’t have the genomic sequencing in place globally. We don’t have the carefully orchestrated dance that took decades to build for influenza surveillance in place for coronavirus surveillance,” Hotez said.

The NYT has more from the scientists.

The proposal took some scientists by surprise, including a few of the F.D.A.’s own advisers. They are scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss the country’s vaccine strategy, including which doses should be offered and on what schedule.

“I’m choosing to believe that they are open to advice, and that they haven’t already made up their minds as to exactly what they’re going to do,” Dr. Paul Offit, one of the advisers and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said of F.D.A. officials.

There was little research to support the suggested plan, some advisers said.

“I’d like to see some data on the effect of dosing interval, at least observational data,” said Dr. Eric Rubin, one of the advisers and editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. “And going forward, I’d like to see data collected to try to tell if we’re doing the right thing.”

Still, Dr. Rubin added, “I’d definitely be in favor of something simpler, as it would make it more likely that people might take it.”

Only about 40 percent of adults aged 65 and older, and only 16 percent of those 5 and older, have received the latest Covid booster shot. Many experts, including federal officials, have said that the doses are most important for Americans at high risk of severe disease and death from Covid: older adults, immunocompromised people, pregnant women and those with multiple underlying conditions.

In its briefing documents, the F.D.A. addressed the varying risks to people of different ages and health status.

“Most individuals may only need to receive one dose of an approved or authorized Covid-19 vaccine to restore protective immunity for a period of time,” the agency said. Very young children who may not already have been infected with the virus, as well as older adults and immunocompromised people, may need two shots, the documents said.

But some scientists said there was little to suggest that Americans at low risk needed even a single annual shot. The original vaccines continue to protect young and healthy people from severe disease, and the benefit of annual boosters is unclear.

Most people are “well protected against severe Covid disease with a primary series and without yearly boosters,” said Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease physician and senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The F.D.A. advisers said they would like to see detailed information regarding who is most vulnerable to the virus and to make decisions about future vaccination strategy based on those data.

“How old are they? What are their comorbidities? When was the last dose of vaccine they got? Did they take antiviral medicines?” Dr. Offit said. At the moment, the national strategy seems to be, “‘OK, well, let’s just dose everybody all the time,’” he said. “And that’s just not a good reason.”

I am obviously not remotely qualified to weigh in on the merits. I like the idea of yearly boosters, because I already get a yearly flu shot and this is appealing as a neat and orderly risk-mitigation device. I’d like to think it might help increase the number of people who get boosted, but I’m not quite that optimistic. It would be nice to say that the science should prevail over the politics in this debate, but you can’t take the politics out of it, and you still need people to buy into whatever eventually gets recommended. Just try to make a good decision and don’t draw it out to the point where the only thing people hear about is the argument over the decision. StatNews has more.

Hydrogen hub Houston?

It could happen.

Houston-area leaders seeking to make the city one of the nation’s designated hydrogen hubs have received a push from the U.S. Energy Department.

The department’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations received 79 “concept papers” from groups seeking to host one of the six to 10 hubs and 33, including Houston’s, have been officially encouraged to follow through with complete applications.

Full applications are due in April, and if Houston is selected, it would receive some of the $7 billion set aside by the Biden administration to spur hydrogen development. The hubs would be in places with abundant natural gas reserves and would test ways to produce and use hydrogen.

Already, Houston sets itself apart from other applicants with its existing hydrogen production and infrastructure. The region produces about a third of all hydrogen made in the United States, with about 3.5 million metric tons annually, and is home to more than half the country’s dedicated hydrogen pipelines.

Most of that gas is used in the Houston area’s refining and petrochemical industries, but a coalition of private and public groups — including the University of Texas at Austin, French gas supplier Air Liquide, California oil major Chevron, the nonprofit Center for Houston’s Future and GTI Energy, a research and development company based in the Chicago area — are hoping a federal designation and funding will help expand the industry.

They’ve come together under the moniker HyVelocity Hub, and its leaders hope that by expanding the hydrogen industry in Houston and across Texas, the region could rake in a larger share of capital associated with the transition to lower-carbon energy sources.

There’s more about the competition here and about HyVelocity Hub here. Hydrogen is a promising alternative fuel for buses and trucks, which can be too big and heavy to reliably use electric-powered batteries. That’s not its primary use now – indeed, the generation of hydrogen is quite carbon-intensive, though that can be mitigated in some ways – but the goal is to make it a low/no-carbon energy source, and there’s a lot of research going on for that. If some of that can be done in Houston, so much the better.

UT bans TikTok on campus WiFi

This feels like a bit of an overreaction to me, but we’ll see if others follow suit.

The University of Texas at Austin has blocked access to the video-sharing app TikTok on its Wi-Fi and wired networks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive requiring all state agencies to remove the app from government-issued devices, according to an email sent to students Tuesday.

“The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” UT-Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland wrote in the email. “As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

[…]

Abbott’s Dec. 7 directive stated that all state agencies must ban employees from downloading or using the app on government-issued devices, including cellphones, laptops and desktops, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies. He also directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources to create a plan to guide state agencies on how to handle the use of TikTok on personal devices, including those that have access to a state employee’s email account or connect to a state agency network. That plan was to be distributed to state agencies by Jan. 15.

Each state agency is expected to create its own policy regarding the use of TikTok on personal devices by Feb. 15.

The ban could have broad impacts particularly at universities serving college-age students, a key demographic that uses the app. University admissions departments have used it to connect with prospective students, and many athletics departments have used TikTok to promote sporting events and teams. It’s also unclear how the ban will impact faculty who research the app or professors who teach in areas such as communications or public relations, in which TikTok is a heavily used medium.

See here for the background. As the Chron notes, students will still be able to access TikTok off campus, but I’m sure this will cause a whole lot of complaining. It’s not clear to me that this is necessary to comply with Abbott’s previous directive, but I presume UT’s lawyers have given the matter some consideration and I’d take their conclusions over mine. Other big public universities have not yet announced anything, though on my earlier post a commenter who works at a Texas public university said that their school has done something similar. This will be very interesting to see.

There are a couple of big questions here. One is whether the TEA will weigh in on the matter for Texas public schools, or if it will be left up to individual districts. Far as I know, HISD has not taken any such action, and as it happens they have their own TikTok account. The other thing is how this might affect the ability of athletes to make NIL (name, image, likeness) money for themselves. NCAA athletes with a significant social media presence can earn a ton of money for themselves. If this starts to affect recruiting, you can be sure that people will hear about it. Even if the TEA takes action in the public schools, it’s not likely to have much effect since the UIL still bans athletes from making NIL money, but if this really does cause a ripple then anything can happen. Like I said, very much worth keeping an eye on this.

UPDATE: As of later in the day, Texas A&M and TSU have followed suit and implemented similar bans. That certainly lends credence to the “no it wasn’t an overreaction” thesis. UH had not taken any action as of this publication.

UPDATE: The University of North Texas joins in, as do all of the other schools in the UT system.

More battery power coming

Now here is something that might actually help the grid.

Robert Conrad approves

A surge of new battery projects is expected to come online on Texas and California’s power grids, as developers seek to store the excess electricity produced by those state’s sprawling wind and solar farms.

The Department of Energy estimates 21 gigawatts of batteries will be hooked into U.S. power grids before 2026, more than two and half times what is currently in operation. In Texas they are expecting 7.9 gigawatts of batteries to be built.

The boom in battery development comes as weather dependent wind and solar energy become an increasingly large part of the U.S. power grid, requiring a power source to step in quickly when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

Since the rise of renewables over the past decade, natural gas turbines have shouldered a lot of that load. But as lithium ion battery prices have come down in recent years – at the same time natural gas prices have increased – power utilities are increasingly looking to that technology to fill the gaps.

“What you’re seeing here is a technology starting to reach its inflection point,” said Ryan Katofsy, managing director at the trade group Advanced Energy Economy. “Costs are down, performance is improved. There’s more awareness of the qualities (batteries) provide.”

The boom coincides with increasing concern around the reliability of the U.S. power grid amid changing weather patterns linked to climate change. Texas suffered a days long blackout in 2021 after a  historic winter storm caused power plants and natural gas wells to freeze up. Batteries could theoretically help fill the gap when power plants go down, said Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas.

But driving investor interest is a Texas power market where wind energy in the panhandle and West Texas frequently exceeds the capacity of transmission lines running east to the state’s population centers, he said. If a power company can store electricity in off peak hours and then deploy it when power demand is at its highest, there is profit to be made.

“You get these opportunities for big swings in price from low to high,” Webber said. “We’re going to build batteries all over, quite frankly.”

[…]

And many more projects could be coming, with 79 gigawatts worth of projects listed as pending by the grid operator’s Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Many of those projects have yet to secure financing or other milestones but they represent one third of all the generation in development on ERCOT’s grid right now.

You can thank the Inflation Reduction Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill, for that last item. There are still other issues to be solved but this is a good starting point. I don’t expect much from the Legislature, but as long as they stay out of the way it ought to be all right.

More on the limits of social media monitoring for school violence prevention

Some good stuff from the DMN.

When Social Sentinel representatives pitched their service to Florida’s Gulf Coast State College in 2018, they billed it as an innovative way to find threats of suicides and shootings posted online. But for the next two years, the service found nothing dangerous.

One tweet notified the school about a nearby fishing tournament: “Check out the picture of some of the prizes you can win – like the spear fishing gun.”

Another quoted the lyrics from a hit pop song from 2010: “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars? I could really use a wish right now.”

As police and administrators fielded a flood of alerts about posts that seemed to pose no threat, the company told the school in emails that it had eliminated more than half of all irrelevant alerts. Months later, they said the number had decreased by 80%. By January 2019, the company told schools its service flagged 90% fewer irrelevant posts.

But at Gulf Coast, the problem continued.

One alert from March 2019 read, “Hamburger Helper only works if the hamburger is ready to accept that it needs help.”

“Nothing ever came up there that was actionable on our end,” David Thomasee, the executive director of operations at Gulf Coast, said in an interview earlier this year. The college stopped using the service in April 2021.

Gulf Coast was not the only college inundated with irrelevant alerts. Officials from 12 other colleges raised concerns about the performance of Social Sentinel in interviews and emails obtained by The Dallas Morning News and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Only two of the 13, North Central Texas College and the University of W Connecticut, still use the service.

As schools and universities confront a worsening mental health crisis and an epidemic of mass shootings, Social Sentinel offers an attractive and low-cost way to keep students safe. But experts say the service also raises questions about whether the potential benefits are worth the tradeoffs on privacy.

Records show Social Sentinel has been used by at least 38 colleges in the past seven years, including four in North Texas. The total number is likely far higher — The company’s co-founder wrote in an email that hundreds of colleges in 36 states used Social Sentinel.

The News also analyzed more than 4,200 posts flagged by the service to four colleges from November 2015 to March 2019. None seem to contain any imminent, serious threat of violence or self-harm, according to a News
analysis, which included all of the posts obtained through public records requests.

Some schools contacted by The News said the service alerted them to students struggling with mental health issues. Those potential success stories were outweighed by complaints that the service flagged too many irrelevant tweets, interviews and emails between officials show. None of the schools could point to a student whose life was saved because of the service.

[…]

For one former Social Sentinel employee, it only took three days before they had serious doubts about the effectiveness of the service.

The worker estimated that 99.9% of the flagged posts sent to clients were not threatening. The service often crashed because it flagged too many posts. At least 40% of clients dropped the service every year, the employee said.

Over the course of several months, the employee repeatedly raised concerns with supervisors and fellow employees about flaws in the system, but those complaints were often ignored, the worker said.

The employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said problems with the service were an open secret at the company, and described it as “snake oil” and “smoke and mirrors.”

The News also contacted more than two dozen other former company employees, who either did not respond or said they had signed nondisclosure agreements preventing them from speaking publicly about their time at the company.

At the University of Texas at Dallas, which started using the service in 2018, campus police officers in charge of the service also grew increasingly skeptical of its performance, emails obtained through a records request show.

“Does the company have any data (not anecdotal) to show its success rate in mitigating harm or disaster through its alert system?” UT Dallas Police Lieutenant Adam Perry asked his chief in an email obtained by The News. The chief forwarded the email to a company employee who didn’t answer the question.

Perry said that while the school used the service, the technology never alerted police to legitimate threats of suicide or shootings.

“I think in concept, it’s not a bad program,” Perry said. “I just think they need to work on distinguishing what a real threat is.” UT Dallas ended its use of the service last year.

Ed Reynolds, police chief at the University of North Texas, defended the system, but also estimated that “99.9 percent (of the alerts) were messages we didn’t need to do anything with.” After using the service for about three years, UNT ended its contract with the company in November 2018.

As noted before, the Uvalde school district was among the ISDs in Texas that have used Social Sentinel. Putting my cybersecurity hat on for a minute, there are similar services in that space that do provide good value, but they have been around longer, there’s far more data on cyber threats, and it’s much easier to configure alerts for these services to very specific things, which greatly reduces the noise factor. I do think a service like this could be useful, but what we have now is not mature enough. More data and more analysis to help eliminate likely false positives before they show up in a customer’s alert feed are needed. Even with that, it’s still likely to be noisy and to require fulltime human analysis to get value out of it. For now, the best use of this is probably for academics. After they’ve had some time with it, then school districts and colleges might make use of it.

Some Harris County courts get Zoom bombed

Not a story I expected to read this week.

Pornographic videos were shown in several Harris County courtrooms Tuesday in what county officials are calling a “Zoom bombing” incident.

“Several Harris County Courts at Law experienced zoom bombing — or unauthorized screen sharing — of explicit images during the daily docket this morning. The incidents were quickly reported to court administrative staff, and the feeds were immediately shut down,” Holly Huffman, spokesperson for the Harris County Office of Court Management, said in a statement.

Huffman said the incident had been reported to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Judicial Threat Unit for investigation, and that increased security measures have been put in place for Zoom links at all county courts.

Up to seven misdemeanor courtrooms were affected, according to ABC13, which first reported the incident.

“This is the first instance of unauthorized screen sharing during a County Court at Law proceeding since the 2020 implementation of zoom proceedings in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have provided thousands of hours of online court proceedings since then with no such issue,” Huffman said.

Huffman said the county is reviewing their security measures “to strike a balance between ensuring public access to the judiciary and preventing such an incident from happening again.”

Here’s a reminder of what Zoom bombing is, in case you’ve forgotten. That ABC13 story adds a bit of detail.

How the hack managed to happen to multiple courts was the talk of the day within the corridors of justice in Harris County on Tuesday, often accompanied by a chuckle with a wisp of bewilderment.

ABC13 has confirmed that at least three and possibly up to seven of the misdemeanor courts in Harris County were hacked with pornographic videos.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to Zoom court hearings to become commonplace in Harris County’s court systems. Judges would turn on a Zoom video link daily, making court proceedings accessible to attorneys and citizens who cannot make it there in person.

In the middle of the docket, the images began popping up on several of the court’s video screens.

“I saw 10 or 12 seconds of it, in the middle of the courtroom,” Tyler Flood, an attorney who saw the porn, said. “It was crazy. The entire huge screen got taken over by it. The camera was really zoomed in. Shocking!”

Several court coordinators, who did not want their names used, also confirmed to ABC13 that they saw porn on their computer screens. The coordinators said their judges simply turned off the Zoom, and court continued in real life.

At least one attorney shared an email stating that Zoom sessions for the court she was expected to conduct business in had been cancelled for the day because of the porn hack.

Flood, who is a past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, hopes the unwanted, graphic intrusion does not lead to the end of Zoom in court.

“Because that has been one of the only good things that came from COVID,” he said. “As for the porn…’I wish I could un-see it.'”

Zoom bombing was pretty common early on, as everyone turned to Zoom and their security controls weren’t up to the task. My best guess here is that someone shared the Zoom links – I’m assuming that each of the courts in question had their own Zoom session and thus their own meeting links, though this is not clear from the story – with whoever was responsible for this. The “increased security measures” probably means that you get admitted into a “waiting room” and have to be admitted by the host, hopefully after they have verified that you belong on the call. Again, I’m just guessing here. Of all the cybersecurity incidents that could have affected the courts, this is pretty low on the risk list. I hope they’re reviewing other security controls to make sure nothing worse is likely to happen.

Abbott bans TikTok on state-issued devices

Honestly, I’m fine with this.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday a ban of the popular app TikTok from all government-issued devices.

In a news release, the Republican said the Chinese government could use the app to access critical U.S. infrastructure and information.

“TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government,” Abbott told state agency heads in a letter Wednesday.

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance.

On Wednesday, Abbott also sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan telling them “the Executive Branch will stand ready to assist in the codification and implementation of any cybersecurity reforms that may be deemed necessary.”

Abbott’s directive comes the same day as the state of Indiana filed a lawsuit against TikTok.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, also a Republican, claimed the app exposes minors to mature content and that it has deceived its “users about China’s access to their data,” The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Indiana’s lawsuit is the first against the app filed by a U.S. state. But a growing list of Republican governors have banned the app from government-issued devices. This week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued his directive and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster blocked the app from government electronics. Late last month, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem did the same.

From a cybersecurity perspective, there are valid reasons to assess TikTok as a higher-risk application. Indeed, as the story notes, the FBI raised national security concerns about it. It is also not unreasonable to declare that TikTok has limited value in the workplace and thus does not belong on workplace phones and computers. I’d make an exception for people whose jobs make use of social media – if the state of Texas doesn’t have any employees with that kind of job description, they really should – but banning it for others makes sense. One could also reasonably assess it differently – there’s always judgment in these matters. Speaking as someone whose workplace also blocks TikTok, I don’t see this as outside the mainstream.

Of greater interest to me is the note about implementing cybersecurity reforms. Given the recent ransomware attacks on state networks, as well as on various municipal governments, I’d say it’s long overdue. As with anything Greg Abbott says, the devil is in the details and I’ll believe it when I see it, but if this is a serious effort and it comes with the proper allocation of resources, it’s all to the good. The Trib and the Chron have more.

Remnants of the Challenger found

Wow.

By Acroterion – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Divers searching the Bermuda Triangle for World War II-era aircraft found a piece of NASA history: wreckage from the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff Jan. 28, 1986.

This wreckage, discovered well northwest of the Bermuda Triangle, will be part of a History Channel documentary called “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters,” which will air Nov. 22.

“While it has been nearly 37 years since seven daring and brave explorers lost their lives aboard Challenger, this tragedy will forever be seared in the collective memory of our country. For millions around the globe, myself included, Jan. 28, 1986, still feels like yesterday,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This discovery gives us an opportunity to pause once again, to uplift the legacies of the seven pioneers we lost and to reflect on how this tragedy changed us. At NASA, the core value of safety is — and must forever remain — our top priority, especially as our missions explore more of the cosmos than ever before.”

The last Challenger mission, STS-51L, was commanded by Francis R. “Dick” Scobee and piloted by Michael J. Smith. The other crew members were mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka and Judith A. Resnik; payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis; and teacher S. Christa McAuliffe.

All seven astronauts died. A second space shuttle disaster in February 2003, when Columbia broke apart upon reentry, killed an additional seven astronauts.

NASA said it’s considering how to use the newly found artifact to honor the legacy of Challenger’s astronauts. It also emphasized that space shuttle artifacts remain property of the U.S. government. Anyone who finds artifacts should contact NASA at [email protected]mail.nasa.gov to return the items.

Gotta say, as someone who vividly remembers the news of the Challenger exploding, this hit me when I read it. Regardless of whether you remember that day or not, I urge you to listen to this episode of One Year: 1986, in which three of the teachers that were finalists for the Teacher in Space contest talk about their experiences. Be prepared to feel some real feels when you do. CultureMap has more.

Beware of RSV

Worrying.

Two common respiratory viruses continue to keep Houston pediatric hospitals unusually busy this time of year, with both the flu and RSV seeing a second surge following a rise in cases over the spring and summer, respectively.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, children sickened with either illness flocked to hospitals later in the winter months, from November to January. But intense isolation, social distancing and masking appears to have changed when those viruses spread, experts say, with a swath of young children being exposed for the first time.

It’s also unusual to see both viruses surging twice in the same year, puzzling top pediatric doctors in Houston.

“I was not necessarily expecting a surge right now,” said Dr. Michael Chang, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UTHealth and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. “Having had a summer (RSV) surge, I was expecting that was it. It’s very unusual to have two surges in a single season. It happens, rarely, but it’s very uncommon.”

Both RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, and the flu have similar symptoms with slight differences. Both illnesses produce cold-like symptoms. The flu is more associated with a higher fever, while a key indicator of RSV is wheezing, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Nearly all children catch RSV before age 2. Both illnesses often do not require hospitalization, but young infants and older adults with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of severe illness from RSV.

RSV saw a massive spike last summer, and Chang and other pediatric doctors had warned of another summer surge this year. But when cases initially started to rise in June, the numbers never dropped back to baseline levels. The statewide positivity rate for antigen tests hovered around 10 percent until September and early October, when the positivity rate jumped again to more than 25 percent, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.  Last summer, the statewide positivity rate for antigen tests surpassed 30 percent.

[…]

Influenza A, one strain of the flu, also is on the rise after an increase in March and April. Houston Methodist’s respiratory pathogen data shows the hospital system is seeing year-long high in weekly cases with 656.

Despite the unusual pattern, parents of young children in the Houston area should not panic, doctors say. While national reports indicate record high patient volumes in some parts of the country, Houston is better equipped than other large cities to handle the surge, with two large pediatric hospitals in Texas Children’s and Children’s Memorial Hermann. The dual virus threat also is nothing new for pediatricians, as the flu and RSV season often overlapped before the pandemic.

“This is how every December and January used to be in children’s hospitals across the country,” Chang said.

COVID cases remain low in the Houston area. While some hospitals may hit capacity on busier days, and patients may encounter long wait times, the small percentage of RSV and flu patients who need hospitalization should be able to find beds, doctors say. Dr. James Versalovic, chief pathologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, said parents should consult with pediatricians if their children have persistent symptoms, including coughing, fever, poor feeding or rapid breathing. Virtual appointments are also available if area hospitals are strained.

It’s not just happening in Harris County, either. It’s having some negative effects.

With respiratory illnesses spreading among children more widely and earlier than in previous years, hospital leaders and medical experts say pediatric hospital beds across the state are in short supply.

After two years of mild flu seasons — a result of mitigation strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19 — medical experts say the number of children developing respiratory illnesses is already much higher this year, leading to more visits to health care centers and increasingly strained resources to treat those children.

Experts say the strain stems from overburdened hospital systems still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of medical providers.

Dr. Gerald Stagg, a pediatrician working in Mount Pleasant, said cases of respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, and an earlier flu season have added pressure to hospital systems on top of other respiratory illnesses caused by COVID-19 and other viruses.

“I’ve been doing this for 42 years and I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Stagg said of the number of children needing treatment for respiratory illnesses this year.

With the higher rates of respiratory illnesses, Stagg said not only are hospitals filling up, but clinics like his are having trouble keeping up with the huge uptick in visits from children with the flu.

Stagg said it’s become more difficult over the last two months to find beds in larger medical systems for sick children who require higher levels of care than what rural hospitals are able to provide.

“We’ve had to even send kids to Arkansas or Louisiana from our Texas facility because we couldn’t find a bed,” Stagg said.

He added that the shortage of hospital beds is a risk to children with serious illnesses that are not respiratory because there isn’t sufficient space in intensive care units for them.

Carrie Kroll, the vice president of advocacy, public policy and political strategy at the Texas Hospital Association, said the shortage of pediatric beds is a workforce issue. Hospital systems are still dealing with staffing shortages after droves of nurses and other hospital workers, suffering from pandemic-related burnout, retired or left the field.

“A bed is a bed. If it doesn’t have anyone to staff it, you can’t put a kid in it,” Kroll said.

[…]

Dr. Iván Meléndez, the Hidalgo County health authority, said his region has enough beds and resources to meet the needs of the community at the moment.

Meléndez did warn that this year could have significantly more cases of the flu than previous ones. Federal health data released Friday reported 880,000 cases of influenza and 360 flu-related deaths nationally. The last time the country saw similar rates of the flu was in 2009. And flu season has just started; it generally spans from October to May.

Earlier this month, Hidalgo County reported one of the first deaths of a child due to the flu this season.

“We’re thinking this may be the third since the turn of the century of being a ‘high-flu’ year,” Meléndez said.

He said the prevalence of the flu this year is an unintended consequence of masking and isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a community, worldwide, we didn’t develop those antibodies that are usually present in the community at some level to protect people,” he said.

To address the surge of respiratory illnesses, Meléndez and other medical experts strongly recommended vaccinations against the flu and COVID-19.

Sure would be nice if we had a governor that was capable of delivering that message. There’s no vaccine for RSV, but the flu shot and the bivalent booster are easily available, so do what you can to protect yourself. Your Local Epidemiologist has more.

City news release website hacked

Oops.

Looking for a mail-order Russian bride or wondering how to order a school term paper online? Or maybe you want to improve your slot machine skills by playing online casino games. The city of Houston’s official website for news releases has you covered.

The page on Wednesday morning featured a spate of blog entries on a variety of confounding topics that were decidedly unrelated to City Hall. They were taken down by the afternoon, after the Houston Chronicle inquired about them.

The source of the blog entries, many of which were nonsensical, was unknown Wednesday. Mary Benton, the city’s communications director, said she alerted the information technology department to the posts. The listed author on the articles, a housing department employee named Ashley Lawson, did not actually write and post them, Benton said.

The entries appeared on the city’s news site, cityofhouston.news, a WordPress blog that does not share a domain with the city’s primary website, houstontx.gov.

Christopher Mitchell, the city’s chief information security officer, said no city information was compromised.

“We were recently made aware of improper posts appearing on a blog site utilized by the city to allow individual departments to post departmental content,” Mitchell said in a statement. “The blog site is hosted on a third-party platform and is not connected to any City of Houston enterprise systems. At no point did the city experience a compromise of city systems, data, or information. The origin of the posts was from an active account that was no longer in use, and the city is taking all necessary precautions to correct the issue and prevent a recurrence.”

The posts, often in broken or garbled English, had appeared at least 29 times since Sept. 13, displayed as “uncategorized” entries among more routine posts about police and fire investigations and where to get a flu shot.

Yeah, from a cybersecurity perspective this is (most likely) more of an embarrassment than a breach. It’s a good reminder of why obsolete accounts should be routinely deleted, or at least disabled. There are simple ways to monitor for this kind of activity – even fairly low-tech solutions, like automatically emailing new post notifications to an admin, are worthwhile – and I suspect the city will be doing that in the future. If you have to experience a public cybersecurity failure, there are much worse ways to do so. Please take this relatively painless opportunity to learn from it.

Kemp’s ridley turtles making a comeback

We deserve a little good news.

For the first time in 75 years, hatchlings of the world’s smallest sea turtle species have been discovered on the Chandeleur Islands, a chain of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of New Orleans.

Wildlife experts at the Breton national wildlife refuge have documented more than 53 turtle crawls and two live hatchlings that were navigating towards the sea, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority announced in a press statement this week.

The news was particularly uplifting for environmentalists because the hatchlings were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, an endangered species that also happens to be the world’s smallest sea turtle. The turtles are predominantly found in the Gulf, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Their population flourished during the early 1900s as tens of thousands of females nested in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. However, from the mid-1900s to the 1980s, their population dropped drastically, reaching a low of only several hundred females.

Some of the major threats Kemp’s ridleys face include being caught unintentionally by fishers, being harvested or having their eggs harvested, degradation of their nesting habitats, natural predators preying on their eggs and hatchlings, being struck by sea vessels, ocean pollution and climate change.

The recent discovery of the hatchlings in Louisiana is particularly significant as 95% of the nesting take place in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“Louisiana was largely written off as a nesting spot for sea turtles decades ago, but this determination demonstrates why barrier island restoration is so important,” said the coastal authority’s chairman, Chip Kline.

He added: “As we develop and implement projects statewide, we are always keeping in mind what’s needed to preserve our communities and enhance wildlife habitat. Having this knowledge now allows us to make sure these turtles and other wildlife return to our shores year after year.”

Times were especially tough for the Kemp’s ridleys after the BP oils spill in 2010, as I noted here and here. This doesn’t mean that they’re out of trouble, but it is a very good sign of progress. That’s worth celebrating.

More dimensions for privacy in the post-Roe world

The fall of Roe is a big boon for cyberstalkers.

All too frequently, people monitor our intimate lives in betrayal of our trust—and it’s often those we know and love. They don’t even need to be near us to capture our data and to record our activities. Surveillance accomplished by individual privacy invaders will be a gold mine for prosecutors targeting both medical workers and pregnant people seeking abortions.

Intimate partners and exes download cyberstalking apps to personal devices that give them real-time access to everything that we do and say with our phones. To do this, they only need our phones (and passwords) for a few minutes. Once installed, cyberstalking apps silently record and upload phones’ activities to their servers. They enable privacy invaders to see our photos, videos, texts, calls, voice mails, searches, social media activities, locations—nothing is out of reach. From anywhere, individuals can activate a phone’s mic to listen to conversations within 15 feet of the phone.

Now and in the future, that may include conversations that pregnant people have with their health care providers—nurses, doctors, and insurance company employees helping them determine their life’s course and the future of their pregnancies. Victims of such privacy violations are never free from unwanted monitoring. Abusers count on them to bring their cellphones everywhere, and they do, as anyone would.

For abusers, finding cyberstalking apps is as easy as searching “cellphone spy.” Results return hundreds of pages. In my Google search results, a related popular search is “spy on spouse cell phone.” More than 200 apps and services charge subscribers a monthly fee in exchange for providing secret access to people’s phones. When I first began studying stalkerware in 2013, businesses marketed themselves as the spy in a cheating spouse’s pocket. Their ads are more subtle now, though affiliated blogs and videos are less so, with titles like “Don’t Be a Sucker Track Your Girlfriend’s iPhone Now: Catch Her Today.”

Though we don’t have precise numbers of stalkerware victims, domestic violence hotlines in the United States help more than 70,000 people every day, and according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence as many as 70 percent of those callers raise concerns about stalkerware. A 2014 study found that 54 percent of domestic abusers tracked victims’ cellphones with stalkerware. Security firm Kaspersky detected more than 518,223 stalkerware infections during the first eight months of 2019, a 373 percent increase from that period in 2018. Millions of people, right now, are being watched, controlled, and manipulated by partners or exes. The United States has the dubious distinction of being one of the leading nations in the number of stalkerware users around the world. That destructive accomplishment has a disproportionate impact on women, LGBTQ individuals, and people from marginalized communities.

Abusers will use intimate data obtained from stalkerware to terrorize, manipulate, control, and—yes—incriminate victims. Now that a woman’s exercise of her reproductive liberty is soon to be, or already is, a crime in many states, abusers have even more power to extort and terrorize victims. They may threaten to disclose information about abortions unless women and girls give into their demands, including having unwanted sex or providing intimate images, both forms of sextortion. (Sextortion routinely involves threats to disclose intimate information like nude images unless victims send more images or perform sex acts in front of webcams.) If victims refuse to give into their demands (and even if they do), privacy invaders may post information about abortions online and report it to law enforcement. Two birds, one stone: the ability to humiliate, terrorize, and financially damage victims and to provide evidence to law enforcement. Exes can extinguish victims’ intimate privacy by enabling their imprisonment.

The law’s response to intimate privacy violations is inadequate, lacking a clear conception of what intimate privacy is, why its violation is wrongful, and how it inflicts serious harm upon individuals, groups, and society. Legal tools—criminal law, tort law, and consumer protection law—tackle some privacy problems, but few (if any) capture the full stakes for intimate privacy. In criminal law, privacy violations are mostly misdemeanors, which law enforcers routinely fail to pursue when reported. Criminal law is woefully underenforced when the illegality involves gendered harms, like privacy violations and sexual assault where victims are more often female and LGBTQ individuals. (Yet when the very same people are the alleged perpetrators, law enforcement eagerly investigates.) Because policymakers fail to recognize the autonomy, dignity, intimacy, and equality implications of intimate privacy violations, we have too few protections.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see any chance that legislation to deal with these issues will pass in the next Texas legislative session. Maybe in the next Congress, if Dems can hold the House and pick up a couple of Senate seats to overcome the Manchin/Synema blockage – in other words, possible but a longshot. We know the House can do it, at least. Otherwise, good luck to you.

Another place where existing law falls short: HIPAA doesn’t cover medical apps.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal patient privacy law known as HIPAA, does not apply to most apps that track menstrual cycles, just as it doesn’t apply to many health care apps and at-home test kits.

In 2015, ProPublica reported how HIPAA, passed in 1996, has not kept up with changes in technology and does not cover at-home paternity tests, fitness trackers or health apps.

The story featured a woman who purchased an at-home paternity test at a local pharmacy and went online to get the results. A part of the lab’s website address caught her attention as a cybersecurity consultant. When she tweaked the URL slightly, a long list of test results of some 6,000 other people appeared.

She complained on Twitter and the site was taken down. But when she alerted the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees HIPAA compliance, officials told her they couldn’t do anything about it. That’s because HIPAA only covers patient information kept by health providers, insurers and data clearinghouses, as well as their business partners.

Deven McGraw is the former deputy director for health information privacy at the HHS Office for Civil Rights. She said the decision overturning Roe, called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, should spark a broader conversation about the limits of HIPAA.

“All of a sudden, people are waking up to the idea that there’s a lot of sensitive data being collected outside of HIPAA and asking, ‘What are we going to do?’” said McGraw, who is now the lead for data stewardship and data sharing at Invitae, a medical genetics company. “It’s been that way for a while, but now it’s in sharper relief.”

McGraw noted how that’s not just the case for period-tracking apps but also some apps that store COVID-19 vaccine records. Because Congress wrote HIPAA, lawmakers would have to update it to cover those cases. “Our health data protections are badly out of date,” she said. “But the agencies can’t fix this. This is on Congress.”

Consumer Reports’ digital lab evaluated eight period-tracking apps this spring and found that four allowed third-party tracking by companies other than the maker of the app. Four apps stored data remotely, not just on the user’s device. That makes the information potentially subject to a data breach or a subpoena from law enforcement agencies, though one of the companies surveyed by Consumer Reports has said it would shut down rather than turn over users’ data.

In a press release last week, HHS sought to allay worries with some advice that sounds reassuring.

“According to recent reports, many patients are concerned that period trackers and other health information apps on smartphones may threaten their right to privacy by disclosing geolocation data which may be misused by those seeking to deny care,” HHS said in the release.

The document quoted HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about the protections provided by HIPAA: “HHS stands with patients and providers in protecting HIPAA privacy rights and reproductive health care information,” Becerra said. He urged anyone who thinks their privacy rights have been violated to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.

See above in re: the chances of federal legislation passing. Also note that until the law is updated, if a Republican wins the Presidency, they’ll appoint the HHS secretary and will set the direction for that agency regarding patient privacy. How much faith do you want to put in that?

Sniffing out COVID

Very interesting.

Dogs are as reliable as laboratory tests for detecting COVID-19 cases, and may be even better than PCR tests for identifying infected people who don’t have symptoms. A bonus: The canines are cuter and less invasive than a swab up the nose.

In a study involving sweat samples from 335 people, trained dogs sniffed out 97 percent of the coronavirus cases that had been identified by PCR tests, researchers report June 1 in PLOS One. And the dogs found all 31 COVID-19 cases among 192 people who didn’t have symptoms.

These findings are evidence that dogs could be effective for mass screening efforts at places such as airports or concerts and may provide friendly alternatives for testing people who balk at nasal swabs, says Dominique Grandjean, a veterinarian at the National School of Veterinary Medicine of Alfort in Maisons-Alfort, France.

“The dog doesn’t lie,” but there are many ways PCR tests can go wrong, Grandjean says. The canines’ noses also identified more COVID-19 cases than did antigen tests (SN: 12/17/21), similar to many at-home tests, but sometimes mistook another respiratory virus for the coronavirus, Grandjean and colleagues found. What’s more, anecdotal evidence suggests the dogs can pick up asymptomatic cases as much as 48 hours before people test positive by PCR, he says.

I can totally believe that dogs are capable of doing this, though as the study notes it’s not clear what exactly they’re picking up on. I’m just not sure what the practical use of this knowledge is. What are the circumstances under which dogs would be deployed to sniff for COVID, and how could it be done in a way that was non-invasive and respectful of people’s privacy? I’m a big believer in requiring negative COVID tests for a variety of things, but those should be allowed to be done at home and in private. I can’t imagine turning someone away from an event or whatever for failing a sniff test. But maybe there’s a good way to do this now that we know that it’s possible.

Get your kids vaccinated

A good start, but we can do a lot more.

Texas Children’s Hospital has administered COVID-19 vaccines to nearly 6,000 children ages 6 months through 4 years old since the youngest age group became eligible to receive the shots last week, the hospital said Thursday.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time to be able to protect our youngest children,” said Dr. Stan Spinner, the chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics. “We’ve had families asking for a long time ‘When is this vaccine going to be available for our kids?’ And now it is.”

Still, the overall share of children younger than 5 who have received the shot is incredibly low — hovering around 1 percent statewide.

Another 3,000 children are scheduled for vaccine appointments at Texas Children’s Hospital or more than 60 Texas Children’s Pediatrics locations in the Houston, Austin and College Station areas, hospital spokeswoman Natasha Barrett said during a news conference.

Vaccines are also available to kids under 5 at other hospitals, including Children’s Memorial Hermann, as well as pediatrician’s offices, pharmacies and other locations.

Across Texas,the overall interest in vaccines for children has been lagging. Just 26 percent of Texas residents aged 5 to 11 and 59 percent of residents aged 12 to 17 are fully v accinated, according to data from The New York Times. Just 4 percent of Texas residents under 18 years old have received a booster.

However, Texas Children’s doctors said they have also been encouraged by that fact that families with children 5 to 11 years old have been signing up for booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved booster shots for that age group last month.

My kids are older and got vaxxed and boosted at their first opportunities. If there’s an omicron-specific booster this fall, they’ll get that, too. I’ve definitely been disappointed by the low vaccination rate among younger kids, but maybe that will turn around now. Even with the lower hospitalization and mortality rates, so many people have gotten an infection lately that perhaps the ongoing threat of this pandemic is sinking in again. We all still need to do our part to try to keep this under some control.

More on how abortion bans will be enforced

It’s all about the data.

The Supreme Court is shortly expected to issue its decision on a challenge to Roe v. Wade that will—if a leaked draft version of the opinion holds—end federal protection for abortion access across the US. If that happens, it will have far-reaching consequences for millions of people. One of those is that it could significantly increase the risk that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions, sending authorities information that could lead to criminal proceedings.

Opponents of abortion have been using methods like license plate tracking for decades. In front of many clinics around the US, it remains a daily reality.

[…]

“The biggest fear, I think, is that there are going to be states that not only ban abortion in short order, but start criminalizing pregnant people who are seeking abortion services even out of state,” says Nathan Wessler, the deputy project director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the ACLU.

Some states that protect abortion services might be able to limit what out-of-state law enforcement can do directly, he notes, but that “doesn’t mean that there won’t be anti-abortion vigilantes recording information [outside of clinics] and then sending it to aggressive prosecutors in abortion-banned states.”

There is evidence that anti-abortion activists are already keeping close track of legal abortion activity. In 2014, for example, a recording surfaced of a training session for Texas anti-abortion activists, led by Karen Garnett of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas. In it, Garnett explained how license plate tracking is used to keep tabs on both a clinic’s clients and its doctors.

“You track license plates … coming into any abortion facility. We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet. This way you can track whether or not a client comes back,” she said in the video.

We’ve discussed this before, and I said at the time that any real enforcement effort is going to involve a lot of invasive searches. License plate tracking is an old technique – as the story notes, it goes back to at least the 90s – but there are much more modern strategies as well.

A location data firm is selling information related to visits to clinics that provide abortions including Planned Parenthood facilities, showing where groups of people visiting the locations came from, how long they stayed there, and where they then went afterwards, according to sets of the data purchased by Motherboard.

[…]

How data collecting intersects with abortion rights, or the lack thereof, is likely to gather more attention in the wake of the draft. The country may also see an increase in vigilante activity or forms of surveillance and harassment against those seeking or providing abortions. With this aggregated location data available to anyone on the open market, customers could include anti-abortion vigilantes as well. Anti-abortion groups are already fairly adept at using novel technology for their goals. In 2016, an advertising CEO who worked with anti-abortion and Christian groups sent targeted advertisements to women sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics in an attempt to change their decision around getting an abortion. The sale of the location data raises questions around why companies are selling data based on abortion clinics specifically, and whether they should introduce more safeguards around the purchase of that information, if be selling it at all.

“It’s bonkers dangerous to have abortion clinics and then let someone buy the census tracks where people are coming from to visit that abortion clinic,” Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely tracks the data selling marketplace, told Motherboard in an online chat after reviewing the data. “This is how you dox someone traveling across state lines for abortions—how you dox clinics providing this service.”

Read the rest and do a little googling yourself. It’s very possible to identify people who have visited abortion clinics from “anonymized” location data and census tracks, especially people who live in less populated places. Geofencing, which has been used in the past for targeted anti-abortion advertising, may be used by law enforcement agencies that are all in on the forced birth agenda. It’s scary stuff. And when you see it happen, don’t say you couldn’t have known.

Social media monitoring is not a solution to school shootings

While current Republican “solutions” for gun violence include door control and arming teachers, one “solution” that has been in place for the past few years has been monitoring social media for signs of gun-related threats. That was in place in Uvalde, and it was not effective.

After a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the United States is yet again confronting the devastating impact of gun violence. While lawmakers have so far failed to pass meaningful reform, schools are searching for ways to prevent a similar tragedy on their own campuses. Recent history, as well as government spending records, indicate that one of the most common responses from education officials is to invest in more surveillance technology.

In recent years, schools have installed everything from facial recognition software to AI-based tech, including programs that purportedly detect signs of brandished weapons and online screening tools that scan students’ communications for mentions of potential violence. The startups selling this tech have claimed that these systems can help school officials intervene before a crisis happens or respond more quickly when one is occurring. Pro-gun politicians have also advocated for this kind of technology, and argued that if schools implement enough monitoring, they can prevent mass shootings.

The problem is that there’s very little evidence that surveillance technology effectively stops these kinds of tragedies. Experts even warn that these systems can create a culture of surveillance at schools that harms students. At many schools, networks of cameras running AI-based software would join other forms of surveillance that schools already have, like metal detectors and on-campus police officers.

“In an attempt to stop, let’s say, a shooter like what happened at Uvalde, those schools have actually extended a cost to the students that attend them,” Odis Johnson Jr, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told Recode. “There are other things we now have to consider when we seek to fortify our schools, which makes them feel like prisons and the students themselves feel like suspects.”

[…]

Even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, many schools in Texas had already installed some form of surveillance tech. In 2019, the state passed a law to “harden” schools, and within the US, Texas has the most contracts with digital surveillance companies, according to an analysis of government spending data conducted by the Dallas Morning News. The state’s investment in “security and monitoring” services has grown from $68 per student to $113 per student over the past decade, according to Chelsea Barabas, an MIT researcher studying the security systems deployed at Texas schools. Spending on social work services, however, grew from $25 per student to just $32 per student during the same time period. The gap between these two areas of spending is widest in the state’s most racially diverse school districts.

The Uvalde school district had already acquired various forms of security tech. One of those surveillance tools is a visitor management service sold by a company called Raptor Technologies. Another is a social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel, which is supposed to “identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” according to a document from the 2019-2020 school year.

It’s so far unclear exactly which surveillance tools may have been in use at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting. JP Guilbault, the CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent company, Navigate360, told Recode that the tool plays “an important role as an early warning system beyond shootings.” He claimed that Social Sentinel can detect “suicidal, homicidal, bullying, and other harmful language that is public and connected to district-, school-, or staff-identified names as well as social media handles and hashtags associated with school-identified pages.”

“We are not currently aware of any specific links connecting the gunman to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District or Robb Elementary on any public social media sites,” Guilbault added. The Uvalde gunman did post ominous photos of two rifles on his Instagram account before the shooting, but there’s no evidence that he publicly threatened any of the schools in the district. He privately messaged a girl he did not know that he planned to shoot an elementary school.

Any kind of surveillance involves a tradeoff between privacy and security. So far, the security gains from software like this are small, while the loss of privacy – which to be clear here is the privacy of children – is significant.

For privacy advocates, the lack of evidence for the technology’s effectiveness means that there are no sufficient grounds for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in child rights, told The Verge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unwarranted harm:

“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it hadn’t met any safety standards? No,” said Han. “Similarly, to use unproven, untested surveillance technologies on children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”

Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 — which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 — did not receive a response.

The Uvalde school district was confirmed to have purchased monitoring capability from Social Sentinel in 2019–2020, though it is unclear whether the subscription was still active at the time of the shooting. However, even if it had been, the technology would have been unlikely to flag any of the shooter’s posts. There are now numerous reports of concerning activity surrounding the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly made frequent threats to young women and girls via chat apps, sent images of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed carrying out the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only able to monitor public posts and would not have had access to any content shared in private messages.

At the same time, there are significant privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a range of civil and human rights concerns stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately impact students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting by Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel’s technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter and from a student pleased their credit score was “shooting up,” among other things.)

Of all US states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for school children. A 2021 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital surveillance companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that did take out these contracts, results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that had paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they had declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few actionable alerts or flagged mostly irrelevant information.

But while Social Sentinel advertises an ability to monitor a broad range of platforms, there’s some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. A client presentation from the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media sources for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress, and even Meetup.

Data obtained by BuzzFeed News confirmed this through data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed the company skewed heavily towards Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed, 98 percent (1,180) related to tweets — even though Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But the conventions of Twitter — where the vast majority of posts are publicly visible, even unintentionally — mean that it is comparatively easier to monitor, providing a wealth of social media data on tap that can be assimilated by companies looking to boost their surveillance credentials.

The DMN reports that some of the school districts that kicked the tires on Social Sentinel later decided it wasn’t worth it.

Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”

“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.

The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.

Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year but soon canceled.

“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs, and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”

Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.

HISD does not appear to have been a user of Social Sentinel, so we’ve got that going for us. There are other companies with similar products out there, so be on the lookout for that kind of pitch. It’s not out of the question to me that a tool like this could be effective at some point (we would still have to debate the privacy impact, and I can just about guarantee that it won’t be good), but we’re not there yet and it may be awhile before we can reasonably broach the subject. In the meantime, I dunno, maybe ban assault weapons again like we did in the 90s? Worked pretty well back then, and it didn’t involve snooping on things kids were saying among themselves. Just a thought.

(FYI, I first heard about Social Sentinel and its connection to Uvalde on the What Next podcast. I went looking for the DMN story from there, and found the others in the same search.)

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

Bad news for the crazy ants

They have found a mighty foe.

Several years ago, staffers at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas, noticed a new type of invasive ant species. Tawny crazy ants were so aggressive that they were driving birds out of their nests and occasionally swarming over visitors who paused to sit on a trail. Populations of other native species—like scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, and lizards—sharply declined, while rabbits were blinded by the ants’ venom.

That’s when University of Texas at Austin biologist Ed LeBrun got involved. The park “had a crazy ant infestation, and it was apocalyptic—rivers of ants going up and down every tree,” he said. Crazy ants have since spread rapidly through every state on the Gulf Coast, with over 27 Texas counties reporting significant infestations. The usual ant-bait traps and over-the-counter pesticides have proven ineffective, so the EPA has approved the temporary (but restricted) use of an anti-termite agent called fipronil. But a more targeted and less toxic control strategy would be better.

LeBrun has worked extensively on fire ants, another invasive species that has plagued the region. He has spent the last few years investigating potential sustainable control strategies based on crazy ants’ natural enemies in the wild. LeBrun and his colleagues have now discovered that a specific type of fungus can effectively wipe out crazy ant colonies while leaving other native species alone, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See here, here, here, and here for some background. I can’t believe I’ve not had any crazy ant posts since 2011, but there you have it. I’ll take my good news where I can get it.

Rich guys back from space

What goes up, must come down.

The first all-private crew to visit the International Space Station landed in the Atlantic Ocean on Monday, completing the first mission a Houston company organized as a precursor to building its own space station.

Axiom Space brought home its four-person crew at 12:06 p.m. CDT. Larry Connor, 72, Mark Pathy, 52, Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Michael López-Alegría, 63, spent 17 days in space, including 15 days living and working alongside NASA astronauts on the International Space Station.

Their mission was originally planned for 10 days, with eight days on the space station, but bad weather at the landing site off the coast of Florida helped extend the trip — giving the crew their millions of dollars’ worth with a few extra days in microgravity.

This mission, Ax-1, is the first of many missions planned by Houston-based Axiom Space. The company is sending paying customers to the International Space Station to generate revenues and learn how to operate in microgravity. It plans to launch the first segment of its commercially owned and operated space station in late 2024.

“It’s like the first chapter of many chapters,” said Axiom Space co-founder Kam Ghaffarian. “A beginning of many beginnings. We will have private astronauts going to space as part of democratizing low-Earth orbit and creating this new ecosystem.”

[…]

The men wanted to set a good example of what everyday citizens can do in space. They tried not to be a nuisance — their presence expanded the station’s crew to 11 people — and they contributed to a database examining how commercial astronauts (who may or may not be as fit as NASA astronauts) react to microgravity.

Houston’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health, a NASA-funded organization at the Baylor College of Medicine, is collecting this data. Connor is now the oldest person to participate in the database. And last year, the organization gathered information from a childhood cancer survivor who went into space on the Inspiration4 mission.

“The diversity here is key,” said Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. “They really provide the data that we need to know so we can safely send any human into space.”

Before and after their mission, the crew had their eyes examined and provided physiological data, including heart rate variability and blood oxygen saturation. They also used tablets to participate in cognitive tests and sensory motor tests. The latter could help researchers understand who might get motion sick and how that might be prevented.

“This one is absolutely critical,” Urquieta said. “If you get space motion sickness, you’re going to be feeling bad for pretty much half of your mission.”

See here for the background. As someone who occasionally suffers from motion sickness, I applaud them for adding to the research, from which I hope to benefit some day. As I said before, better them than me.

More rich guys in space

But it could be good for Houston, so…

Axiom Space launched a high-stakes mission Friday, sending three paying customers to the International Space Station as Houston seeks to anchor a new era of human spaceflight.

The crew, tucked inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 10:17 a.m. CDT. They’re scheduled to reach the space station Saturday morning and spend eight days there.

American Larry Connor, 72, Canadian Mark Pathy, 52, and Israeli Eytan Stibbe, 64, are not the first people to buy tickets to the International Space Station. But their privately funded mission — each reportedly paying tens of millions of dollars — is notable because it’s the first all-private crew to visit the station. Previous missions have been shepherded by a government-paid astronaut. The Axiom Space commander, Michael López-Alegría, 63, is an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut.

There’s a lot riding on this mission. The crew must show that private astronauts aren’t a nuisance to International Space Station operations. Houston-based Axiom Space must learn to conduct human spaceflight missions before launching its own commercial space station. And Houston must show that it can continue supporting human spaceflight as NASA trusts companies to own and operate the hardware that protect people in space.

“The space industry, as a whole, is currently in a massive switch from completely government to commercial,” said Meagan Crawford, co-founder of Houston-based venture capital firm SpaceFund. “And in order for Houston to maintain its moniker of Space City, we’ve really got to cultivate that startup environment here.”

Houston has a long and storied history in human spaceflight. When astronauts called home from the Apollo spacecraft, space shuttle and International Space Station, they spoke to folks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

But lately, it’s not just NASA sending people into space. The Axiom Space mission, Ax-1, is the sixth human spaceflight mission launched by Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX.

For missions to the ISS, astronauts train on the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in California and learn the International Space Station systems in Houston. Spacewalks are practiced in Houston in a giant swimming pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

But as companies begin to own and operate the systems used to launch people into spacelower them onto the moon and shelter them in low-Earth orbit, their facilities may or may not be located in Houston.

“Houston has the possibility of becoming a place where a lot of people who know how to ‘do space’ live and want to start their own businesses,” said John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

NASA is willing to share its facilities and expertise in operations, medicine, food and spacesuits, said Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche.

“We’re in a renaissance,” Wyche said. “In order for us to explore — go onto the moon, go onto Mars — it’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take government, it’s going to take commercial industry and it’s going to take the international community.

“I want Houston to continue to be the human spaceflight hub. For the world,” she said.

I don’t have a whole lot to add here. I can’t say I’m a fan of rick guy space tourism, but it’s not like I can do much to stop it. Maybe some benefits will eventually trickle down to the rest of us, I dunno. Better these guys take the risk of this activity than me, that’s for sure. CultureMap has more.

Studying COVID in cats and dogs

Seems like a reasonable thing to look at.

Brushing a dog’s teeth is hard enough. The dog looks at you plaintively, eyes wide with betrayal, as you insert the toothbrush and perform a quick pantomime of a tooth cleaning in the seconds before it closes its jaws—and heart—to you.

Researchers at the lab of Texas A&M veterinary epidemiologist Sarah A. Hamer have a more difficult task: they must get pets to submit to a nasal swab, something which even many humans have to be cajoled into doing. Their aim is to better understand how COVID-19 spreads from humans to their pets, and how a pet’s behavior, such as whether it shares an owner’s bed or whether it is a prolific face licker, affects that transmission.

The testing has involved more than six hundred animals—mostly in Central Texas—who live in households where at least one human has COVID. Only about a quarter of the pets from which Hamer’s team has taken samples since June 2020 have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, and just one quarter of those infected pets were symptomatic. Some suffered sneezing, diarrhea, runny noses, and irritated eyes, but the most common symptom owners reported was lethargy: their dogs and cats simply seemed lazier than usual.

“It was all very mild illness, and it all sort of resolved without veterinary interventions,” Hamer said. “From our study, we have no evidence that the virus is killing pets.” (She noted, however, that there have been reports of animals with comorbidities experiencing more severe illness, just as humans might.)

Despite this relatively low threat to cats and dogs, the lab’s work is crucial for surveilling, and understanding, the coronavirus—especially because the pandemic is thought to have originated from an animal-to-human transmission event. (Hamer’s team identified the first known UK variant of the coronavirus in an animal, in March 2021.) Casey Barton Behravesh, an A&M grad who’s now an expert on zoonotic diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that when viruses jump from species to species, there is an increased risk of mutations creating new variants. The CDC has consequently funded much of Hamer’s research, providing about $225,000.

“It’s important to look at both people and animals, tracking mutations and the possible formation of variants, so we can keep a close eye on what might be happening,” Barton Behravesh said. “We don’t want to see a strain emerge that becomes more serious in terms of illness in people or animals. We don’t want a strain to emerge that can’t be detected by the diagnostic tests that we have available, or that might impact the therapeutics that are becoming available, or impact the vaccine.”

Read the rest, it’s good stuff. We know that deer can carry COVID, and since most of us will come in much closer contact with pets than with deer, it’s good to know what the risks may be. The good news is that they seem to be low, but best to stay on top of it.

Yeah, ivermectin is useless against COVID

Hardly a surprise.

Antiparasitic drug Ivermectin became a partisan battleground during the Covid-19 pandemic, as anti-vaccine influencers and Republican politicians hawked it as a miracle cure, to the widespread skepticism of infectious disease experts.

A peer-reviewed study recently presented by Dr. Edward Mills, a professor of health sciences at McMaster University in Canada, offered significant new evidence that ivermectin was coronavirus snake oil all along.

In the largest trial yet analyzing the effectiveness of ivermectin on treating the coronavirus, Mills and his fellow researchers found that Covid-19 patients at risk of severe illness who received ivermectin did no better than those prescribed a placebo, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

“This is the first large, prospective study that should really help put to rest ivermectin and not give any credibility to the use of it for Covid-19,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told the Journal.

Of the 1,358 patients, researchers prescribed half a three-day course of ivermectin pills, and the other half with a placebo. They then tracked how many patients were hospitalized over the course of four weeks, how quickly the patients rid the virus from their bodies, and death rates, among other variables. The researchers parsed the data in a variety of different ways and found no instances where ivermectin impacted patient outcomes.

There’s another study of ivermectin going on in Texas, which I expect will yield similar results. What it might take to convince those who have been humping ivermectin as a cure-all to see reality, I have no idea. For those of us who want to maximize our chances of surviving this pandemic, get vaxxed and boosted, keep wearing masks where it makes sense to do so, and get a real treatment regimen if you need one. It’s pretty simple, honestly.

On gender affirming care and fertility

The more you know

The fertility of transgender youths in Texas was thrust into the spotlight recently after state leaders issued a directive designating gender-affirming care as child abuse that infringed on a person’s “fundamental right to procreation.”

Medical interventions for transgender adolescents can have an impact on a person’s short and long-term fertility.

But trans health experts say it’s a nuanced issue: New research into the preservation of fertility is opening doors for trans patients who may want to have their own biological children in the future.

State leaders have gone too far by prioritizing future fertility over the current health concerns caused by gender dysphoria, said Renee Baker, a professional counselor in Dallas who specializes in LGBT-specific care.

“It’s almost like you’re saying the life of an unborn possibility is more important than the existing life [of a transgender adolescent],” she said.

[…]

Consideration of a trans adolescent’s ability to have children in the future has been a critical part of proper trans health care, medical experts say. Scientists are still researching the potential impact of gender-affirming medical care on fertility, and they say more data is needed to fully understand its implications.

“It is essential that a thorough discussion of fertility preservation and the options available are provided. Not to do that would be malpractice,” said Dr. Stephen Rosenthal, medical director of the child and adolescent gender center for the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospitals.

Patients and their families have to give informed consent, meaning that they’ve been given information about all the potential risks and benefits of a treatment before deciding whether or not to pursue it, Baker said.

Gender-affirming medical treatments can alter a person’s fertility, depending on when the treatments are initiated and whether they are continued. Such treatments are not started until a person has begun puberty. Puberty varies by person, but it can start as early as age 8 for people assigned female at birth and age 9 for people assigned male at birth, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Most parents don’t anticipate discussing fertility preservation with their teenager. Most parents also don’t anticipate having to balance a transgender adolescent’s need for gender-affirming care with any potential risks to their future fertility.

“If you say that, ‘I’m not going to let you have access to pubertal blockers until you’re older, until you’ve gone through full puberty,’ well then [the adolescent] would experience all of these irreversible physical changes that can increase their risk for severe mental health problems, including suicide attempts,” Rosenthal said.

There are some options for transgender adolescents who want the opportunity to have their own biological kids down the road, although those options look different for each individual case.

I think SB8 and all of the anti-abortion bills that came before it expresses quite clearly the relative value of existing people versus theoretical ones. It’s all part of a consistent Republican philosophy. Local control is great because government closest to the people is best, except when they do things we don’t like. Parents should be fully free to make whatever decisions they want about how to raise their children, except when we don’t agree with those choices. Businesses should be free of the yoke of government regulation, except when they adopt “too woke” policies. It all makes sense, if you understand that underlying philosophy.

COVID may be down but it’s definitely not out

Just a reminder, this pandemic hasn’t gone away. It’s less of a threat to us here right now, but it’s still very much a threat.

The evolution of the coronavirus is likely to produce dangerous new variants that escape built-up immunity and evade vaccines, according to a new study that may offer clues for the future of the pandemic.

In a searing condemnation of “misconceived and premature theories” about the demise of COVID-19, the authors — microbiologists at the European Commission and the University of Oxford — take aim at what they call the “persistent myth” that the virus will evolve to be benign.

That omicron caused relatively mild disease “has been enthusiastically interpreted to be a sign of the approaching end of the pandemic,” the authors write in the study, which was published Monday. “Yet the lower severity of omicron is nothing but a lucky coincidence.”

Instead, the microbiologists believe more severe strains could be on the way as the virus adapts to dodge natural immunity and vaccines. Analyzing the possibilities for how COVID may evolve in the coming months and years, they attempt to debunk the notion that omicron’s lessened severity represents a step towards normalcy.

“Omicron is not at all a good predictor for the future,” said Dr. Peter Markov, a scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and lead author of the study.

Many viruses that plague human populations, including HIV and Hepatitis C, do not evolve to be less severe over time, Markov said.

You can find more details here. You know that BA2 omicron variant that’s already making case counts go up in Europe? We’re starting to see evidence of more infection in the US as well. In the wastewater, of course.

There’s a whole thread to read for that. The good news locally is that our wastewater virus levels are still trending down, as of March 7. That of course can change quickly. You know what the best protection from this is, of course.

That drum has been beaten to death, and yet the US as a whole and Texas and Harris County in particular are not great on getting shots in arms. Too many vaccinated people haven’t gotten boosters. Too many vax-eligible kids haven’t gotten theirs. The anti-vaxx crowd is as loud and obnoxious and dangerous as ever. And yet even with all that, we’re in a better position than some other places.

Another thread to read. An astonishingly small number of people over the age of 80 have been vaccinated in Hong Kong, which is absolutely getting slammed right now, and in China as well. That and a lack of immunity from prior exposures – this is their reward for suppressing the first waves of COVID so well – are the underlying factors. Our vax rate in Texas isn’t great, but so many people have been infected at least once that it helps make up the gap somewhat. But vax + booster is still by far the most effective protection against hospitalization and death. If the next variant is more effective at avoiding existing protections, or is more severe in addition to being more transmissible, we’re going to be in deep trouble. Hope for the best, make sure everyone in your circle is vaxxed and boosted, and stay vigilant. Stace has more.

Sure, go ahead, test ivermectin

Just keep your expectations very low.

Texas universities, including Texas Tech’s Health Science Center in El Paso, are now recruiting subjects for a nationwide study to test the effects of unproven repurposed drugs against non-severe COVID cases.

Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medication that local and federal health agencies have warned against using for COVID symptoms, is a candidate in the clinical trial known as ACTIV-6, along with fluticasone, an asthma medication, and fluvoxamine, an anti-depressant.

None of the three drugs have been shown to be beneficial against COVID-19 in any large-scale clinical trial.

The form of ivermectin tested by the study is different from the over-the-counter formulation and dosage, meant to treat animals, that some people have attempted to use for COVID, Dr. Edward Michelson of Texas Tech’s Health Science Center in El Paso told local station KTSM. Michelson leads the local ACTIV-6 study in El Paso.

The study aims to determine whether any of the drugs can help meet a “critical” need for medications to prevent COVID from worsening in people with “mild-to-moderate” cases that do not require hospitalization or oxygen, according to the study website.

I mean, maybe they will find some valuable use for ivermectin in treating COVID. Or maybe they’ll find super solid evidence that none of these off-use drugs work and it will deter some people from taking advice from quacks instead of getting real help. (There’s already evidence for that, and indeed that ivermectin is actually harmful.) I don’t expect much to come out of this, but I want to hold some space in my heart for the possibility. If you want to do your part for SCIENCE, click here, and godspeed to you.

Corbevax gets its approval

Kudos.

The Peoples Vaccine
Image courtesy of Texas Children’s Hospital

Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine today announced Corbevax — a protein sub-unit COVID-19 vaccine — has received approval from the Drugs Controller General of India to launch in that nation.

The vaccine has been developed in Houston by Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi.

Hotez called the approval “an important first step in vaccinating the world and halting the pandemic.”

[…]

Bottazzi and Hotez led efforts at Texas Children’s Hospital to develop the “initial construct and production process of the vaccine antigen.” After the vaccine was found to be “safe, well tolerated and immunogenic,” the Drugs Controller General of India granted emergency use authorization.

Corbevax completed two Phase III clinical trials with more than 3,000 subjects. The trials suggested a better immune response to the Ancestral-Wuhan strain of the virus as well as the delta variant compared to Covishield, which was developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. None of the subjects showed severe adverse reactions to the vaccine; and adverse effects in the study were half of those from Covishield.

See here for the background. Vaccine supply isn’t a problem in the US and Europe but it is a problem in many parts of the world. We know very well that the more opportunities this virus gets to spread and mutate, the more chances it has to turn into something worse and more dangerous. Hopefully Corbevax can help close that gap. Kudos to all involved. Here’s the Texas Children’s Hospital page about Corbevax and its development, and CultureMap has more.

Climate change and freezing weather

A little science for you.

It was the coldest February Texas had seen in more than four decades, and the sustained blast of arctic air knocked out much of the state’s power grid for several days, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

Yet 2021 also brought the planet’s 16th-warmest February since records began. On average, winters are getting more mild because climate change has increased temperatures worldwide. How could a warmer world bring such a severe cold snap to Texas?

Scientists say they are still working to understand the relationship between climate change and extreme winter weather patterns. Many factors can influence localized cold snaps, and evidence suggests that climate change is affecting longstanding climate patterns in new ways.

“The way those kinds of events occur involve a lot more complicated atmospheric processes,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist and acting deputy director for Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Francis and other scientists said there’s a significant body of research that can help explain why Texas — and other areas of the U.S. — may still experience extreme cold from time to time amid an overall warming of the planet.

“Maybe there was some nuance that was missed when people started talking about winters disappearing and how we’re never going to see snow again,” said Judah Cohen, a leading scholar on winter weather and climate change and the director of seasonal forecasting at the climate analytics company Atmospheric and Environmental Research. “People say, ‘I was told one thing and I’m experiencing something else.’”

Several factors impact the frequency and severity of cold spells in Texas, from the strength of the polar vortex — a seasonal, swirling mass of cold air that circles high above the Arctic — to whether we’re in an El Niño or a La Niña year, which influences whether Texas has a wet or dry winter, to the natural patterns that influence the position and strength of the jet stream, which can determine the path and duration of weather systems.

Here’s what factors scientists say can cause an extreme cold snap to hit Texas — and how such storms may be influenced by climate change.

You should read the rest, because it’s pretty interesting. The science is still being developed, and so there’s disagreement about some of the findings, but the big picture is there. You might familiarize yourself with the concept of a “polar vortex”, because it’s a key factor. Hope for the best and be prepared, whatever happens.

A broader look at the Houston project to track COVID in wastewater

The DMN tells me things I did not know about my current favorite public works project.

The [Houston] health department is conducting the wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 in partnership with researchers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Wastewater testing cannot identify individual people who have COVID-19, but it can identify neighborhoods with particular virus variants or relatively high virus loads.

Dallas County is not participating in similar wastewater surveillance to track the virus, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He said he doesn’t know of any other organizations or municipalities in North Texas that are operating similar programs.

While Dallas County previously considered using wastewater surveillance, the price of creating such a system was too high. “It’s actually quite expensive to set that up,” Huang said.

“After the 10-week survey, [the water district] discontinued its participation in the study due to inconsistent data that required continuous interpretation by local and state public health officials,” said Kathleen Vaught, public relations specialist at the water district.

Public health experts have long used wastewater samples to track the growth and spread of bacteria and viruses, like the poliovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began discussing the use of the tool to study COVID-19 in February 2020.

By September of that same year, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System, also known as NWSS, to help state, tribal and local health departments track and respond to COVID-19.

[…]

Houston is the only Texas city to participate in the NWSS, although that could change as the program grows in the next month, said NWSS team lead and CDC microbiologist Dr. Amy Kirby. Data taken from Houston wastewater samples is submitted to a national database tracking similar data from nearly 400 utilities across the country.

The University of California, Merced’s Naughton Lab created and maintains a dashboard, called COVIDPoops19, to track global wastewater testing for the virus.

I just want to say that learning of the existence of a dashboard called COVIDPoops19 has improved my life in ways I could not have imagined. You can zoom in on Houston in this dashboard and click on the various icons to learn more; clicking on the icon for Baylor College of Medicine led me to the actual Houston dashboard for this, which I had not seen before. If you play around with the slider, which shows you what the viral levels were for past weeks, you can see that the inflection point for this year was the week of June 21 – levels had been dropping through June 7, then you saw a few upticks on June 14, and on the 21st it was all increases, and it got worse for the next few weeks. We’re on more of an upward trend right now (December 6 is the most recent date), but there are increases and decreases in the various locations. I’m going to be bookmarking this page. Anyway, if you want to know more about this project, there you go.

Corbevax

Very cool.

A Houston-made COVID-19 vaccine will likely be approved for use in India by the end of the year, said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospitals Center for Vaccine Development.

Hotez and his co-director, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, created the vaccine as a cheap and easy-to-produce option to fill global gaps in vaccine coverage. Dubbed Corbevax, it uses a safe and traditional vaccine technology, called recombinant protein subunit, that has been used for decades in the hepatitis B vaccine and is therefore easier for other countries to make themselves.

Drug maker Biological E has agreed to manufacture 300 million doses in India, where 36 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and 59 percent have at least one dose. Efficacy data has been submitted to the Drugs Controller General of India for authorization.

The vaccine does not have a patent, and Hotez hopes manufacturers in other low- or middle-income countries will take advantage of its availability.

“If you leave large populations unvaccinated, that’s where the greatest concerns of variants arise,” he said, referring to the current spread of the omicron variant from the largely unvaccinated South African population. “So this vaccine is therefore needed not only for global health but also economic development.”

Bottazzi, who is from Honduras, is especially interested in the vaccine’s proliferation throughout Latin America. Less than 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in several countries there, according to the New York Times global virus tracker.

“Corbevax is gong to be a trailblazer,” she said.

The work is based on research they had done for a SARS virus but never took to a human trial because the virus had receded by then. Anything we can do to get more shots in arms is absolutely a good thing. Kudos to all for the achievement.

Omicron may be coming, but delta is still here

It’s still a big problem, in case we haven’t forgotten.

Omicron’s arrival in the U.S. came as no surprise to federal health officials and will be met with similar anticipation in Texas, where experts believe it could show up in state and local sequencing efforts as soon as this week.

“It’s almost certainly here,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a Texas A&M University professor and chief virologist at its Global Health Research Complex, which does sequencing for COVID-19 variants.

On Monday, federal health officials concerned about omicron urged eligible vaccinated adults to get their booster shots to increase their protection from COVID-19, in whatever form it might take over the winter, and to keep masking, hand-washing and social distancing when possible.

In Texas, state health officials say they are ready to assist hospitals should another surge happen over the holidays and they are ramping up their own efforts to identify more variants in more parts of the state.

But their largest push, at least publicly, is for vaccination and booster shots. About 55% of Texans were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 1. Some 18.7% of fully vaccinated Texans have had boosters, according to state health numbers.

“Prevention is important, and vaccination remains our best prevention tool,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Texas hospitals are still in the throes of a staffing shortage after almost two years of deadly surges and a summer wave of deaths and hospitalizations that saw record numbers of ICUs filled to capacity.

With more than 13 million Texans still not fully vaccinated, the fear of the medical community here is that another wave will further strain a health care system that is already exhausted and depleted.

At the moment, without more data about omicron, delta is still the variant likely to cause the most problems this winter, Neuman said.

“Today, it’s the delta wave that worries me. Not omicron yet,” Neuman said. “We’ve got to wait and see what omicron does, if anything. But with cases rising across the country — that’s entirely being driven by delta.”

There’s some interesting stuff in the article about how scientists in Texas are tracking different variants here – did you know there was such a thing as the Texas Variant Partnership? I didn’t – so read on. Everything I’ve read about omicron so far suggests it will be a couple of weeks before we have some real data on it, which will help us understand basic questions about how transmissible it is, how deadly it is, and so on. A huge question, especially in a still largely unvaccinated state like Texas is how much protection is natural immunity versus vaccination. I’m betting on the latter, but it’s certainly a possibility that another booster may need to be developed. Which, thanks to the nature of mRNA vaccines, can be done quickly, like three to four months. In the meantime, stay cautious and for crying out loud get your shots.

Deer COVID

In case you were running low on things to feel anxious about.

Scientists have evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads explosively in white-tailed deer and that the virus is widespread in this deer population across the United States.

Researchers say the findings are quite concerning and could have vast implications for the long-term course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, first emerged, there have been several signs that white-tailed deer would be highly susceptible to the virus — and that many of these animals were catching it across the country.

In September of last year, computer models suggested SARS-CoV-2 could easily bind to and enter the deer’s cells. A recent survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% of them had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Now veterinarians at Pennsylvania State University have found active SARS-CoV-2 infections in at least 30% of deer tested across Iowa during 2020. Their study, published online last week, suggests that white-tailed deer could become what’s known as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2. That is, the animals could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically.

If that’s the case, it would essentially dash any hopes of eliminating or eradicating the virus in the U.S. — and therefore from the world — says veterinary virologist Suresh Kuchipudi at Penn State, who co-led the study.

[…]

From April to December of last year, about 30% of the deer that they tested were positive for SARS-CoV-2 by a PCR test. And then during the winter surge in Iowa, from Nov. 23, 2020, to Jan. 10 of this year, about 80% of the deer that they tested were infected. At the peak of the surge, Kapur says, the prevalence of the virus in deer was effectively about 50 to 100 times the prevalence in Iowa residents at the time.

During this time frame, the team also sequenced the genes of nearly 100 samples of the virus. They found the variants circulating in the deer matched the variants circulating in people.

Those genomic sequences suggest that during the pandemic, deer have caught the virus from people multiple times in Iowa alone, Kapur says. “The data are very consistent again with frequent spillover events from humans into deer and then transmission among the animals.”

Virologist Linda Saif at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine says humans are likely infecting white-tailed deer across the country. The white-tailed deer is native to North America, Central America and the northern edge of South America. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 30 million animals.

“We also have detected the virus in deer in Ohio,” she says. “And there are antibody studies that suggest the prevalence of COVID infections among deer are pretty high in the Midwest and East.”

Although the virus doesn’t seem to make the animals sick, Saif says, the new data from Iowa are “very concerning.”

“Now the question is: Can the virus spill back from deer to humans? Or can deer transmit the virus effectively to grazing livestock? We don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but if they are true, they’re obviously concerning,” she says.

Yeah, I’d say so. Have I mentioned lately that getting vaccinated, and then getting boostered when you need to, is a really good idea? The odds are that sooner or later, we’ll all need a different version of the COVID vaccine, just because some awful new variant has arisen. This is the same reason why we need new flu shots every year. The sooner we accept that reality, the better off we’ll all be. USA Today and Texas Public Radio have more.

The Pfizer pill

This would be a big step forward.

Pfizer Inc. said [recently] that its experimental antiviral pill for COVID-19 cut rates of hospitalization and death by nearly 90% in high-risk adults, as the drugmaker joined the race for an easy-to-use medication to treat the coronavirus.

Currently most COVID-19 treatments require an IV or injection. Competitor Merck’s COVID-19 pill is already under review at the Food and Drug Administration after showing strong initial results, and on Thursday the United Kingdom became the first country to OK it.

Pfizer said it will ask the FDA and international regulators to authorize its pill as soon as possible, after independent experts recommended halting the company’s study based on the strength of its results. Once Pfizer applies, the FDA could make a decision within weeks or months.

Since the beginning of the pandemic last year, researchers worldwide have been racing to find a pill to treat COVID-19 that can be taken at home to ease symptoms, speed recovery and keep people out of the hospital.

Having pills to treat early COVID-19 “would be a very important advance,” said Dr. John Mellors, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the Pfizer study.

“If someone developed symptoms and tested positive we could call in a prescription to the local pharmacy as we do for many, many infectious diseases,” he said.

[…]

Study participants were unvaccinated, with mild-to-moderate COVID-19, and were considered high risk for hospitalization due to health problems like obesity, diabetes or heart disease. Treatment began within three to five days of initial symptoms, and lasted for five days. Patients who received the drug earlier showed slightly better results, underscoring the need for speedy testing and treatment.

Pfizer reported few details on side effects but said rates of problems were similar between the groups at about 20%.

It’s much better to prevent COVID than to treat it, in the same way that it’s much better to prevent malware from getting on your computer than to clean up after it. As such, getting vaccinated is still far and away the best thing to do to mitigate the risk of COVID. But if I want to extend the cybersecurity analogy, you must have multiple layers of defense to truly have good security practices, and so having a safe and reliable treatment to COVID that can keep people out of the hospital is crucial. I look forward to both the Pfizer and Merck pills getting approved by the FDA.

Don’t forget your flu shot

The flu is going to be back this year. Don’t fall for it.

After a historically light flu season in 2020, experts warn an influenza resurgence is looming this fall and winter.

“I would expect a more intense influenza season, simply because we did not have a flu season last year,” said Dr. Pedro Piedra, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine.

Flu exposure breeds a level of natural immunity, creating a cellular memory of prior infections in those it infects. The absence of influenza last year, due to widespread masking and social distancing, has left many with a weakened immune defense — a development that could spell trouble as Texans venture out in droves this fall.

The return of the familiar body aching, fever-inducing wintertime scourge could not arrive at a worse time. Hospitals are still reeling from the fourth surge of COVID-19 spurred by the highly contagious delta variant and stagnating vaccination rates.

Experts predict flu season could hit Houston by early November.

“Now is the time to start making flu vaccine appointments,” Piedra said.

This past year was a historic anomaly due to COVID restrictions and precautions, and the lack of those plus a year out from anyone getting the flu we’re likely to see a resurgence. The flu shot may not be quite as effective this year, as it will be harder to model what it needs to be, but it will still be way better than nothing. Don’t miss out.

Your thermostat may be plotting against you

Welcome to 2021.

Amid [recent] sweltering temperatures in Houston, the agency that operates the state’s power grid asked residents to cut back on how much electricity they used to help it meet demand. That’s how some people apparently learned the hard way that their “smart thermostats” were programmed to rise in their homes when grid conditions got tight.

A user posting on the Reddit page for discussions about Houston wrote of knowing eight people with thermostats that bumped up automatically and made their homes less cool — sparking a conversation about how and why this happens. The concerns were first reported by KHOU.

Turns out, utility customers can opt in to programs that automatically adjust their thermostats when demand is high and grid capacity is strained. Those people can also opt out. Some, it seemed, were caught unawares.

One user wrote of being automatically enrolled in a program and then waiting months while trying to get out of it. Another reported sending an email to get removed from the service.

A third chastised them all: “This is what happens when you don’t read the contract.”

A software provider called EnergyHub works with thermostat manufacturers to run such programs. No one is enrolled without their consent, said Erika Diamond, the company’s vice president for customer solutions.

The idea is to reduce energy load when the grid is stressed, such as during an extreme weather event, Diamond said. Temperatures at George Bush Intercontinental Airport hit at least 95 degrees every day from June 11 through June 16.

I’m sure this was somewhere in your user agreement, which I know we all read thoroughly. One could easily argue that this is a net benefit for all, as the modest reduction in A/C that everyone affected by this would experience would save energy and maybe avoid some blackouts. It’s almost certainly more effective than asking people to voluntarily dial it back, as some won’t do it and others won’t be aware you’re asking. But it would be better if people were generally aware of this, even if it meant more of them opted out or manually overrode the auto-adjustment as they can do, if only to prevent the inevitable conspiracy theories and overall mistrust that a lack of awareness will spawn. At least it’s mostly been not-so-hot since then, so this has been less of an issue, but obviously we can’t just count on that. Reform Austin and Mother Jones have more.