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Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a deadly disease caused by the “brain-eating amoeba” Naegleria fowleri, is becoming more common in some areas of the world, and it has no effective treatment. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Chemical Neuroscience have found that a compound isolated from the leaves of a traditional medicinal plant, Inula viscosa or “false yellowhead,” kills the amoebae by causing them to commit cell suicide in lab studies, which could lead to new treatments.
PAM, characterized by headache, fever, vomiting, hallucinations and seizures, is almost always fatal within a couple of weeks of developing symptoms. Although the disease, which is usually contracted by swimming in contaminated freshwater, is rare, increasing cases have been reported recently in the U.S., the Philippines, southern Brazil and some Asian countries. Amphotericin B is the most common therapy given to those with the infection. It can kill N. fowleri in the lab, but it isn’t very effective when given to patients, likely because it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. Ikrame Zeouk, José Piñero, Jacob Lorenzo-Morales and colleagues wanted to explore whether compounds isolated from I. viscosa, a strong-smelling plant that has long been used for traditional medicine in the Mediterranean region, could effectively treat PAM.
The researchers first made an ethanol extract from the herb’s leaves, finding that it could kill N. fowleri amoebae. Then, they isolated and tested specific compounds from the extract. The most potent compound, inuloxin A, killed amoebae in the lab by disrupting membranes and causing mitochondrial changes, chromatin condensation and oxidative damage, ultimately forcing the parasites to undergo programmed cell death, or apoptosis. Although inuloxin A was much less potent than amphotericin B in the lab, the structure of the plant-derived compound suggests that it might be better able to cross the blood-brain barrier. More studies are needed to confirm this hypothesis, the researchers say.
The authors acknowledge funding from the European Regional Development Fund, the Spanish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, the University of La Laguna and the Augustin de Betancourt Foundation.
Materials provided by American Chemical Society. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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With all the vaccine trials emerging today, a unique kind of trial will be initiated as part of Australia’s combat against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fourteen dogs have begun a trial to determine whether the Coronavirus can be sniffed out in Australia’s airports to prevent the virus from spreading to the community.
The said training was initiated at the University of Adelaide and at the Australian Border Force’s National Detector Dog Program Facility in Victoria. This is part of a joint venture into determining the feasibility of training COVID-19 detector dogs.
Should the trial prove to be successful, the detector dogs could potentially provide an “efficient, reliable and complimentary screening method” as part of managing biosecurity.
Previous studies and researches by experts revealed that dogs can detect odours that are produced by the human body’s response to viral infections. In line with this, a team of animal and veterinary science experts are coordinating the Australian arm of an international research alliance led by the National Veterinary School of France.
University of Adelaide’s Dr Anne-Lise Chaber said the training would test the accuracy of the dogs in detecting “volatile organic compounds” in the sweat samples of COVID-positive people.
During the preliminary tests, results showed specialized working dogs can detect COVID-19 in patients, even when people are asymptomatic or in the incubation phase. She cited, “Dogs could be deployed in airports and also used to screen staff in hospitals and travellers in quarantine.”
In addition to the claims, Dr Susan Hazel, fellow UoA researcher said using a scientific approach to dog training could increase the number of possible uses for future detector dog work.
“The dog’s nose beats the best current technology in identifying infected people,” she said.
On strengthening the country’s human biosecurity defences, the Australian Border Force is committed to taking part in any arrangements as their project team will determine the feasibility of training detector dogs to identify asymptomatic people.
Commander Chris Collinwood assured, “This will ensure the ABF is well placed to implement new enhanced border control measures in protecting the Australian community against COVID-19 and other pandemics.”
An assistant professor of African American studies at a South Carolina university resigned this week after she was called out for posing as Chicana despite having no apparent Mexican heritage.
Kelly Kean Sharp, from Encinitas, a wealthy white suburb of San Diego, was criticized in a Medium post this week by an anonymous user who claimed to have ‘distantly known’ her while she was a PhD student in the University of California.
The user named producingwhiteness alleged they had been asked by others who had known Sharp at the time to highlight how she was now identifying herself as Chicana, an American woman of Mexican descent.
Sharp resigned from Furman University on Wednesday after an investigation was launched into the Medium post published the previous day, the school confirmed to the Greenville News.
Kelly Kean Sharp, from Encinitas, a wealthy white suburb of San Diego, was allegedly falsely claiming to be Chicana, an American woman of Mexican heritage, it was revealed this week
Sharp resigned on Wednesday from her role as Assistant Professor of African American studies at Furman University in South Carolina. She is pictured left with co-workers
Sharp claimed in her Twitter bio that she is Chicana, but a Medium post accused her of lying
‘All I can say is that we are disappointed to have learned of these allegations,’ Tom Evelyn, a spokesperson for the college, said.
‘We expect members of our community to be honest in the way they represent themselves to others.’
Sharp joined the university on August 1 after two years in Luther College in Iowa, where she was the faculty advisor for the student club, Latines Unides, and was highly involved in many Latinx-oriented events, the post claimed.
While an adviser at the college, she also moderated a panel on ‘how Latinx faculty members’ and students’ identities affect their experiences on campus’, according to the student newspaper.
‘I have watched the unmasking of CV Vitolo and Jessica Krug from afar,’ the post began, referencing some of the women exposed earlier this year as race fakers.
‘But when an old friend pointed me to the twitter bio of Dr. Kelly Kean Sharp, currently an Assistant Professor at Furman University, I now had a similar example on the edges of my own circles.’
They said that they were ‘more than surprised to find out that she was now describing herself as Chicana’ since she left the University of California.
‘This discovery led to multiple conversations and a flurry of research on the part of people who had known Kelly at UC Davis,’ the writer said. ‘They approached me to help publicize her fabrication and strategic use of a Chicana identity.’
The professor’s social media accounts and bio at Furman University have since been deleted but the article includes alleged screenshots of some of Sharp’s posts in which she called herself a Chicana and claimed that her ‘abuela’ moved to the U.S. from Mexico during the Second World War.
Kelly Kean Sharp had claimed in a tweet that her grandmother moved to the U.S. from Mexico during the Second World War. The post said research showed this was false
Sharp made the claim about her grandmother in a tweet in July 2019
She had repeated the alleged lie this year, calling her grandmother ‘abuela’
Sharp’s professional bios do not reference her claims that she is Chicana
Her Twitter bio initially referred to herself as a ‘#Chicana Asst Professor’ before ‘#Chicana’ was moved to the end. The account was eventually deleted once the claims of Sharp’s lies spread.
The Medium blogger said that they had also researched Sharp’s claims about her grandmother but found that all of her grandparents were born in the U.S. and none had Mexican last names.
The post added that they wanted to call attention to Sharp’s claims that she ‘chose to research foodways of the antebellum US South because the region was a majority-minority population, much like her own hometown.’
Yet census records show that Encinitas was always a majority white city while Sharp would have lived there.
‘In many aspects of Kelly’s professional life, such as on her personal website or on the websites of professional organizations she is a part of, there doesn’t seem to be any claims to Hispanic or Chicana identity,’ the post states.
‘Yet through these other clues we are left wondering, how far has Dr. Kean Sharp exploited this identity? Perhaps hiding behind a vague Mexican heritage helped her feel more secure as she entered her new academic field of African American history.
Kelly Kean Sharp is pictured right. She has not publicly commented on the allegations
While working at Luther College in Iowa, Sharp was the faculty advisor for the student club, Latines Unides, and was highly involved in many Latinx-oriented events
Sharp later changed her bio to place #Chicana at the end before her account was deleted
‘Overall, as someone who claims to be interested in racial justice and making disadvantaged students more comfortable on college campuses, she should have known better than to claim a Chicana identity in any way,’ it adds.
‘Dr. Kelly Kean Sharp, you owe your communities an apology.’
The writer also questioned how so many academic institutions are fooled by these women.
‘Why are so many departments and hiring committees falling prey to this sort of manipulation? Why, we must ask, are privileged upper middle-class white women so successful in taking advantage of diversity programs?’ it asked.
‘I call on the broader academic community to learn from these repeated stories instead of treating them as unusual peculiarities’.’
Furman University, pictured, confirmed she resigned on Wednesday
According to the Greenville News, Sharp graduated from Williamette University before getting her masters and doctorate from UC Davis.
Her previous employers at Luther College have not commented on the allegations but said that she left the school in good standing.
Sharp’s is the latest of a string of white people who have been exposed for pretending to be black or Hispanic.
Earlier in October, white, male University of New Hampshire chemistry professor Craig Chapman was accused of posing as an immigrant woman of color on Twitter.
He allegedly used the account to make racist and sexist comments and attack users who supported racial justice and other progressive causes.
In September, University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student CV Vitolo-Haddad resigned from a teaching role after admitting to lying about being black.
Vitolo-Haddad, who identifies as non-binary and goes by ‘they’ or ‘them’ pronouns, pretended on multiple occasions to be black or Latino although the teacher is actually Southern Italian and Sicilian.
Jessica Krug (pictured left), a white African American studies professor confessed earlier this year that she had been faking being black. CV Vitolo-Haddad (right), resigned from a teaching role at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after admitting to lying about being black
One of the most notorious examples of race faking was Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP leader from Washington state who was exposed as a white woman pretending to be black in 2015
The graduate student failed to correct peoples’ assumptions about racial identity, ‘entered Black organizing spaces’ and on three occasions, didn’t say no when others asked about being black.
It came just days after Jessica Krug, 38, a white professor of African American studies confessed in a Medium post that she had been faking being black.
The professor at George Washington University admitted she had deceived colleagues and students for years.
Krug grew up as a white Jewish child in Kansas City but assumed a series of different black identities throughout her career, she confessed in a Medium blog post on September 3.
She resigned from her role at the university following a backlash over the deception.
And later that month, Satchuel Cole, born Jennifer Lynn Benton, outed herself as a race faker after posing as a black person for years.
The community activist admitted in a Facebook post to having ‘taken up space as a Black person while knowing I am white’.
One of the most notorious examples of race faking was Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP leader from Washington state who was exposed as a white woman pretending to be black in 2015.
KOTA KINABALU: Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Thursday (Sep 17) said studies have shown that the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government is a functional government as it has been able to help the people affected by the spread of COVID-19 in the country in just a short period of time.
He said the studies also proved that the PN government was capable of ensuring the well-being of the people through the assistance distributed to them, without anyone being left behind.
“The studies also found that the PN government is the most popular government,” said Muhyiddin at a meet-and-greet event with locals in Sepanggar, which was also attended by Minister of Agriculture and Food Industries Dr Ronald Kiandee.
“This is not the case of blowing one’s own trumpet, but this is the reality … that in a very short period of time, the government was proven capable of addressing people’s problems by helping those affected by the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Muhyiddin said the people should ensure that the Sabah government to be formed after the state election is aligned with the federal government.
“That is why the Sabah people should vote for candidates aligned with the federal government … the close ties between the state and the federal governments is important to ensure that Sabah economy could be revived quickly.
“We want to develop all states in Malaysia and I want that development to be felt and enjoyed by the people at all levels. If this can be done, the country’s economy will bounce back,” he said.
The English doctoral program at the University of Chicago announced recently that it will only accept Ph.D. candidates that are specialized in “Black Studies” this year. According to a statement published online, the decision was motivated by the department’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement.
According to a report by Campus Reform, the University of Chicago announced recently that incoming Ph.D. candidates in the English Department will be required to focus their research on “black studies.”
The university’s decision was highlighted on Tuesday by Cornell Ph.D. candidate Phillipe Lemoine in a tweet that went viral. “This is wild, ” Lemoine wrote.
“For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies,” a statement on the university website reads. “We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods.”
In the statement, the English department said that its commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement inspired their decision to restrict the area of study for incoming Ph.D. candidates.
The English department at the University of Chicago believes that Black Lives Matter, and that the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks matter, as do thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence. As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality.
Breitbart News reported in August that students at the University of Chicago had called on administrators to cut ties with the Chicago Police Department. In response, Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown said that his officers would continue to reduce violence in the area surrounding the university’s campus.
Stay tuned to Breitbart News for more updates on this story.
African studies professor Jessica Krug of George Washington University has come out of the race closet, admitting she has faked being black much of her adult life after growing up as a “white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City.”
“I am not a culture vulture, I am a culture leech,” Krug said Thursday in a Medium.com post. She added, “Every move I’ve made, every relationship I’ve formed, has been rooted in the napalm toxic soil of lies.”
Krug, who is an associate professor at prestigious George Washington, said she eschewed her own ethnicity and assumed a series of black identities, from North African to African American to “Caribbean-rooted Bronx blackness.” She said her appropriation of a black Caribbean identity not only was “unethical, immoral, anti-black, colonial – but it means that every step I’ve taken has gaslighted those whom I love.”
The confession echoes other notable cases of white people who have adopted minority identities, from Rachel Dolezal, the supposedly black NAACP official who was exposed as being white in 2015, to Elizabeth Warren, the white US senator who claimed to be of Native American heritage and was once touted as the first “woman of color” to become a tenured professor at Harvard University.
Krug’s deception apparently didn’t begin as an effort to get ahead in her career, however. She said she assumed a false identity likely because of “mental health demons” after suffering abuse as a child and becoming a “teenager fleeing trauma.” She emphasized that the genesis of her deceit didn’t justify her actions: “There is no ignorance, no innocence, nothing to claim, nothing to defend,” Krug wrote. “I have moved wrong in every way for years.”
She said her politics remain the same as when she was pretending to be black, “and those politics condemn me in the loudest and most unyielding terms.” Krug said she believes in cancel culture “as a necessary and righteous tool for those with less structural power to wield against those with more power.”
“I should absolutely be canceled,” she said. “I don’t write in a passive voice, ever, because I believe we must name power. So, you should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.”
Krug authored a book on the Angolan slave trade, called ‘Fugitive Modernities: Politics and Identity Outside the State in Kisarma, Angola, and the Americas’. According to her George Washington profile, she also has written on hip hop, politics and gender in Angola and New York City, as well as “transnational ritual idioms” of politics in Jamaican Maroon societies of the 18th century.
The professor reportedly also worked as an “Afro-Latina” activist in New York City under the alias Jess La Bombera. Her Medium.com post came as a shock to fellow activists, including Robert Jones Jr., who said he had often “deferred to and stepped aside and gave the mic to” Bombera. Jones added that he suspected Bombera wasn’t black, but other black women vouched for her and said she was light-skinned.
Under the Bombera alias, Krug gave expletive-laced testimony to the New York City Council in June. She complained that white New Yorkers waited for hours for their turn to speak and did not yield their time to “black and brown indigenous New Yorkers.”
Krug said she considered revealing her true identity many times, “but my cowardice was always more powerful than my ethics.” She said she didn’t live a double life because she never developed an adult identity as a white person, instead living her lie “completely, with no exit plan or strategy.”
It’s been a frustrating time to be a surfer for the past three months. When officials across the country began issuing shelter-in-place orders to head off an emerging pandemic, they simultaneously closed many public outdoor spaces to prevent crowding. Some beaches were closed, some were open only for exercise, others had parking restrictions but were otherwise wide open. Depending on where in the country you live, surfing was either outright banned, a major pain in the ass because of parking and access restrictions, or really no different at all.
The idea was simple: keep people from gathering on beaches where they can easily spread the virus. Because police and lifeguards weren’t really prepared to distinguish between surfing and general beach chilling, or just didn’t want to split hairs, at many beaches they just said: “nobody allowed.”
Surfers were perplexed. How were we supposed to be spreading a virus by surfing, some of us wondered, when we’re already social distancing and are outside in a UV-ray-bombarded environment inhospitable to the coronavirus? Epidemiologists, most of us are not, but we tried to apply common sense. Then, an article from the Los Angeles Times suggested coronavirus might easily spread in seafoam, and suddenly it seemed maybe there was danger.
Recent research, however, suggests our initial instincts had merit. Sort of.
A May 15, an article in the New York Times dove into studies around how the virus spreads—not simply how it can be dispersed into the air, but how it actually moves through the world in enough quantities to infect people—and, as it turns out, surfing seems relatively safe when respecting the common laws of social distancing.
The article cited a study of 7,300 cases in China in which researchers cataloged how the virus was caught. Only one of the cases involved someone catching the virus while outside, and it was after a prolonged conversation one-on-one with someone who had the virus, not from paddling around 10 to 15 feet away from someone who is sick.
“The risk is lower outdoors, but it’s not zero,” said Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. “And I think the risk is higher if you have two people who are stationary next to each other for a long time, like on a beach blanket, rather than people who are walking and passing each other.”
You can see here the thinking that led to closed beaches, but it also makes it seem as though surfing is relatively safe, with the most basic of precautions taken. Bobbing right next to strangers or friends you don’t live with during long south swell sets is a bad idea right now, but that’s easily remedied with commonsensical distancing.
Erin Bromage, an infectious disease expert at the University of Massachusetts, wrote an article that’s recently drawn a great deal of media attention, summing up what he’s seen in researching the coronavirus and how other viruses spread, and outdoor recreation can be put at the bottom of his list of concerns.
Bromage points out that sneezing and coughing emit the most virus particles at once, which is bad news if you’re indoors in close proximity to someone hacking away, but it’s the prolonged contact and breathing in the same air that’s the big risk, and how we’ve seen the most spreading, by far. It’s people in nursing homes, churches, parties, business meetings. Close contact, continuous talking, and singing, etc., in which case continuous shedding of the virus lingers in air people breathe a whole lot of—this is what’s gonna get you sick.
One, or a few viruses or virus particles isn’t enough to cause infection, researchers say. You need enough virus that overwhelms the body’s immediate immune response, which requires either a concentrated dose of virus particles at once or being in the same space as someone who is constantly emitting the virus.
“The exposure to virus x time formula is the basis of contact tracing,” writes Bromage. “Anyone you spend greater than 10 minutes within a face-to-face situation is potentially infected. Anyone who shares a space with you (say an office) for an extended period is potentially infected.”
Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist, pointed out recently that being in water outdoors is a likely good place to be these days, in a NYT interview.
“In my opinion, pool water, freshwater in a lake or river, or seawater exposure would be extremely low transmission risk even without dilution (which would reduce risk further),” said Dr. Rasmussen. “Probably the biggest risk for summer water recreation is crowds—a crowded pool locker room, dock or beach, especially if coupled with limited physical distancing or prolonged proximity to others. The most concentrated sources of virus in such an environment will be the people hanging out at the pool, not the pool itself.”
Researchers have yet to dive into the specifics of how the virus that causes COVID-19 dilutes in seawater, but other coronaviruses typically don’t handle water well. We do know that UV light kills the virus quickly. Is there a chance that a surfer paddling ahead of you spits into the water, then you paddle through it, and pick up whatever virus particles they emitted? Sure. Which is where common sense comes in.
Give people some space in the lineup, which you should be doing anyway, and surfing sure looks like about as minimal risk as there can be. [… and surfing sure looks like a fairly safe outlet during these trying times.]
This article originally appeared on Surfer.com and was republished with permission.
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Over the last week, two overlapping teams of scientists in California released the first results of big antibody surveys to determine how many people have already been infected with the coronavirus. Their estimates were jaw-dropping.
In Silicon Valley, the true number of coronavirus infections could be 50 to 85 times higher than the number of reported ones. And in Los Angeles County, there might be 28 to 55 times more people infected than the official count.
The numbers, covered in the nationalpress and shared widely on social media, suggested that far more people than previously realized have “hidden” infections. If that many people have already gotten sick, it also changes the calculation about how frequently the virus can lead to death. In the US, death rates of confirmed cases are over 5%, a high number driven in part by a lack of diagnostic testing.
But the new numbers out of Northern California suggest the virus may kill a much smaller portion of the wider pool of diagnosed and undiagnosed cases, in this case around 0.12% to 0.2%. That would be closer to the death rate for the flu, which is about 0.1%.
Right-wing and libertarian sites immediately seized on the findings, arguing that the economic shutdown has not been worth the public health gains.
Most experts agree there are far more coronavirus infections in the world than are being counted. But almost as instantly as the California numbers were released, criticscalled outwhat they sawas significant problems with, or at least big questions about, how the scientists had arrived at them. Chief among their concerns was the accuracy of the test underpinning both studies, and whether the scientists had fully accounted for the number of false positives it might generate.
“I think the authors of the above-linked paper owe us all an apology,” Andrew Gelman, a statistics and political science professor at Columbia University, wrote on his blog last weekend in reference to the study out of Santa Clara County, home to tech giants like Apple and Google. He added, “I think they need to apologize because these were avoidable screw-ups. They’re the kind of screw-ups that happen if you want to leap out with an exciting finding and you don’t look too carefully at what you might have done wrong.”
The two antibody surveys, led by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Southern California, are the largest conducted in the US to date. Scientists worldwide are counting on widespread use of these blood-based tests, also known as serological tests, to eventually answer important questions about the pandemic, from who might be immune to reinfection to exactly how widespread the disease is. Such studies are underway around the world, from Germany to Italy to New York.
“These are extremely valuable studies, and when they’re done right, they’re going to tell us really important things,” Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told BuzzFeed News. “I just think if they’re not done in careful ways, they can mislead us about what’s actually happening.”
Kilpatrick worries that the results of these two studies could in turn erode public trust in the need for lockdowns. “If that’s based on faulty information, that would be terrible,” he said.
Here are some of the biggest criticisms about the studies.
Criticism #1: The scientists sought media attention before having supporting data.
The pandemic has kicked academic publishing into warp speed, and scientists are uploading discoveries to the internet every day, bypassing the normal checks of peer review in favor of quickly sharing information. Even so, both research teams — who share a member, Neeraj Sood of USC — have moved at a pace that’s raised some eyebrows in the scientific community. They floated the possibility of scores of uncounted infections to the media before presenting data to back it up, leading some observers to question whether they had rushed to prove a preconceived theory.
On March 17 in Stat, before the antibody surveys had started, Stanford professor John Ioannidis bemoaned the lack of reliable data about the virus, a “fiasco” that “creates tremendous uncertainty about the risk of dying from Covid-19.” The next week, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Is the Coronavirus as Deadly as They Say?,” two other Stanford faculty argued that “projections of the death toll could plausibly be orders of magnitude too high.”
Last Friday, a team led by those three researchers uploaded a preliminary draft, or a preprint, about their Santa Clara County study. By early April, there were 956 confirmed cases there. But based on their serological study of 3,300 people, the researchers concluded that the actual number of infections was between 48,000 and 81,000.
On Medrxiv, the preprint server where their results were posted, readers have left 300 comments and counting.
Asked to comment for this story, Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford professor of medicine and the paper’s senior author, acknowledged by email Monday night that his team had “received a vast number of comments and suggestions on our working paper.” They are planning to soon release a revised version “incorporating many of the suggestions,” with a new appendix “addressing many of the most important criticisms we have heard,” he wrote.
“This is exactly the way peer review should work in science,” he added.
And on Monday afternoon, the Los Angeles results were shared in a press conference staged by health officials from Los Angeles County and Sood, vice dean for research at USC’s Price School of Public Policy and co-leader of the study there. In early April, the county had reported nearly 8,000 cases. But according to the new serological study of 863 people, the researchers estimated the true number of infections was between 221,000 and 442,000.
In an unexpected twist later that night, Sood said he then learned that a draft of his paper, which had not been released as part of the press conference, had mysteriously been posted to RedState.com, a right-wing blog. The site took it down upon his request — though not before a few scientists found it.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Sood said he had no idea how the report wound up online without his permission. “It’s just upsetting to me that it was done, because I really tried to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen,” he told BuzzFeed News. (BuzzFeed News has a cached copy but is not discussing it here.)
Sood said he had no choice but to release the numbers under county rules, because anything the public health department is involved with must be disclosed to the county’s leaders. “But we clearly couched those results as ‘these are preliminary findings,’” he said.
Sood said he plans to eventually post a paper online, but only once it has been peer-reviewed and approved for publication.
“I don’t want ‘crowd peer review’ or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “It’s just too burdensome and I’d rather have a more formal peer review process.”
Still, skipping the traditional step of data sharing didn’t go over well with some scientists.
“You can’t report the conclusions without providing scientific evidence — or you shouldn’t,” said Natalie Dean, a University of Florida biostatistician.
Criticism #2: The antibody test’s accuracy rates may be shakier than presented.
One of scientists’ biggest concerns is that the researchers were overly confident in their test’s false-positive rate and failed to account for the likely possibility that it could be lower or higher — a potential difference that would dramatically affect the studies’ conclusions.
Tests like these look for antibodies formed by the immune system in response to a past infection, and differ from the nasal- and throat-swab diagnostic tests that spot current infections. Antibodies are usually an indicator of immunity against infectious diseases, but since this virus has only existed for about four months, scientists don’t yet know how long such protection might last.
Nevertheless, antibody tests have been touted as key to identifying who might be safe from reinfection and could help reopen the economy. To increase their availability, the FDA is letting them be sold without checking the accuracy rates advertised by their manufacturers. As a result, only four have “emergency” authorization from the agency and more than 120 others have varying — and unverified — degrees of accuracy.
Both California studies used tests from Premier Biotech, a Minnesota-based company. These tests were used because they were donated and their accuracy claims were independently verified at Stanford, Sood said in an interview last week.
Before being deployed in Northern California, Premier’s test kit was run against a total of 401 samples known to be coronavirus-negative: 371 in the manufacturer’s testing, 30 in Stanford’s testing. Across the two sets of results, Premier’s test reported that 399 of the 401 were negative.
The researchers interpreted this to mean that it most likely had a false-positive rate of 0.5%, according to the report. At the same time, it could also range somewhere between 0.1% and 1.7%, according to the researchers’ “confidence interval,” a statistical term that accounts for a range of possible errors.
That matters because the Santa Clara study found antibodies in 50 of the 3,330 participants, or 1.5%. Since the test’s false-positive rate could be as high as 1.7%, it is possible that many of the so-called positives were not, in fact, positive.
“Literally every single one could be a false positive,” Kilpatrick said. “No one thinks all of them were, but the problem is we can’t actually exclude the possibility.”
That possibility is even harder to rule out in situations when the number of actual infections is low. If only a minority of Santa Clara County residents are infected, the test would have a higher likelihood of turning up false positives.
In their analysis, the researchers adjusted for this range of rates while calculating their infection estimates. But given the small number of samples used to validate the test, coupled with the fact that the test is almost as new as the virus, critics say it’s possible that the true false-positive rates could be even higher than presented. The test also generates a large percentage of false negatives, 20%, with a possible range of up to 28%, according to the combined validation efforts.
“There’s more uncertainty than they’ve accounted for,” Dean said.
The wide range in estimates for infections in Santa Clara County in early April — from 48,000 to 81,000 infections — reflects the difference in accuracy rates calculated for the test across the two times it was validated. Using the manufacturer’s rates to correct for the total, 2.5% of the county was infected. Using Stanford’s, about 4.2% were.
As for the Southern California study, there isn’t yet full data to analyze. But researchers there found antibodies in about 35 out of 836 people, or 4.1% of those tested.
So far, serology tests across the world have produced a wide variety of estimates of the number of true coronavirus infections, with those from the California studies on the lower end. At Wuhan’s Zhongnan Hospital, 2.4% of its 3,600 employees were found to have antibodies. Tests on 500 residents of a German town turned up antibodies in 14% of them. And a study near Boston found that 32% of 200 people had been previously infected.
On Monday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus maintained that the prevalence was low, “not more than 2 to 3 percent.”
Even slight increases or decreases in the number of positives matter because, in such a small sample, they could make a big difference in the estimated infections across the population.
Sood said that he and the Stanford team had done their best to adjust for the test’s false positives and false negatives, while acknowledging that they were taking a second look at their confidence intervals. “As new data comes in about these tests, we will update these results,” he said.
None of this means that testing shouldn’t have been done, or that the researchers shouldn’t have published their data.
The error, observers say, was in not being more upfront about how little the numbers could be trusted.
“The fact that they made mistakes in their data analysis does not mean that their substantive conclusions are wrong (or that they’re right),” Gelman said by email. “It just means that there is more uncertainty than was conveyed in the reports and public statements.”
Criticism #3: The Santa Clara County study picked and sorted participants in questionable ways.
Another aspect of the Santa Clara County study that has been flagged as a major problem is how it found participants: Facebook ads.
Spreading the word about tests through social media, the researchers said, helped the study get off the ground quickly and allowed organizers to target people by zip code and demographic characteristics like sex, race, and age. Then they had people drive through three testing sites.
One potential downside of this approach, though, is that since testing is so scarce in the US, the mention of a test may have drawn disproportionate numbers of people who’d had COVID-19 symptoms but weren’t able to get tested. That could have inflated the number of positive results. It’s unclear by how much: The researchers said they collected data about symptoms but didn’t describe how many of the positive testers had symptoms or what the symptoms were.
This recruiting resulted in a group that was markedly different from Santa Clara County’s overall population in a couple ways: Certain zip codes and white women were overrepresented; Latino and Asian people were underrepresented. Given they were Facebook users, the test likely didn’t include people without internet access.
When calculating the estimated infections, the researchers accounted for these differences as well as the test’s accuracy rates in order to try to make their results representative of the county. They didn’t adjust for age, though, even though some of the age groups were also not representative: 5% of participants were over 64, compared with 13% in the county. Sood said that they did not have enough participants across age groups to adjust for age.
All these decisions, among others, influenced the final estimate of infections. When the demographic and geographic differences were adjusted for, the percentage of positive results across the population, 1.5%, nearly doubled.
Kilpatrick believes the researchers did themselves a disservice by not recruiting a more representative group from the get-go. “If the group that did the Stanford study had asked any of the scientists who do these studies all the time, ‘We’re thinking of recruiting on Facebook,’ we’d say, ‘Don’t do it,’” he said.
An ideal way to recruit, Kilpatrick said, would be to use a county database of addresses and send letters to a subset of random addresses, making sure that any one neighborhood isn’t overrepresented. Of course, he acknowledged, there’s always the chance that lots of people wouldn’t respond anyway.
Other serology studies have taken their own approaches to finding participants. In the Boston suburb of Chelsea, researchers pinpricked the fingers of random passersby in Bellingham Square. Starting this week, New York is testing more than 3,000 people in supermarkets across the state.
For the Los Angeles County study, Sood said he and his team went a different way: They enlisted a market research firm with a proprietary database of thousands of emails and phone numbers of county residents. They invited a random subset to participate in a study “about COVID,” but didn’t say it was about testing.
The team set about recruiting people to fulfill quotas for race/ethnicity, age, and so on, based on the county’s demographics. Once a subgroup’s quota was met, they stopped enrolling people. To make sure they were reaching underrepresented groups, the market research firm made follow-up calls to people in those categories.
Participants were then invited to drive through six testing sites on a recent weekend. Staff also went to some respondents’ homes to do testing there.
Even though Sood says they went to great lengths to make the group representative of the population, he acknowledged that there is no “perfect” recruitment strategy.
Of the Santa Clara County study, he said the team had done their best with limited resources. “We still thought it was worthwhile doing it even though we fully recognize our methods were not anywhere close to perfect,” he said. “We still thought it would provide useful information and it would add to the debate about what’s going on.”
Few people would turn down the chance to find out whether they’ve had the coronavirus. But Dean questioned whether, from a public health messaging standpoint, it is helpful to fixate on these infection estimates when they are so preliminary.
No matter how many people may or may not be infected — numbers that scientists won’t be able to pin down for a long time — the real numbers that matter right now, in terms of conveying the threat of the disease, are those of the bodies ending up in ICU beds and funeral homes.
“Either way, we’re ending up with a lot of people being hospitalized and dying,” she said. “Everyone needs to keep that part in mind.”