Tagged with covid19

Our World In 80,000 Hours

I usually don't consider myself a "fan" of anything, but when it comes to the work of @MaxCRoser at Our World in Data, and @robertwiblin as an interviewer, the term applies quite well.

So imagine what a treat for my ears the podcast with them both has been! Lots of background on one of the best sites on the interwebs. If you know it only for its statistics about the CoVid19-pandemic, make sure to check out their other topics as well!


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Who Gets To Decide?

Once more concerning the lab leak hypothesis for the origin of COVID19, I thought aloud the other day:


In a similar vein, but more pithy, I saw a tweet that I cannot seem to find any more, but was close to:

Letting scientists that work on gain-of-function research decide whether or not it is worth the risk is like letting the oil industry decide over climate change policy.

While I would not put it as strongly myself, I think the point is valid. The stakes are too high and eventualities too hard to judge for individual research groups or even funding agencies.

Which is why I am happy to note that this kind of discussion is being had within the field, an example being this conversation.

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Origin Context

I still listen to the excellent podcast with German virologist Christian Drosten and in the latest episode (transcript), he puts the recent media attention for the lab leak hypothesis into context.

Lots of intersting bits of information there! I tried to run some paragraphs through automatic translations, but the result did not do it justice. So brush up your German, if you know some, and do listen or read!

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Origin Matters

Since I mentioned it three weeks ago, the discussion about the possible lab origin of SARS-COV2 has taken off and the subject has moved from "purportedly racist conspiracy theory" into the middle of the Overton window, no the least via this Letter in Science.

First off, I never understood how the lab leak was supposed to be more racist than a wet market origin. The latter can easily be understood as calling Chinese "filthy bat eaters", no? In any case, this is a fine example of how well-intentioned policing of opinions can get in the way of finding the truth.

And the truth is hugely important in this case! Because even though the origin might not be the most important factor for the response to the pandemic once it started, it matters a great deal about how we go about preventing the next one.

A disinterested investigation is what we should want but there is so much prestige at stake, for the CCP as well as the scientists and funding agencies involved, that it is difficult to go beyond preformed opinions.

Lab leak turning out to be true could shake things up, not in a good way:

Should it turn out that scientists and experts and NGOs, etc. are villains rather than heroes of this story, we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.

Hopefully though, we would instead get our act together and figure out how to properly handle bio-risk.

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Lab Origin Of Sars2 Still Possible

I am as quick in dismissing anything that sounds like a conspiracy theory as anyone. But I also recognize that the perceived consensus is oftentimes just that, perceived.

This is also true for science. While we often claim that everybody tries to disprove everyone else to gain recognition, the reverse is more often true. Going againt the mainstream opinion is costly, it damages reputations and funding; after all it is others in the same field who get to decide what is good science, and what is bad.

Which brings me to this article, which argues that a lab origin of the COVID virus it is not as unlikely as generally believed. The author shows that the pieces that very much shaped the consensus are not very convincing, that virologists know this but have no strong incentives to make this opinion heard. That the lab-origin claim is associated with Trump does not help.

As a layman I have no strong opinion on this, of course. But dismissing any possible origin of the Coronavirus out of hand does not sound right to me. Needs more research!

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Impending Doom

Two of the podcasts I listen to just covered a similar topic: How societies handle disaster, why we usually are unprepared, and how we could do better. Both are above the usual crop and thus highly recommended!

Sean Carroll talks to Niall Ferguson about a large variety of things. Too many bits of wisdom to even try picking a quote from the transcript.

Sam Harris brings on Rob Reid who delivers a riveting monologue, broken up by discussion, that vividly outlines why synthetic biology can pose a real threat, and what can be done to put countermeasures into place early enough. Four hours well spent!

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Return To Normal

My pandemic impatience is not as bad anymore as it was a few weeks ago. I am hearing of more and more people I know getting vaccinated and I am happy for them. They should restart their lives and not listen too much to those who revel in admonishing people to keep up with the precautions as if the risk had not been drastically reduced.

XKCD's comic on how the nRNA vaccine works is fantastic, by the way. He has a whole series on the pandemic, all quite witty: 1 2 3 4 5 6


Pandemic Thoughts

I am getting impatient. It is difficult to admit to myself, but I am turning into a crank, a real old fart, whenever the topic turns to COVID in conversations with collegues or friends. I find myself pontificating and linking to opinion articles and statistics that show how things could be so much better, if we just got our act together.

Needless to say, I am not proud of this. Maybe the pandemic is finally getting to me, even though my work and life situation are such that the negative impact on me has been minor compared to many people, if not most. For that I am certainly grateful.

Still, I find it difficult to shake off this vague feeling of frustration over the fact that we are doing much worse than we could. Not so much because I think I know better than the experts, but rather because there is a wide range of opinions among people with expertise, and I am convinced more by the ones that want to widen the Overton window to doing things differently than before, because we can and because the dire situation warrants it.

Just to name one example, while the quick vaccine development is a great success, it could have been accelerated by months by allowing the routines for Phase-3-trials and approval to be adapted from the status quo. This is not even hindsight knowledge, but people argued for challenge trials at the time already.

I think a part of "the problem" is the general unwillingness to properly weigh risks againt each other. If some people will get harmed by a decision, like the hypothetical one not to suspend a vaccine due to suspected rare side effects, because it reduces harm for a much larger group, then it is the right thing to do and should trump the concerns. I understand that decision makers get much more easily blamed for action than inaction, but we should correct for this bias, not accept it.

A few related links:




I don't know about you, but I find this graph (source) extremely frustrating. There is no good reason why we in the EU vaccinate three times slower than the US, UK, or Chile for that matter (who bought the Chinese vaccine).

Yes, paying more per dose and subsidizing production early would probably have been unpopular at the time, but so much cheaper than not nipping the third wave in the bud right now. This is not hindsight talking, knowledgable people knew this all along and were listened to elsewhere. Kudos to the Brits who can rightfully feel smug about Brexit now, even though EU-countries were not prevented from bypassing the EMA in approval and procurement of vaccines - none did that, as far as I know.

More about vaccine manufacturing than you ever wanted to know.

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Coronavirus Update

What's up, folks? I hope you so far made it safely through the pandemic and its effetcs on everything else!

After my initial spurt of interest in Feburary and March when I followed the situation closely, once everyone was taking it seriously and it became "all hands on deck", I relaxed and left it to the pros. Arm-chair opinions are usually not my thing and keeping in mind a relatively high level of uncertainty about the state of the world is something that I have become familiar with.

Just as one example, it is still open for analysis and debate, whether the Swedish way to handle COVID-19 without a strong lock-down turns out to be good or bad. There are many facets to this and things are complex enough to maintain some modesty in one's opinions and utterances.

I am among the lucky ones that have experienced very little negative impact. Working from home is something I had done weeks at a time for several years. Being isolated comes somewhat naturally to me. Plus, I made a wise decision in the spring, once it became clear that some projects were put on hiatus anyway, to take a temporary partial leave from work. Therefore I have had plenty of time this spring and summer for other things. Mostly forestry, carpentry and wood-working - more on that later! And brewing more tasty beers, of course.

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