May 28, 2020

How advances in biological science are transforming economies and societies

McKinsey Global Institute is well known by their excellent papers and analysis. Forget consultancy for a while, if you are interested in the disruptive knowledge, go to MGI. Recently they have released an excellent report on the Bio Revolution. This is a timely contribution for an issue that those that read this blog already know: we are within a huge change on how life has been considered. CRISPR technology, among others, are changing quickly the landscape.
The potential scope and scale of the (direct and indirect) impact of biological innovations appear very substantial. As much as 60 percent of the physical inputs to the global economy could be produced biologically. Around one-third of these inputs are biological materials (such as wood). The remaining two-thirds are not biological materials, but could, in principle, be produced using innovative biological processes (for instance, bioplastics).
A pipeline of about 400 use cases, almost all scientifically feasible today, is already visible. These applications alone could have direct economic impact of up to $4 trillion a year over the next ten to 20 years. More than half of this direct impact could be outside human health in domains such as agriculture and food, consumer products and services, and materials and energy production. Taking into account potential knock-on effects, new applications yet to emerge, and additional scientific breakthroughs, the full potential could be far larger.
A must read.

May 27, 2020

The role of global governance in a pandemic

COVID-19: Public Health Is a Question of National Security

Three critical points in a document of the Council of Foreign Relations:
Transparency and Knowledge Sharing
The primary flaw in the COVID-19 response has been the opacity in knowledge sharing. China is the first country to claim to have successfully flattened the curve. Research suggests that China’s nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as travel bans, social distancing, isolation, and contact tracing, wereeffective in containing the outbreak.
Strengthening Global Mechanisms
During health crises, the world looks to the primary global health agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), for guidance. Surprisingly, the WHO’s response to COVID-19 was lacking. Although the body had once warned that caution and vigilance were necessary against any future Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like disease, it ignored this advice in late 2019 when managing the mysterious pneumonia in Wuhan, China. For months, it failed to recommend travel restrictions or bans.  
Capacity Building
COVID-19 has rendered some of the better health systems in the world inoperable. A country’s first line of defense is the capability of its health system to detect and control contagious diseases. Underinvestment in preparedness and reliance on treatment rather than a preemptive response has proven costly in terms of lives and dollarspportunity to tackle the pandemic was missed, raising questions about the WHO’s credibility. 

Juan Correa

May 26, 2020

How epidemic-macroeconomic models of pandemic create uncertainty

Dealing with Covid-19: understanding the policy choices

A model is as good as its assumptions!. This is obvious and the application requires good data. Both issues, assumptions and data are the reasons why many models doesn't fit in this pandemic. Bad assumptions and bad data give bad conclusions. Have a look at this paper and in p.5 you'll find the different health and economic impact of models under different assumptions. So different that require a clever explanation if somebody wants to use them to take a decision.
VSL-based and SIR-macro models have helped to inform policy decisions in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the existing models are subject to a number of caveats, particularly relating to the uncertainty of their underlying epidemiological projections and stylised economic foundations.

 Juan Genovés

May 25, 2020

Can capitalism be reimagined? (3)

The future of capitalism

Martin Wolf said that this book was one of his main references. And I agree, it contains many well structured messages. Specially, it links economics with politics, quite a difficult issue:
 Our political systems are democratic, but the details of their architecture have increasingly inclined them to polarization. Most of our voting systems favour the two largest parties. So, the menu of choice facing voters depends upon what these two parties offer. The key dangerous step has been that, in the name of greater democracy, in many countries the major political parties have empowered their members to elect their leaders. This has replaced a system in which the leader of a party was drawn from among its most experienced people, and often chosen by its elected representatives.
Leaders can promote new narratives, but the decline of trust in political leaders has inverted authority; people pay more attention to those at the hub of their social networks than to the talking heads on the television. The networks, however, have become self-contained echo-chambers and so we even lack the common space in which to communicate. This is enormously damaging because participation in a common network constitutes the common knowledge that we all hear the same narratives.
 Reduced to a sentence, shared identity becomes the foundation for far-sighted reciprocity. Societies that succeed in building such belief systems work better than those based on either individualism or any of the revivalist ideologies. Individualist societies forfeit the vast potential of public goods. The revivalist ideologies are each based on hatred of some other part of society and are culs-de-sac to conflict. In a healthy society, those who become successful have been reared into acceptance of that web of reciprocal obligations.
 In contrast to the Utilitarian vision of autonomous individuals, each generating utility from their own consumption, and counting equally in the great moral arithmetic of total utility, the atoms of a real society are relationships. In contrast to the psychopathic selfishness of economic man restrained by the Platonic guardians of social paternalism, normal people recognize that relationships bring obligations, and that meeting them is central to our sense of purpose in life. The toxic combination of Platonic Guardians and economic man that has dominated public policy has inexorably stripped people of moral responsibility, shifting obligations to the paternalist state. In a bizarre parody of medieval religion, ordinary people are cast as sinners who need to be ruled by exceptional people – the moral meritocracy.
He is in favour of inclusive politics. Me too. Definitely, capitalism can be reimagined.

May 24, 2020

Stop Covid with CRISPR Diagnostics (2)

CRISPR–Cas12-based detection of SARS-CoV-2

Mammoth Biosciences (a firm founded by Jennifer Doudna) has partenered with GSK to commercialise a CRISPR Covid test. Therefore, there are right now two firms in the race: Sherlock and Mammoth.
The paper in Nature explains the details:
Here we report the development and initial validation of a CRISPR–Cas12-based assay9 for detection of SARS-CoV-2 from extracted patient sample RNA, called SARS-CoV-2 DNA Endonuclease-Targeted CRISPR Trans Reporter (DETECTR). This assay performs simultaneous reverse transcription and isothermal amplification using loop-mediated amplification (RT–LAMP)14 for RNA extracted from nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal swabs in universal transport medium (UTM), followed by Cas12 detection of predefined coronavirus sequences, after which cleavage of a reporter molecule confirms detection of the virus. We first designed primers targeting the E (envelope) and N (nucleoprotein) genes of SARS-CoV-2 (Fig. 1a). The primers amplify regions that overlap the World Health Organization (WHO) assay (E gene region) and US CDC assay (N2 region in the N gene)6,15, but are modified to meet design requirements for LAMP. We did not target the N1 and N3 regions used by the US CDC assay, as these regions lacked suitable protospacer adjacent motif sites for the Cas12 guide RNAs (gRNAs). Next, we designed Cas12 gRNAs to detect three SARS-like coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-2 (accession NC_045512), bat SARS-like coronavirus (bat-SL-CoVZC45, accession MG772933) and SARS-CoV (accession NC_004718)) in the E gene and specifically detect only SARS-CoV-2 in the N gene (Supplementary Fig. 1). This design is similar to those used by the WHO and US CDC assays, which use multiple amplicons with probes that are either specific to SARS-CoV-2 or are capable of identifying related SARS-like coronaviruses.

Edward Hopper 

May 23, 2020

After all these years, a new pandemic and the same behavioral biases

Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response

This is the best paper as far as I know on behavioral biases in the current pandemic. The conclusion says:
Over 100 years ago, Science magazine published a paper on lessons from the Spanish Flu pandemic. The paper argued that three main factors stand in the way of prevention: (i) people do not appreciate the risks they run, (ii) it goes against human nature for people to shut themselves up in rigid isolation as a means of protecting others, and (iii) people often unconsciously act as a continuing danger to themselves and others. Our paper provides some insights from the past century of work on related issues in the social and behavioural sciences that may help public health officials mitigate the impact of the current pandemic. Specifically, we discussed research on threat perception, social context, science communication, aligning individual and collective interests, leadership, and stress and coping. 
A century ago paper:  Soper, G. A. The lessons of the pandemic. Science 49, 501–506 (1919).
First, public indifference. People do not appreciate the risks they run. The great complexity and range in severity of the respiratory infections confuse and hide the danger. The infections vary from the common cold to pneumonia. They are not all separate entities by any means. An attack which begins as a coryza or rhinitis may develop into a pharyngitis, tonsilitis, laryngitis, bronchitis or pneumonia. The gravity increases with the progress toward the lungs. The infection sometimes seems to begin in the chest, sometimes in the throat, sometimes in the head. It may stop where it started or pass through several phases. This is the story of the common cold. It is generally more discomforting than dangerous. Most people get well without skillful treatment, or indeed any great interference with business. No specific virus is known to produce it.

May 22, 2020

Searching for a vaccine and a drug in the surreal and accelerated world of Covid-19 research

What Is the World Doing to Create a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Building the critical path for COVID-19 therapeutics

How to Discover Antiviral Drugs Quickly

The world needs Covid-19 vaccines. It may also be overestimating their power

From CFR:
Public officials worldwide have stressed that the pandemic likely will not end until there is an effective vaccine. Even after a vaccine is approved, however, there remains the tremendous challenge of producing enough of it for the world’s population. An estimated one billion doses would need to be manufactured just to vaccinate workers in health care and other essential industries globally, and that is if only a single dose is required for each person.
This task has both motivated countries to prepare for large-scale production, as well as pitted them against one another amid fears of a potentially limited vaccine supply. While Brazil, China, and India all have large vaccine industries, they also have among the largest populations, and they could reserve their vaccine supplies for their own citizens before opening them up to others. Some countries are seeking to strike monopoly agreements with vaccine manufacturers to avoid domestic shortages. Experts including CFR’s Bollyky have warned that bidding wars over a vaccine will lead to inequitable distribution and, ultimately, fail to eliminate the risk of new outbreaks.
Moreover, amid these extraordinary efforts to secure a vaccine, scientists are still investigating how this new coronavirus behaves and trying to answer the many questions people have about the risk it poses and how protected they will be. This includes how effective a vaccine will be against a mutating coronavirus, though researchers point out that mutations do not necessarily mean different strains of the virus or changes in its infectiousness or lethality. Uncovering such details about the virus, they say, will only help in the development of a successful vaccine.
From NEJM:
 So, what is happening now? The laborious, decade-long, classic pathway for the discovery and approval of new drugs could hardly be less well suited to the present pandemic. Repurposing existing drugs offers a potentially rapid mechanism to deployment, since the safety profiles are known. Therefore, a preliminary report of a supercomputer-driven ensemble docking study of a repurposing compound database to the viral S protein was published on a preprint server in mid-February, with 8000 compounds ranked according to the calculated binding affinity to the receptor-binding domain of the S protein.3 Top-ranked compounds from the original S-protein virtual screen are being tested for activity against the live virus. The results will inform future calculations in a speedy, iterative process.