On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s lovely essay in the New York Review of Books, “Chemical Warfare’s Home Front,” describes Fritz Haber’s contribution to the use of toxic gas in war.

Haber orchestrated the use of chlorine to suffocate all animal life – including soldiers – downwind of his nation’s troops. And his plan succeeded. After unleashing 300,000 pounds of chlorine gas, huge numbers of people died. Soldiers– some of whom suffocated, some whose lungs burned, some who committed suicide when enveloped by the gas – as well as horses, cows, chickens, wildlife.

Chemical warfare is horrible, but Haber’s battlefield “experiment” was considered a success. Military researchers then concocted more dangerous chemical agents, like DNA-crosslinking mustard gas and muscle-clenching Sarin nerve gas.

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Fritz Haber’s other ideas were seemingly more beneficial for humanity. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for making synthetic fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizer let us grow more crops.

We could feed billions more people!

The global population soared.

If we hadn’t invented synthetic fertilizer, the global population would still be under four billion people.

Climate change would still be a huge problem – the most outrageous polluters haven’t been the most populous nations. Climate change was caused primarily by the United States and other wealthy nations, whereas overpopulation will first devastate equatorial nations.

A seemingly good idea – more fertilizer! – has greatly exacerbated the scale of suffering.

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Kolbert discusses the invention of chlorofluorocarbons, which seemed like great coolants. With CFCs, Frigidaire could build cheaper refrigerators! Regular families could keep their ice cream cold without spending as much on electricity.

Unfortunately, CFCs also dissolve our ozone layer. More dangerous ultraviolet radiation began to reach us from the sun, causing horrible skin cancers.

CFCs seemed like a good idea — they do work great as coolants — but they caused awful problems as part of a bigger system.

Kolbert quotes the chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who said, in reference to his studies of CFCs, “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.”

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Anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued civilizations collapse when overwhelmed by complexity.

Like the children’s nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly — then a spider to catch the fly, then a cat to catch the spider — our complicated solutions can create new, perhaps worse, problems.

This is the theme of Jenny Kleeman’s Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Kleeman investigates several industries that purport to solve our world’s problems – You can eat meat without killing animals! You can make a baby without a mother’s body! – without addressing the fundamental causes of these problems.

Describing her travels, Kleeman writes:

I head back to my hotel as the reassuring cloak of darkness falls on Las Vegas. I’m exhausted. Music is thumping out of huge speakers mounted on the building’s exterior: throbbing, pounding beats that are supposed to entice gamblers into the hotel’s casino. I wipe my key card and flop down on the giant bed.

On the bedside table, there’s a metal dish full of individually wrapped pairs of earplugs: wax ones, foam ones, silicone ones – a profusion of solutions supplied by the management to the noise pollution problem caused by the management.

They could just switch the music off, of course, but they have provided a little piece of technology instead so they don’t have to.

My head is full of Eva, [a prototype interactive sex doll] who has the body of a real woman, but can be beaten without feeling a thing. Rather than dealing with the cause of a problem, we invent something to try to cancel it out.

Perhaps we should eat different foods. Perhaps our attitudes about sex or the importance of a sociable community are making our lives worse. Perhaps if we addressed these issues directly, we wouldn’t need sex robots or vegan meat.

Clean meat is one of many possible futures of food, so long as we continue to eat meat. We will always have the power to not want it anymore, or to want it much less.

That is where the real power lies: in harnessing our desires, rather than in mastering technology. Until we do, we will be even further removed from where our food comes from, and will feel even less responsible for it.

We will be perpetuating the kind of thinking that caused the meat mess in the first place.

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In April 2020, I described two major drawbacks to our efforts to “slow the spread” of Covid-19 instead of providing targeted protection for the people at high risk of severe illness.

1.) Immunity to most coronaviruses lapses within a matter of months. Keeping the virus in circulation longer increases the total number of infections and makes it more difficult to shield people at high risk from eventual exposure.

2.) Each infection encompasses some number of viral replications and thus genetic drift. If a population of 20 people transfers a virus between themselves one by one, rather than all catching it from the same initial carrier, the virus has 20-fold more generations to mutate and better evade our immune systems.

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Admittedly, my April 2020 prediction about the timeline for vaccine development was quite wrong – I thought this might take three to five years. I’m thankful that I was wrong. I’m obviously grateful for the fantastic work done by vaccine developers so far.

For these vaccines to effectively staunch viral transmission, we’ll need to vaccinate large numbers of people – immunity from prior infections won’t necessarily help much because immunity to this particular virus lapses so quickly, and because people’s prior infections were staggered in time. (Indeed, we’ll probably need to vaccinate large numbers of people repeatedly, because some of our data suggests that vaccine-derived immunity to this also lapses on a timescale of months.)

Unfortunately, we live in a country where large numbers of people distrust the medical establishment. Even if we had sufficient doses of the vaccines available today, I don’t know what percentage of our population would choose to get them.

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Masks definitely reduce viral transmission. It was obviously a good idea for everyone to wear masks anywhere that high risk and lower risk people share the same space.

Cooperation definitely makes for a better place to live. In places that enacted mask orders, it’s obviously a good idea to follow them.

It’s worth remembering, though, that any fix – even something as simple as this piece of cloth covering my nose and mouth – can have unintentional consequences. New virus variants – which our current vaccines may be less effective against – are a predictable result of our effort to “slow the spread” with masks.

And yet.

I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated. We’ve included a sheet of information about Covid-19 with each package recently, helping to explain that Covid-19 is not a hoax, that it’s a dangerous respiratory disease, that masks and social distancing can help people reduce their risk.

I’m currently revising this information sheet – it was put together months ago, when we understood less about this virus – and I’m still recommend that everyone wear masks.

Not just because prisons are places where many low risk and high risk people are confined together — although, they are. Outrageous sentencing practices have led to a large number of elderly people being stuck in prison.

But also, anecdotal evidence suggests that people are more likely to develop severe illness from Covid-19 when they are exposed to a large number of viral particles at once.

Viruses reproduce exponentially – you can get sick if you inhale even one capsid. But you’re more likely to get seriously ill if you inhale a whole bunch of viral particles. If you’re initially exposed to a small number of particles, your body will have more time to fight off the infection before it makes you feel sick.

Research studies from military bases have shown that Covid-19 will continue to spread even when everyone wears masks and tries to stay six feet away from each other. But we haven’t tested – an experiment like this would be totally unethical – whether we’re more likely to see asymptomatic or mild cases when people’s initial exposure is to a small number of viral particles.

It’s quite likely, though.

So, although I think our efforts to “slow the spread” weren’t the best plan last year, I’ll still be recommending masks.

On reinfection.

On reinfection.

If you’ve been reading about Covid-19 in the New York Times, you’ve probably learned that reinfection is very unlikely.

What you’ve learned is incorrect.

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Don’t get me wrong – I love the New York Times. Within the spectrum of United States politics, I am very far to the left. Anti-consumerist, prison abolitionist, environmentalist, feminist, climate activist, etc., etc. I fit into all those categories.

I’m also a scientist. I am staunchly pro-vaccine. I don’t like pesticides, but I’m a huge fan of GMO crops. (Honestly, I wish there was a category at the grocery store where you could pay to support genetically-modified organisms grown without environmental toxins – “organic” doesn’t have the nuance I’d like.)

So my goal here isn’t to rag on the New York Times. I’m including screenshots of their headlines only to give us a common frame of reference.

This is what the news is saying. And it’s wrong.

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It was going to be very difficult to demonstrate reinfection with Covid-19.

Why?

In general, reinfection with any virus will produce a milder illness the second time.

Most people’s first infection with Covid-19 is so mild that they don’t realize they have it – perhaps 80% of infections are “asymptomatic,” in which a person has been infected with the virus, is probably shedding the virus (thereby infecting other people), but feels totally fine. So, people’s second infection? Some percentage higher than 80% are likely to feel totally well, even though they might be shedding virus.

When people develop severe complications from Covid-19, the illness can linger for weeks or even months.

I don’t know for certain whether my family contracted Covid-19 in February, because there were no tests available here at the time. All I know is that we were two close contacts removed from someone who had just returned from China, that this close contact tested negative for influenza, that my family had been vaccinated for influenza, and that our symptoms precisely mirrored the common suite for Covid-19. But in any case, we felt horrible for about three weeks, and we experienced lingering fatigue with occasional coughing for about two months.

Lengthy recovery is so common that there’s a colloquial name for it: “long-haulers.” If we’re trying to identify whether someone was re-infected, we’d need to make sure that we weren’t looking at continued viral shedding during a lengthy recovery.

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To demonstrate that someone was re-infected with Covid-19, the following would have to happen:

  • A person gets tested for Covid-19 during their first infection.
  • The genome of the virus is sequenced after that first infection.
  • The person is re-infected.
  • The person happens to get a Covid-19 test during the second infection (even though it’s highly likely that this person feels well at the time).
  • The genome of the virus is sequenced after the second infection.
  • The genome of the virus that infected the person on the second occasion is noticeably different from the first (even though Covid-19 includes a proofreading enzyme that slows genetic drift).

That’s all very unlikely!

There are just so many coincidences involved – that you happen to get infected with an easily distinguishable virus the second time, that you happen to get a test the second time, that anyone took the (significant) trouble and expense to sequence both genomes.

And what I mean is, proving re-infection is very unlikely. Which is totally independent of the likelihood of re-infection itself.

And yet, even though it’s so unlikely we’d be able to prove that re-infection is occurring, we have.

We know, with 100% certainty, that people can be reinfected. We’ve documented it.

Given how unlikely it was that we’d be able to document reinfection, the fact that we’ve seen this at all indicates that it’s probably quite common. As you would expect based upon our bodies’ responses to other coronaviruses.

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Given that re-infection definitely occurs, and is probably quite common, why have you read that it’s unlikely?

The underlying probably is language usage. When my father – an infectious diseases specialist – talks about re-infection, he’s thinking about contracting severe symptoms during a second infection. Which is reasonable. He’s a medical doctor. He cares about helping sick people get better.

But when we’re thinking about how to respond, as a nation, to this pandemic, we’re thinking about the dynamics of transmission. We’re trying to answer questions like, “Can kids go to school without people dying?”

(Yup, they can! And should!)

From this perspective, we’re thinking about who is going to spread the virus, and where. We need to know whether a person who is protected from severe disease – either from prior recovery or vaccination – might shed viral particles. Will that individual register as a positive case on a PCR test? Will that individual get classmates or co-workers sick?

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Re-infections are probably the underlying cause of the current rise in cases in New York City.

70% or more of the population of New York City was infected with Covid-19 during April. That’s a huge percentage, well above what most researchers consider the “herd immunity threshold” for similar respiratory viruses.

For there to be another spike in cases now, many of those 70% would need to have lost their initial immunity. That’s also why you’d expect to see a higher “test positivity rate” – if many of the current cases are reinfections, then they’re likely to be milder. People with milder (or asymptomatic) infections are less likely to seek out a test.

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For general audiences, the phrasing I’d recommend is to say “Severe illness is unlikely during Covid-19 reinfections” as opposed to “Reinfection is unlikely.”

There have been a few cases of people’s second infection being more severe than the first, but these cases indeed appear to be quite rare.

But re-infection itself?

The fact that we’ve documented any instances of re-infection suggests that it’s quite common. Which we could have predicted from the beginning – indeed, I did. And that’s why I’ve been recommending – for months – policies very different from what we’ve done.