Jun 25, 2020

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week we look at the science of face masks, nearby Super Earths and more.

  • Send your feedback and ideas to me at alison@axios.com, or hit reply. You can reach Eileen at eileen@axios.com.
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Today's newsletter is 1,714 words, a 6.5-minute read.

1 big thing: Where the science stands on face masks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientific evidence shows face masks can help to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the nuances and changes in messaging about their use are complicating public health efforts, Eileen and I write.

Why it matters: COVID-19 cases are rising in many parts of the U.S., but politics, distrust in public health advice and science are coming to a head over face masks.

The latest: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will reportedly update its recommendations on masks again after studying whether they help to protect people from the virus.

  • Early on in this pandemic, when highly protective N95 masks were in short supply, public health officials in the U.S. said the public did not need to wear masks.
  • Their recommendation changed as it became clear that people without symptoms — or who aren't showing them yet — can spread the virus and that even basic cloth face coverings combined with social distance measures may slow transmission.

Between the lines: The mask messaging mishap reflects a "lack of confidence in the public’s ability to process nuances and act responsibly, so that rather than be transparent about the limited protection offered by masks and the risks of supply problems, officials and journalists told the public they were useless," David Wallace-Wells writes in New York magazine.

What's known: Wearing face masks "could result in a large reduction in risk of infection," according to a recent review of 172 studies looking at the effectiveness of masks in reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses.

Where it stands: The WHO and the CDC recommend mask use in health care settings, if you or someone you live with is sick, and where social distancing is difficult (for example, in stores or on public transit).

  • N95: These masks, which block 95% of small particles (0.3 microns or larger) when properly fitted, protect the person wearing it and those around them. But there are ongoing shortages of these masks and the CDC says they should still be reserved for health care workers.
  • KN95: These masks are similar to N95 ones but are produced in China under the country's standards. The FDA shortened their list of approved KN95 manufacturers after some were found to be faulty.
  • Surgical masks: They're meant to stop large droplets of saliva coming from the person wearing the mask, but about 75% of droplets may be blocked from entering, too.
  • Cloth masks: The many configurations of cloth masks catch the droplets that spread the virus and may also block 30–60% of particles, according to the same preprint study that assessed surgical masks.
  • The WHO recommends a mask with three layers — an absorbent cotton inside, a filter and a nonabsorbent outer layer.
  • "Cloth masks protect everyone around you, first and foremost," says Werner Bischoff of Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "They can filter out some of the viruses you breathe, but that is not what they are there for."

"In an ideal world, N95 masks should be what everyone is having, for when they are exposing other people and for when they are exposed to other people, so this way you will prevent both infecting others and being infected," says Sangwei Lu of University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health.

  • But Lu says she encourages people to wear whatever masks they can find.
  • Even if wearing a cloth mask reduces transmission by 10%, that percentage of 2 million cases ends up being a large number, Lu points out.

The big picture: Masks aren't the pandemic silver bullet. Social distancing and shutdown policies are also key. By one estimate, such policies prevented or delayed about 530 million infections across China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France and the U.S.

The bottom line: The changes in mask recommendations have fueled distrust in public health experts as evidence grows of their effectiveness in fighting the coronavirus.

Read the full story.

2. Exoplanets next door

Artist’s impression of the multiplanetary system of Super Earths orbiting GJ 887. Credit: Mark Garlick

A small star only 11 light-years from our solar system may play host to a clutch of planets, one of which might be suitable for life as we know it, Axios' Miriam Kramer reports.

Why it matters: Because this star and its planets are relatively nearby, they're great candidates for follow-up studies that could one day allow scientists to peer into their atmospheres and figure out exactly what they're made of.

What they found: The star — named GJ 887 — is orbited by at least two planets that are just slightly larger than Earth, according to a new study in the journal Science.

  • A possible third world may orbit the star every 50 days and could be in its "habitable zone," the orbit around a star where a planet could support liquid water, potentially upping the odds for life.
  • However, follow-up studies need to confirm there is, in fact, a third promising planet orbiting the star.
  • The study's authors were able to detect the planets' small gravitational tugs on their star as they observed the star over the course of three months.

The intrigue: Usually, planets orbiting red dwarfs aren't thought to be good candidates to host life because these stars, which are smaller than the Sun, tend to shoot out massive flares that could irradiate the surfaces of their planets.

  • This star, however, seems to be pretty even-keeled.
  • Yes, but: While the star seems quiet now, it may have been active in the past when it was younger, potentially hurting the odds that the planets around the star could host life.

What's next: The James Webb Space Telescope — expected to launch sometime next year — will be able to investigate the compositions of atmospheres of some alien planets, giving scientists a better sense of what types of worlds are habitable.

3. The long-term gains of Big Science

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The World War II era surge in investing in scientific research and development propelled the U.S. on a decades-long trajectory for innovation and seeded technological clusters across the country, according to new research.

Why it matters: 75 years after Vannevar Bush laid out the ambitious plan for federal spending on science, experts are calling for similar investments to stimulate innovation in the U.S. today.

  • "In the next 75 years, will the U.S. be at the global technology frontier and are we making the investments we need to make now to ensure that that's the case?" says study c0-author Daniel Gross of Harvard University. "The paper indicates those investments can pay long dividends."

Background: In the 1940s, the U.S. injected the equivalent of $7.4 billion today in R&D via the Office of Scientific Research and Development, spearheaded by Bush.

  • Via more than 2,200 contracts with industry and academic labs, the funding was directed toward the development of weapons, optics, chemistry, medicine and more.

What they found: In the new working paper, Gross and Bhaven Sampat of Columbia University compiled archival data about OSRD contracts, their patent records and publications, and county-level employment data to look at the long-term effects of the war-era investments.

  • One outcome was that by 1970, U.S. patenting was more than 50% greater than that in Great Britain or France compared to pre-war levels, they write.
  • Another was that funding was directed to areas like Boston, which went on to become — and remains — a hub for research in electronics. (Similarly, D.C. became a center for defense technology and LA one for aeronautics.)
  • And counties with more patents in electronics originating with OSRD saw an increase in manufacturing jobs associated with those industries. "Empirically, a doubling of OSRD patents in the 1940s is associated with 60-65% higher employment in these industries in the 1970s," they write.
  • One limitation is the researchers couldn't account for how much the impact of OSRD built on a pre-existing base of scientific knowledge in different regions and institutions, an ongoing debate among historians.

What's next: The researchers are now trying to determine how these short-term shocks in investment can have persistent effects and how that can shape policy priorities.

  • The paper also confirms a concern from critics of the day: investment was concentrated in regions and institutions, and those same places reaped the benefits decades out.
  • "If we care about technology, not only for its own sake, but also for the social outcomes it generates, working backward from that might get us to allocate funds differently," says Sampat.
4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The NIH claims joint ownership of Moderna's coronavirus vaccine (Bob Herman — Axios)

  • "Why it matters: Because the federal government has an actual stake in this vaccine, it could try to make the vaccine a free or low-cost public good with wide distribution, if the product turns out to be safe and effective."

Pluto's hot start (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

  • Its "early days were likely warmer than some models have suggested ... meaning Pluto's subsurface ocean has probably been around since just after its formation and is not a more recent result of the radioactive decay of elements within the dwarf planet heating it up."

A giant dust storm is heading across the Atlantic (Sabrina Imbler — The Atlantic)

  • Dust storms occur regularly, but the current storm is a "historic amount of dust."

This cosmologist knows how it's all going to end (Dan Falk — Quanta)

  • Heat death, big rip, vacuum decay — Katie Mack lays out the possible ways the universe may cease to exist.
5. Something wondrous

A dolphin shelling. Photo: Sonja Wild/Dolphin Innovation Project

Dolphins can learn from other unrelated dolphins about how to use empty shells to trap prey, according to new research.

The big picture: Learning from others is one way to transmit information that drives the evolution of cultures. The behavior is largely observed in primates, including us humans.

  • The study, published today in the journal Current Biology, "sets an important milestone and suggests that the cultural natures of Great Apes and dolphins are similar ... despite having divergent evolutionary pathways and occupying markedly disparate environments," the authors write.

What they did: Sonja Wild, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and her colleagues observed dolphins thousands of times in Western Australia's Shark Bay.

  • In 42 instances they spotted 19 different dolphins chasing fish into empty shells, carrying them to the surface with their beak and shaking the fish into their mouth.
  • The shelling behavior lasts just a few seconds and is rarely observed.
  • The researchers then analyzed the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins' social group, factoring in their genetic relationships (the dolphins came from three different lineages) and controlling for environmental influences, and found about 57% of the dolphins learned shelling socially from their peers.

Yes, but: Some dolphins may learn shelling from their mother or on their own, Janet Mann, a researcher at Georgetown University who wasn’t involved in the study, told the NYT.

Why it matters: Learning within generations allows a rapid spread of novel behaviors that may help to cope with new conditions, says Wild.

  • "It has therefore been suggested that species with the capacity to learn socially from peers may be more likely to persist in a changing environment, including changes associated with global warming."
Alison Snyder