Sep 3, 2020

Axios Science

Welcome back to Axios Science. This week we look at pandemic fatigue, gene editing guidelines, a newly discovered floating phenomenon and more.

Today's newsletter is 1,654 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: The costs of COVID fatigue

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Compounded stress and exhaustion from worrying about the coronavirus pandemic since the start of the year is leading to "COVID fatigue" and serious mental health issues, some medical experts say.

Why it matters: This can lead to risky behavior that can increase the spread of the coronavirus as well as raise levels of depression and anxiety that foment the abuse of alcohol or drugs, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

State of play: As schools, universities and businesses reopen, there's been anecdotal evidence people are taking riskier behaviors via large gatherings and other venues.

  • "We're still very much in the throes of this, and I have been arguing that we have more days ahead of us than we do behind us. So we may feel like we are done with this pandemic, but, as the old saying goes, the pandemic is not done with us," Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, said Wednesday at the O'Neill Institute Colloquium.
  • Jha says it's "unrealistic" to believe the pandemic will be controlled before the summer or fall of 2021.
  • Some experts say, though, the realization that this pandemic will last longer than they first expected is leading to people exhibiting "COVID fatigue."

What's happening: "COVID fatigue is a shorthand way of talking about a constellation of challenges that people are facing that are leading to just an overall sense of exhaustion," David Sbarra, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Arizona, told Axios.

  • People are facing stressors that range from the constant need to change our normal behavior to mitigate the virus to the economic impact from an unemployment tsunami in a society without a strong social safety net, he said.
  • "We're more depressed, we're lonelier, and we're just exhausted by this," he added.

The length of the pandemic is also a factor in people's coping mechanisms, said Kaye Hermanson, a clinical psychologist at UC Davis Health.

  • "When it's gone on this long, our brains have to try to find a way to accommodate that. I think a lot of people with fatigue, who kind of give up on doing what they know is recommended ... may have been dealing with some cognitive dissonance," Hermanson said.

As a result, there's been "changes in clinically significant and meaningful rates of anxiety and depression," Sbarra says. This is seen in a recent Census Bureau report and in higher mental health screenings.

  • And there's been a "profound increase" in so-called deaths of despair from alcohol and substance abuse as well as death by suicide, he pointed out, calling it "one of the most dire warning signs happening right now."
  • A recent analysis estimates there could be 75,000 additional deaths from alcohol and drug misuse and suicide from the pandemic.

Some steps to take, they said, include:

  • "Don't doomscroll through Twitter right before going to bed," Sbarra says. Make sure to get enough sleep and eat healthy.
  • Practice positive thinking, go for a socially distanced walk outside, and reach out to others for support, like a pastor or a counselor, Hermanson says. She noted one silver lining is that mental health therapists have pinned down some best practices for telehealth.
2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Note: Washington state case count does not include Sept. 1; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

The U.S. confirmed roughly 41,600 new infections per day over the past week — largely unchanged from the week before, Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon write. Reopened universities appear to be the new hot spots.

The CDC requested states fast-track permits and licenses for vaccine distribution sites so they will be ready by Nov. 1, McClatchy's Michael Wilner reported yesterday, and the agency issued guidance on how to distribute potential vaccines, per the NYT, ratcheting up concerns about politics influencing the regulatory process.

A shortage of monkeys in the U.S. for testing COVID-19 vaccines could be the next bottleneck in the pandemic response, per The Atlantic's Sarah Zhang.

The WHO now recommends corticosteroids as the standard of care for severely and critically (but not mildly) ill patients with COVID-19 after clinical trials found three different steroids reduced the risk of death, Roni Caryn Rabin reports for NYT.

3. Genome editing gets guidelines

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Gene editing to correct genetic diseases isn't ready to be safely used in human eggs, sperm and embryos for pregnancies, according to a new report that lays out detailed criteria for determining when and how the technology could ultimately be used.

Why it matters: Scientists, ethicists and others have called for international rules — ranging from guidelines to regulations to moratoriums — for the editing of human genes that can be passed down to future generations.

Key takeaways: Human embryos that are used in a pregnancy shouldn't be edited before the technology can "efficiently and reliably make precise genomic changes without undesired changes," according to the report, written by 18 experts from 10 countries, including the U.S., China, the U.K. and India. (Off-target edits are a continued challenge for the field.)

  • Another technological advance is needed: the ability to reliably sequence the entire genome in a single cell to check for off-target effects, commission member Haoyi Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said during a press conference today.
  • "Extensive societal dialogue" about the social and ethical issues of embryo genome editing should occur before a country decides whether to permit it.
  • If the technology is one day deemed safe, effective and permissible, the experts say its use should first be restricted to serious diseases that arise from mutations in a single gene — for example, sickle cell anemia and thalassemia — and then only when parents don't have other options for having a biologically related child who doesn't inherit the disorder.

Ultimately, countries will likely regulate the technology's use, and the report calls for national and international mechanisms for overseeing the use of human genome editing in clinical settings and for whistleblowers to report misconduct.

  • It also recommends forming an international panel of scientific advisers to review and make recommendations about proposed new applications of heritable human genome editing.

What they're saying: Some researchers told Jon Cohen of Science the commission's criteria for editing human embryos are too narrow, while others said the guidelines reflect the limited medical justifications for using the technology.

Background: The International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing was set up by the UK's Royal Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine after a researcher in China claimed twin girls were born from embryos he changed with the gene-editing tool CRISPR in an attempt to make them immune to HIV infection.

What to watch: The World Health Organization is drawing up its guidelines for governing genome editing technology more broadly. The report released today is intended to inform those guidelines, which will also consider ethical and social challenges.

4. Planet forming disc torn apart by stars

Artist's illustration of the strange star system (left), actual photo (R). Image: ESO/L. Calçada, Exeter/Kraus et al.

Three stars are ripping apart a potentially planet-forming disc of gas and dust 1,300 light-years from Earth, Axios' Miriam Kramer reports.

Why it matters: The star system could help scientists learn more about how some of the strangest systems of planets and stars form in the galaxy.

Details: Researchers observed the star system — named GW Orionis — for about 11 years. They found the three stars have warped the disc, which has tilted rings, according to a new study in the journal Science this week.

  • Scientists have found evidence of warped discs before, but this is the first time they've directly linked the shape and structure of a disc of this kind to stars inside them.

The big picture: Understanding the structure of the disc could one day help scientists spot planets circling other stars that may have formed from warped discs as well.

  • And GW Orionis may be capable of hosting planets. The inner dust ring of the stars contains about 30 times the mass of the Earth and may be capable of forming planets one day.
  • "Any planets formed within the misaligned ring will orbit the star on highly oblique orbits and we predict that many planets on oblique, wide-separation orbits will be discovered in future planet imaging campaigns," study co-author Alexander Kreplin said in a statement.

Context: Unlike this star system, the planets of our solar system formed from a flat plane of dust and debris circling the Sun.

  • Planetary systems that arise from interactions like those happening in GW Orionis could even look like Tatooine planets — which orbit two stars — or other strange worlds that, until now, have had origins that defy explanations.
5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new type of black hole is confirmed (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Myriam Sarachik never gave up on physics (Kenneth Chang — NYT)

The new neuroscience of stuttering (Amber Dance — Knowable)

By losing genes, life often evolved more complexity (Viviane Callier — Quanta)

6. Something wondrous

Plastic boats floating above and below a levitating liquid layer. Credit: Benjamin Apffel et al., Nature

A toy boat can float upside down — under certain conditions.

Why it matters: The inverted floating phenomenon occurs when a fluid is vibrated at a particular frequency, a method that could be leveraged for chemical and other industrial processes or to separate and move solids in fluids in mining or waste-water treatment, says mechanical engineer Vladislav Sorokin of the University of Auckland.

How it works: Shaking a fluid vertically can cause it to levitate by compressing the air below it — a known phenomenon.

  • Benjamin Apffel at the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles in Paris and colleagues created a levitating fluid by vibrating about two cups of either silicone oil or glycerol up and down at about 100 Hz and injecting air at the bottom of the fluid, they report in the journal Nature this week.
  • The researchers then placed objects (plastic toy boats or balls) at the lower interface of the shaking liquid and air, and found they float — upside down. (Boats placed on the top also float there, thankfully preserving that reality for us all.)

What's happening: When an object is placed in a liquid, it experiences an upward, buoyant force equal to the weight of fluid displaced by the object, per Archimedes' principle.

  • When a boat is submerged at the lower surface, the forces are still exerted on it, and so it can float there too — but only if the fluid is vibrating at a particular frequency that stabilizes it.

The intrigue: "It will be exciting to discover what counter-intuitive phenomena can be induced by high-frequency excitations in non-mechanical systems — is there a chemical or biological counterpart of inverse gravity?" Sorokin, who was not involved in the research, wrote in an accompanying article.