Jul 23, 2020

Axios Science

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week we look at the wide range of COVID-19 symptoms, plastic pollution, the effect of lockdowns on seismic noise, and more.

  • Send your feedback and ideas to me at alison@axios.com, or if you received this by email, hit reply. You can reach Eileen at eileen@axios.com.
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  • This newsletter is off next week. See you on Aug. 6. In the meantime, check the Axios stream for COVID-19 news.

Today's newsletter is 1,564 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: The confounding range of COVID-19 symptoms

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The wide-ranging symptoms and many manifestations of COVID-19 are complicating efforts to treat the disease and stop its spread.

The big picture: There are very few diseases that everyone experiences the same. But the patterns of disease with COVID-19 are unusual compared to other recent pandemics, and could it usher in a new framework for thinking about disease.

The range of experiences in people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spans from no symptoms to hospitalization to death, an observation NIAID director Anthony Fauci and other experts have repeatedly made recently.

Many people have mild symptoms of the disease — or none at all, meaning they can be unknowingly carrying and spreading the virus and complicating efforts to control its spread.

On the other end of the spectrum are those were are hospitalized, including roughly 1 in 5 older people who test positive for the disease.

  • Beyond pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, the long and varied list of common manifestations of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients includes cardiac, neurological, renal, hepatic, gastrointestinal, endocrine, thrombotic, and dermatological complications, according to a recent review by Aakriti Gupta of the Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

The intrigue: It's possible other pandemic viruses — like the 1918 flu — had a wide range of different outcomes, but the molecular tools and diagnostics didn't exist to spot them.

  • Or in the case of the coronaviruses that cause the common cold and don't kill people, we don't pay attention to those differences or bother to look for them.

But COVID-19 does kill and, as data and science rapidly amass about the virus, the differences are more explicit — and more concerning.

  • "Each virus has this particular balance of the types of cases you are going to get," says immunologist José Ordovas-Montañes of Boston Children's Hospital. "This virus has particularly captivated our attention because of how balanced it is across that spectrum."

What's happening: Researchers are trying to tease out the factors behind COVID-19's range.

There is the virus itself: "Coronaviruses are unusual in that they attack both the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems," says Rachel Roper, a virologist at East Carolina University.

  • SARS-CoV-2 targets the ACE2 receptor on host cells to infect them. That receptor is expressed in many of the body’s tissues, and some studies find particles of the virus in heart, kidney and gut cells, suggesting it can get to other organs and possibly damage them directly.
  • Or it could be that the virus is impairing the body’s innate immune responses, affecting pathways that regulate key processes in the body, or causing inflammation — any of which may allow the virus to reach into unexpected organ systems.

There is the person it infects, with their genetics, behaviors and environment.

  • A host of pre-existing conditions — for example, previous lung and heart disease — increases the risk of serious COVID-19 complications.

And there is the society that person lives in. Geographic and racial disparities in this pandemic suggest other factors, like the distribution of health services, may need to be considered, says C. Brandon Ogbunu, an assistant professor at Yale University who studies disease evolution and ecology.

  • "Even more so than other outbreaks, the variation from person to person, the multisystem nature, the way it hits demographics different, the way the disease manifests differently in national contexts — it defies a simple medical or biomedical narrative," he says.

The bottom line: "The story of understanding COVID-19 has been the story of understanding these diversities," Ogbunu says. "This is a test of our modern understanding of what a disease is."

Read more

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti, Sara Wise/Axios
  • "The pace of new coronavirus cases slowed over the past week, but things are still getting worse in most of the country," Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon write. "The U.S. may be leveling off, but it’s leveling off at a very high rate of infection."
  • The number of COVID-19 cases could be 6–24 times higher than reported in some regions, according to the CDC, reports Axios' Marisa Fernandez.
  • Some researchers think SARS-CoV-2 may have emerged not in China but in Southeast Asia, per the Economist.
  • Lockdowns reduced the amount of seismic noise that humans generate through transportation and industry by up to 50% around the world, according to new research. Go deeper.
3. Plastic pollution is piling up but could be curbed

Waste on Santa Lucia beach in Acapulco, Mexico, on June 7 on the eve of World Oceans Day. Photo: Francisco Robles/AFP via Getty Images

Currently available solutions could halt up to 80% of plastic pollution flowing into the ocean and the ground annually within 20 years, per a new analysis published in Science Thursday.

Threat level: Without urgent action, the yearly flow of plastics into the ocean globally is expected to nearly triple to 29 million tons by 2040 — and remain at that level for hundreds of years, Eileen reports.

  • Even under the best case of curbing pollution, plastic's long degradation time means there will still be roughly 710 million metric tons of cumulative plastic pollution, researchers warn.

Right now, about 11 million metric tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year, and another 18 million goes into the environment — about 10% of what the world produces each year, says Winnie Lau, senior manager with Pew’s Preventing Ocean Plastics project.

Details: The analysis, conducted by an international collaboration by Pew Charitable Trust, SYSTEMIQ and others over two years, modeled six scenarios (including business-as-usual) that quantified the flow and amount of plastic in the global system and compared the quantity of pollution between 2016 and 2040.

What they found: The business-as-usual scenario showed that global plastic pollution entering the environment by 2040 would reach roughly 80 metric tons per year.

  • The current commitment scenario showed a reduction in the flow of plastic into the ocean by almost 7% by 2040, but it would still be adding about 75 metric tons each year.
  • The best-case scenario, which would involve large systemic changes, is the only scenario where the amount of pollution entering the environment drops below 2016 rates, projecting 18 metric tons per year of plastic pollution in 2040.

Three of the most impactful changes could come from significantly reducing plastic production and use, substituting other materials like biodegradable materials or paper with plastic coating, and doubling the amount we recycle, Lau says

  • Another key step, Lau says, is to incorporate into new strategies the informal sector of "waste pickers."
  • There are an estimated 11 million waste pickers, mostly in developing nations, who collect about 60% of global plastic recycling.

The bottom line: "By using the knowledge, approaches and technologies we have today, we can cut the amount of plastic going into the environment by 80% in 20 years," Lau says. "This is the surprise and hopeful finding from the report."

4. Meet the AI that can write

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new machine-learning model that can make sense of and write human language is pushing the boundaries of what AI can do, my Axios colleague Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: OpenAI's GPT-3 system is still a long way from genuine artificial intelligence, but it may be looked back on as the iPhone of AI, opening the door to countless commercial applications — both benign and potentially dangerous.

How it works: GPT-3 works the same way as predecessors like OpenAI's GPT-2 and Google's BERT — analyzing huge swathes of the written internet and using that information to predict which words tend to follow after each other.

  • What sets GPT-3 apart is the vast amount of data it was trained on half a trillion words.
  • And the program has 175 billion parameters — the values an AI aims to optimize during training — which is 10 times more than its closest competitor.
  • The result is what Suraj Amonkar of the AI company Fractal Analytics calls "the best language model in the field of AI."

Details: As early testers of GPT-3 begin posting about their experiments, what stands out is both the system's range and the eerily human-like quality of some of its responses — from generating new poetry to writing workable computer code to philosophical debate.

Yes, but: Give it more than a few paragraphs of text prompts and GPT-3 will quickly lose the thread of an argument — sometimes with unintentionally hilarious results, as Kevin Lacker showed when he gave GPT-3 the Turing Test.

  • GPT-3 can use its vast dataset to predict words, but as Amonkar notes, "It most probably does not even have any semantic understanding of the underlying words."

The catch: As OpenAI itself noted in the introductory paper, "internet-trained models have internet-scale biases." A model trained on the internet like GPT-3 will share the biases of the internet, including stereotypes around gender, race and religion.

Read more.

5. Worthy of your time

A polar bear cub and sow newly emerged from their den along the Arctic Coast of Alaska. Photo: Steven Kazlowski/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

  • New warnings of polar bear survival due to climate change (Rebecca Falconer — Axios)
  • Rosalind Franklin was so much more than the "wronged heroine" of DNA (Editorial — Nature News)
  • No one has to get their period anymore (Marion Renault — The Atlantic)
  • Stone artifacts hint that humans reached the Americas surprisingly early (Maria Temming — Science News)
6. Something wondrous

Astronomers spotted two giant exoplanets around the Sun-like star TYC 8998-760-1. Credit: ESO/Bohn et al.

More than 4,100 exoplanets have been detected so far, but astronomers just got their first direct image of two exoplanets orbiting a star.

Why it matters: The young age of this particular star, which is similar to our Sun, could provide clues about the early evolution and course of our own solar system.

Details: The 17-million-year-young star, TYC 8998-760-1, is about 300 light-years away. (Our Sun, for comparison, is 4.6 billion years old.)

  • The two planets are far from their sun. Their distances are about 160 and 320 times the distance between the Earth and Sun, the authors report in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
  • And they are heavier than our solar system's gas giants, Saturn and Jupiter. The mass of the innermost planet is about 14 times that of Jupiter, according to observations made with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

The cosmic picture: The young star and it's distant satellites illustrate how “planetary systems can look very different from our own solar system,” study co-author Alexander Bohn of Leiden University in the Netherlands told Astronomy magazine.

Editor’s note: The first story has been updated to clarify that 1 in 5 older people who test positive for COVID-19 need to be hospitalized.