15 May 2020 – Friday – #61

There”s some good Covid-19 science going on. I’m going to get to science via the unlikely route of Covid-19 social unrest.

While the Spanish Civil Guard is warning about civil unrest in Spain, it’s already happening in the US.This unrest is another huge disappointment in the US Covid-19 response. From where I sit in Barcelona, America is no longer the shining beacon. I’m worried that US unrest will spill over to Europe and other parts of the world via social media.

I’m starting the social unrest story in Suffolk County, New York. I used to travel there a couple times a year to visit my friend Jim on Fire Island. The train from New York City to Sayville passes by pleasant suburban Long Island towns. The people I’ve met there are politically diverse and friendly.

I wouldn’t classify this Suffolk County protest as wild civil unrest, but the protesters’ animosity towards reporter Kevin Vesey appears to me like a regurgitation of Trump’s inability to articulate other than blame.

Covid-19 anti-lockdown protesters in Suffolk County, New York, 14 May 2020.

Suffolk County, as noted in the comments on this tweet, has the fourth highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases of any US county. Given the infection situation, it seems surprising that any Suffolk County resident would protest against social distancing in the first place, but what is more surprising to me is that protesters prefer to taunt the media rather than to make their case. Is it an anti-Covid-19 restrictions demonstration, an anti-media demonstration, or just a we’re acting like kids demonstration? Please, Suffolk County protesters, let us know!

Suffolk County is a warm-up for Michigan where armed protesters closed down the state capitol building.

Armed Covid-19 protesters close Michigan capitol, 14 May 2020.

When armed protesters in other parts of the world shut down government buildings, it’s usually called a civil war. While the press hasn’t called US Covid-19 protests civil wars, some of the groups behind the protests (think QAnon) are preaching end-of-the-world scenarios to their cults.

Part of the blame for social unrest can be laid at the feet of the Trump administration which has been unable to patch together any coherent Covid-19 response, let alone provide direction. I’m not just saying that. Yesterday’s testimony from Dr. Rick Bright, former Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was devastating. For instance on the subject of obtaining protective gear, this exchange:

On top of the administration’s rudderless response is social media. Arguably, social media might be the driver of social unrest even if the US had a competent president. And … this is where, as promised, we get to science.

Social media research may not be evolving as quickly as Covid-19 research, but it’s evolving quickly. Last week a 26-minute viral video called Pandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19 got millions of views before social media sites took it down. The video is full of Covid-19 misinformation, so why didn’t Facebook take it down sooner?

A Wired article hypothesizes it’s because Facebook relies on outdated research about fact-checking. As recently as 2017, Mark Zuckerberg has stated that fact checking causes the “backfire” effect, an effect described in 2008 social media research in which people hold on harder to their belief of misinformation when they are told it is incorrect.

If Facebook is relying on the backfire effect, the problem is that it isn’t real.

All those Snopes.com articles, Politifact posts and CNN fact-checks you’ve read over the years? By and large, they do their job. By our count, across experiments involving more than 10,000 Americans, fact-checks increase the proportion of correct responses in follow-up testing by more than 28 percentage points.

Wired, “Why Is Facebook So Afraid of Checking Facts?,” 14 May 2020

Since Facebook isn’t transparent about how it manages misinformation and fact-checking, it’s hard to know if its massive data sets generate results that differ from research. However, in the midst of the Covid-19, it looks like the world’s dominant social media company is ignoring inconvenient research as much as the Trump administration.

I worry about US unrest spilling over into Europe and other parts of the world via misinformation spread on social media. I also worry that this unrest will derail the science we need to manage Covid-19. If politicians aren’t standing behind public health experts, aren’t educating the public on the need for public health policies, then societies suffer the public health consequences. Politicians and economists need to manage the economic disaster so that public health officials can manage Covid-19.

While the Trump administration has stopped sponsoring vaccine work through WHO, at least it’s funding a US vaccine effort. Drs. Kayvon Modjarrad and Gordon Joyce at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) are the scientists behind Operation Warp Speed, the US effort to deliver a Covid-19 vaccine in 18 months. They have been researching Coronavirus vaccines for years and their virus design is based on ferritin, an iron bearing protein common to most living organisms.

When the distinctive protein spike of a coronavirus is introduced to a ferritin molecule, the molecule “self-assembles” into something that resembles a soccer ball with 24 outward-facing panels, meaning that the vaccine is now presented up to 24 times, provoking a significantly greater immune response than if a person’s immune system detected it only once.

Yahoo! News, “‘Another one was coming’: Army scientists working on vaccine had long feared emergence of new coronaviruses,” 14 May 2020

I’m rooting for WRAIR to deliver the goods, but luckily there are many more vaccine efforts underway if the US effort fails.

I wanted to cover updates on immune system response to Covid-19 and on development of monoclonal antibody and nanoparticle therapies, but I’m out of time. I promise to get to those tomorrow, barring any protests.

After your civil unrest, as you prepare for your Covid-19 restrictions to vanish, remember this simple science experiment.

NHK restaurant black light video.

The Japanese broadcaster NHK asked ten people to eat from a buffet in a simulation of a virus spreading through a restaurant. One of the diners started with a fluorescent goo on one hand. After eating the meal, a black light reveals how the goo traveled to all the diners and their food.

Good luck on your re-opening!

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