China’s Holdout On Bird Flu Samples And A Higgs Boson Breakdown

7:25 minutes

Despite a World Health Organization agreement, China has withheld samples of the bird flu virus H7N9 from U.S. scientists who are looking to develop vaccines and treatments for the deadly virus. Maggie Koerth-Baker of FiveThirtyEight.com talks about how the political climate can affect the process of open-access science. Plus, she discusses other stories from the week, including a new neuron in the brain and the search for the quarks emitted by the Higgs Boson.

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later in the program, we’ll be checking in with a NASA expedition exploring the high seas as a simulation for space. But first, the relationship between China and the US has been rocky of late. There has been a lot of talk about a trade war between the US and China.

And now some of this animosity is spilling over into negotiations between scientists from each country. And it involves the bird flu, potentially your health. Maggie Koerth-Baker is here to fill us in on that story and other short subjects in science. She’s senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight.com. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. And now, this doesn’t have to do with the tariffs passed by President Trump, right? But China is holding back on bird flu strains. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, so the New York Times reported this week that the Chinese government is refusing to share samples of the H7 and H9 strain of bird flu or to give researchers in the US data about human patients. These are things that are supposed to be shared under a World Health Organization agreement. But China basically has stopped sharing disease information with us. And some of the scientists told the Times that they’re afraid it’s actually tied to those tariffs, that worsening relationships between the two countries are resulting in an unwillingness to share scientific data too.

IRA FLATOW: And I understand the NIH recently started looking at how scientists are sharing their data with governments– foreign governments.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, so in the other direction, we have our National Institutes of Health is urging grantees here in the US to better protect their research and their data from foreign governments. And that includes China specifically. So Science Magazine reported that there’s been both the Senate hearing on this. There’s been a formal memo issued on the topic. And the NIH is really worried that its own grant peer review system is leaking unpublished research and helping scientists in other countries steal ideas.

IRA FLATOW: And that China bird flu data, that would be important, would it– would it not?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, we’re talking about a strain with a 40% fatality rate. You know, there was an outbreak in 2016 and 2017 in China that infected nearly 800 people.

IRA FLATOW: And let’s move on to something else more hopeful. Well, not a good sign, big gun violence study that looks at gun deaths worldwide. And one section look specifically at US school shootings. And it seemed to be overreporting in this number. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, so this was the first time that the Department of Education came out with a number, an official federal government number for school shootings in the US. And they came up with 235 school shootings. But NPR’s is Anya Kamanetz did this investigation and called up each of these schools and asked them about these cases. And what she found is that only 11 of those 235 can be independently confirmed. It looks like at least 161 of them never happened at all.

IRA FLATOW: So what did they find is the general trend of gun violence in the US? How do we rank with the other countries?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, this is from– this is from a different study. There is a report from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that found that the US is second in the world on gun deaths in 2016 and that the top six countries that were accounting for half of the gun related deaths on Earth, only 10%, they involved only 10% of the global population. So we have a really high rate of gun deaths compared to the rest of the world. But it’s also interesting because it’s kind of mixed in with these other numbers where our gun deaths have been falling for the last 30 years. And we have kind of situations like this where maybe the number of really scary school shootings is not as big as we thought it was.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s dive into that a bit for me. Why the discrepancy in the figures?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, the discrepancies seem to come from sort of problems with filling out paperwork, basically. So one of the examples was the Cleveland Public Schools reported 37 school shootings. But when NPR called them to confirm it turned out that all of those were actually nonviolent incidents where students were just found to be in possession of a knife or firearm on school grounds.

IRA FLATOW: So it was sort of an accounting–

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, kind of accounting errors basically.

IRA FLATOW: Need to separate knife violence from gun violence, seems pretty simple. You know, if you want gun deaths, you can’t put knife deaths in there with it.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, it sounds like in that particular case, the number was just entered on the wrong line.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I don’t know if we’re getting better or worse, human error. Let’s move on to scientists released a study about the Higgs boson. But it’s kind of a Back to the Future story, a new old story.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, sort of, so six years ago, as we all remember, after much effort and confusing news articles, scientists finally found proof of the elusive Higgs boson particle. But it turns out that they found that proof in the most unlikely way possible. And now they’ve spent the last few years basically trying to do the same thing again, but in a way that’s much more statistically probable.

So when we go looking for Higgs bosons, we don’t actually look for the particle itself. Because it just breaks up and decays too fast for that. You know, 10 trillionths of a nanosecond and it is gone.

So instead, we look for these things that it decays into. And back in 2012 what they found were two photons, two particles of light. And that’s something that probably only happens in less than half of 1% of Higgs boson decays. In contrast, about 57% of Higgs should decay into these particles called bottom quarks and anti-bottom quarks. But it wasn’t until this week that scientists were finally able to see that much more common type of decay happen.

IRA FLATOW: So it was sort of popping the cork about being right then?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, yeah, a little bit. And what’s particularly interesting about this is that the reason that it took them so long to see this common way for a Higgs to break down is because the initial proton collisions in the Large Hadron Collider that make the Higgs for us to find also just produce lots and lots of quarks. So they were kind of shopping for the– trying to find the forest for the trees in there.

IRA FLATOW: In the short time we have left, there’s something really new, a new neuron found in a human brain?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, this really previously unknown type of human brain cell and a cell that seems to have no analog in mouse brains, which could have some pretty big impacts given that mice are the models that we use for human health and behavior research.

IRA FLATOW: Have they classified what it is?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: They’re calling it a rosehip neuron. We don’t know exactly what it does yet. And there’s some speculation that it might be unique to humans. But we don’t know whether that’s true yet or not either. But it’s kind of one of those things that could help explain why some of these experimental treatments for things like brain disorders, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, why those things fail in humans even if they work in mice.

IRA FLATOW: Rosehip neuron, great, great name, I think. Any one of those neurons should smell so sweet. Sorry, sorry, Maggie. Thank you, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth-Baker, science writer– senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight.com.

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