Research For Masks That Deactivate Coronavirus Receive NSF Funding

12:01 minutes

Editor’s note: The Lancet study mentioned in this segment has since been retracted due to doubts in the veracity of the data used. Read more about the reason for retraction in this piece, via The Guardian.

Hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president promoted as a treatment for COVID-19, has not been proven effective against the virus. And new research published in The Lancet, involving 96,000 patients around the world, found the drug is linked to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of death for people who take it. As a result, numerous trials to further understand the drug have been put on hold, including one planned by the World Health Organization.

IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to explain what this means for the future of understanding hydroxychloroquine as a potential help against coronavirus. Plus, understanding false negative results in COVID-19 tests, engineering virus-killing masks, and how researchers found a way to trail elusive narwhals and record their sounds—all in the name of understanding these shy, sea ice-dwelling mammals better even as the world they depend on changes. 

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Just a quick note before we get started. It has been a while, hasn’t it? We miss talking to you. We really do. We want you to say hello. So please talk to us on the Science Friday VoxPop app on Twitter, or even on that old fashioned email. We’d love to hear from you. syfry@sciencefriday.com.

Later in the hour, we’ll talk about one bit of fallout from the COVID 19 pandemic, and that is that vaccine rates for children are going way down. But first, hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president has been promoting as a treatment for COVID 19 has not only not been proven effective, but new research involving 96,000 patients around the world found heart problems and increased risk of death.

The World Health Organization has paused a study of its own. Here with more is Amy Nordstrom, news editor for IEEE Spectrum. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDSTROM: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into that story a little bit more. Tell us about this new research.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, there’s been controversy around using this drug, hydroxychloroquine, to treat COVID 19 patients. And as you say, it’s still not been proven safe or effective for that purpose. So a number of trials are underway to see whether it might be. And last week, a study published in The Lancet reported more deaths and abnormal heart beats among COVID 19 patients who took the drug.

Now, this was an observational study. It wasn’t a randomized controlled trial, which is the gold standard in medicine. But it was quite a large observational study. And so other scientists are now trying to decide what those results mean for randomized controlled trials that are now enrolling patients under way. The World Health Organization said on Monday that it would temporarily suspend enrollment into its own randomized controlled trial for this drug, and it would be reviewing the data and making a decision soon about whether to proceed.

Other scientists and trial organizers are taking different approaches. So there’s another randomized controlled trial in Australia that was also paused for review. France’s Health Ministry this week banned the use of the drug in treating COVID 19 patients. But a large trial, called the Recovery Trial in the United Kingdom, actually the largest randomized control trial underway for this drug. Those trial organizers have reviewed the study and have decided to proceed with their trial.

IRA FLATOW: Is this the end of the use of the drug then? Or has it– are people still going to be using it, do you think?

AMY NORDSTROM: Well, it’s likely, at least, that some of these trials will continue. And typically, it would be these randomized controlled trials that you’d want to see for definitive evidence. And you want to know that the drug is not only safe, but also effective. And that’s what these trials are trying to determine.

And we’re not there yet with this drug. And then even then, if that were proven to be the case, doctors would be evaluating against their own standard of care that they use in treating patients, and also against other potential treatments that are being tested right now, which might turn out to be better.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk now about new insight into when Coronavirus tests are most accurate. Because this is something people want to know. Should I get tested? Can I trust the results of the test? Tell us about this new insight.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, testing is really important for tracking the spread of the virus. We know that. And to figure out who should quarantine themselves or contact people that they might have come into contact with. But the main test that doctors use is called these are RTPTR test– the kind that you get your nose swabbed for– aren’t able to detect the virus with 100% accuracy.

And a new meta analysis from Johns Hopkins shows a high chance of false negatives with these tests. So that means being told you don’t have the virus when you actually do, particularly early in a patient’s infection. This is the first study to really measure the effectiveness of these tests during one patient’s infection period over time.

And they found the probability of getting a false negative went from 100% on the first day that you get the virus, meaning that these tests couldn’t really detect it at that point because there was a very low viral load, to a low of about 20% a few days after someone starts showing symptoms.

IRA FLATOW: So there is sort of an ideal window that the test needs to be done in?

AMY NORDSTROM: Well, it’s certainly more accurate. Less likely to return a false negative a few days after you start having symptoms. So that’s certainly the case. And physicians who are treating patients, the authors encourage them to not just evaluate these test results, but to also consider symptoms and recent contact with other infected people when they’re evaluating a patient and recommending for them how to proceed.

IRA FLATOW: On the plus side, though, there’s some interesting engineering news. People are designing masks that kill the virus.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yes, scientists at a few different universities are trying to figure out how to make masks that could deactivate the new Coronavirus on contact. So I talked with Omar Farha at Northwestern University. He’s working on a design for a mask that would capture the Coronavirus in a sponge like structure on the front of the mask, and then apply catalysts that cause the virus particles to break apart.

And that’s just one project. Scientists at Indiana University are focused on electroceutical fabrics that actually use tiny batteries to produce weak electric fields that can disrupt the electrostatic forces that hold the virus together. And neither of these have been tested on the new Coronavirus yet. But the teams are hoping to develop technology that could also work on other viruses, including possibly the seasonal flu.

IRA FLATOW: I imagine these things are done on a test bed. And they’re just little models that would have to be redesigned for mass manufacturing.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, it’s pretty early. They’ve gotten some research funding to prove this concept. They would still need to show that it works against viruses, including the new Coronavirus. And they would need to partner with a manufacturer and make sure that this technique could be incorporated into the manufacturing process for masks, and at a cost that would make sense, for example, health care facilities that have to buy a lot of these.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on a little to other research. Because there is science going on out there, isn’t there? Other stuff we can report on.

AMY NORDSTROM: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: I know you covered a cool new data storage project this week. Something I love to talk about, materials science. Storing information in glass. Tell us about that.

AMY NORDSTROM: That’s right. The world is always generating more data, and we need new places to put it. And one option for long term storage is an experimental technology that’s being developed at Microsoft through an effort by the name of Project Silica. Researchers at Microsoft are using lasers to store data in small glass squares.

So rather than writing on the surface of a DVD or a CD, they actually write in many layers inside of the glass itself. And they’ve shown that this approach can pack a lot more data in. And they think it can last for much longer.

IRA FLATOW: And so how much data are we talking about here?

AMY NORDSTROM: Well, in a disk about the size of a DVD, they could put 360 terabytes of data, they think. And compare that to– the most a DVD could store today would be about 1 terabyte.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, and it would last a lot longer than the stuff we have now? The DVDs and maybe the thumb drives?

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, they did a bunch of tests of these squares. They exposed it to high heat and even flooded it with water and tried to influence them with magnetic fields. And they didn’t destroy the data. And they believe that the data could last in these small glass squares for possibly centuries.

So they’re actually working on creating what they call a Rosetta Stone for glass so that people far into the future would know how to access and read this data back.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because that’s always the problem, you know? And we see that in science fiction movies. They’ve discovered something, and miraculously know how to read it. But that’s not how it would work in real life.

AMY NORDSTROM: Right, exactly. Yeah, they would need to communicate to future users of this data storage technology what it is and how to access data written to it.

IRA FLATOW: I love this idea because I’m also worried that– it’s glass, right? It’s fragile. You drop your glass cell phone and it cracks and goes away.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, I know it seems like a interesting material to use. But the same– they use a very pure form of glass. It’s actually the same kind of material that’s found on the windows of the International Space Station. So we’ve trusted it with important jobs before.

IRA FLATOW: I can see data being written on the window. No, that’s a different story.

Let’s go on to a news story behind this sound I’m going to play right now. [WHINING NOISE]

What is that noise, Amy?

AMY NORDSTROM: Well, you just heard one kind of sound that a narwhal makes. So narwhals are a type of whale with a big tusk on the front of their face. They live far north in arctic waters. And they’re known for being pretty shy and skittish. So it’s tough to monitor and track them.

So researchers from Japan recently took a creative approach. They actually joined a local hunting expedition in Greenland. And they used underwater microphones to record sounds that narwhals make, including that clip that you just heard.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that was interesting because I know narwhals are pretty mysterious creatures. How did the researchers get these sounds?

AMY NORDSTROM: Well, they used a technology that’s fairly typical for these kinds of projects. It’s kind of an underwater microphone. And they were able to go out with local hunters that use kayaks and motor boats to track these narwhals. And then they– the hunters help them locate the narwhals and find them on the horizon in the water. And then, they were able to get close enough to capture some of these audio clips.

IRA FLATOW: I imagine, as always, this could help conserve narwhals. Keep them from dying out.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, it’s not totally clear where these populations of narwhals move or where they move and why and when. And so they’re hoping that knowing what they sound like and figuring out what sounds they use for different purposes would help scientists monitor these populations, which are threatened by things like climate change because they rely on the sea ice. They spend part of their winter under the sea ice. And so as it retreats, they’re affected.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s also talk lastly about mysterious moss balls on glaciers. Moss balls? Say that 10 times fast.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, it’s tricky tongue twister. So glaciologists for decades have found balls of moss– so the moss like you’d find on the forest floor wrapped up in the balls about the size of your hand on glaciers in Iceland and Alaska. And they’ve noticed that these moss balls tend to move around.

Now, researchers published recently in the journal Polar Biology tracked the movement of these balls over time. And they found that these balls– groups of these balls actually move in a coordinated fashion. So they move together at roughly the same speed and the same direction. And all change direction at about the same time.

And scientists really don’t know why. The movements of these balls don’t seem to correlate with things like the direction of the wind or where the sun’s shining. And the balls don’t always roll downhill. So this is an open question and they’re still trying to come up with a theory for why these moss balls are behaving this way.

IRA FLATOW: I think just rolling around on the ice like tennis balls. How fast are they moving? How do they move?

AMY NORDSTROM: Well, they’re not moving that fast. I think it was about 2.5 centimeters a year. So it’s a slow crawl, I would say. But yeah, they’re quite dense. In these balls, you can find often several kinds of moss, and even small critters like the tardigrades that we know and love. So their little ecosystems of their own.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really fascinating. I want to thank you for enlightening us with some lighter more fun news this week, that we can all use, I think.

AMY NORDSTROM: Yeah, sure thing.

IRA FLATOW: Amy Nordstrom is news editor the IEEE Spectrum based in New York City.

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