04/30/2021

India Suffering Under A Deadly Second Wave Of COVID-19

12:10 minutes

two people in hazmat suits attends to bonfire that is cremating someone who'd died from covid-19 complications in an abandoned building. people wearing masks observe from a distance
Family members, wearing protective suits, perform last rites before cremation of a COVID-19 victim at Hindu Moksha Dham crematorium in Beawar. Credit: Sumit Saraswat/Shutterstock

India is experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic The country had a record low number of cases in February, but the numbers increased starting in mid-March. Yesterday, the country reported nearly 380,000 new cases in just one day. And the number of deaths has reached nearly 4,000. 

Amy Nordrum of the MIT Technology Review fills in that story along with an FDA crackdown on clinical trials and new earthquake early warning detection systems in New Zealand, Greece, Oregon, and Washington state


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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

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

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is on vacation. A little later this hour, we’re going to dive into the state of plastics. In some ways, plastic is a miracle material, but it’s also caused one of the biggest environmental crises of our time. We’ll talk to some scientists who are working on tackling the problems in our plastic world.

But first, a look at the COVID-19 pandemic in India. This is the second wave of the pandemic for the country, and it’s hitting hard. India had a record low number of cases back in February, but the numbers increased starting in mid-March. And yesterday, the country reported nearly 380,000 new cases in just one day, and the number of deaths reached nearly 4,000.

Amy Nordrum is here to give us an update on that story and other science headlines of the week. She’s an editor at the MIT Technology Review. Welcome back to the show, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you, John. Good to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So what is the current state of the pandemic in India right now?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, as you say, the situation is really bad there. The pandemic is worse there now than it’s ever been. They’re in the middle of this terrible second wave of infections. They’ve reported more than 300,000 new cases every single day this week. And the reality is estimated to be far worse than even those official accounts show.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So why has the second wave hit the country so hard? What big issues are they facing?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, you might think India would be a little bit ahead of the game here, because they are one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers. But there’s more than a billion people who live there, and only roughly 10% have even received one dose at this point. So while they’ve vaccinated a lot of people already, it’s just going to take a lot longer to reach the entire population.

And in the meantime, the government has relaxed some public health measures that were in place early on in the pandemic. So there’s no nationwide lockdown in effect there like there was early on in the pandemic. And there’s no federal social distancing requirements. So some states are implementing those, but it’s been kind of piecemeal. And in the meantime, there’s been a lot of political rallies and religious gatherings and other weddings and events happening.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s get back to these vaccines. Of course, India is a big manufacturer. Why aren’t they able to manufacture vaccines for their own people?

AMY NORDRUM: I’ve been talking with Krishna Udayakumar and Andrea Taylor of Duke’s Global Health Institute about the vaccine situation and that question. And they’ve said that India’s government was slow to support its own domestic vaccine suppliers, so it didn’t place advance orders like the US and some other countries did. And it didn’t give those suppliers any kind of financial support to help them ramp up production early on so that they’d be ready to not just supply India, but also all the other countries that don’t have any vaccine-making capabilities.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I hope we hear some better news from India coming up soon. Let’s move to another story. And you know, each week, it seems on our news roundup we’re hearing more news coming out of the Biden administration about plans to shift to green energy.

Last week, there was an international climate summit. And there’s been a lot of money put toward wind power projects. Now this week, the White House is talking about putting money toward power grid improvements. Tell us more.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced billions of dollars in federal loans and support to upgrade the electric grid. And a lot of that money will go towards supporting high-voltage transmission lines, which carry electricity over long distances. And these are the kinds of lines that you need to connect areas that have a lot of wind and solar power available to areas that have less of that or that have large populations.

And they already have a few projects in mind for this new money. A group called Americans for a Clean Energy Grid has named more than 20 projects that they said were ready to go and could be helped by this new funding. And most of those are interstate lines. Several would carry electricity from wind farm projects in Wyoming to areas like the Pacific Northwest and even Las Vegas where there’s just a lot of electricity demand.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Amy, what can you tell us about some of the projects that this new funding might go toward?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, one project would connect Texas’s grid to a converter station in Mississippi and from there to the rest of the South. And if you remember, the fact that the Texas grid wasn’t connected to the rest of the US was a major problem earlier this year when a really bad winter storm hit and threatened to take down the entire grid there. And there’s also some projects that would connect offshore wind farms in the Northeast that the Biden administration has made it very clear that it supports, and bring that power to communities on land. And then there’s one project that would actually run under Lake Erie and connect Ontario to the power grid operator that serves the Great Lakes region here in the US.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So these lines are very important, but they’re not always easy to site. There are a lot of stumbling blocks. Tell us about what stumbling blocks they face.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that’s right. So a lot of times, people don’t want these lines running through their towns or communities, and so they might protest against them. And Biden’s plan tries to address that by saying that the government can use existing rights of way for highways and railroads as much as possible to work around that. But even if all 22 of these projects were completed, that still wouldn’t actually be enough transmission capacity to make the grid capable of being 100% renewable. So there would need to be more projects in addition to these.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So a lot more money spent. A lot more projects have to get online just to make sure we can meet some of these very ambitious goals that the administration has.

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. Yeah, right now, the Biden administration is making a lot of promises and plans. And of course, there’s always challenges to getting these things done.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So during the pandemic, we have heard a lot about clinical trials. And now the FDA is cracking down on how clinical trials data is reported. What’s happening here?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that’s right. So there’s always all kinds of trials going on to test all different kinds of medicines against different diseases. And for a few years now, the Food and Drug Administration has had this rule that any company or university that runs a clinical trial has to post the results to a free public website called clinicaltrials.gov. And the idea there is to make these trial results transparent so that anybody can look them up and be able to share information between researchers so that everybody can see what worked and what didn’t and what kind of side effects might have occurred for different treatments.

So trial sponsors are supposed to post these results within a year of when their trial ends. But ever since the rule was put into place, a lot of companies and especially universities have basically ignored it and never posted the results, or only done it after very long delays. And the FDA has always kind of just let this happen and never enforced the rule. But this week, the FDA sent its first ever notice to a company that was three years late in reporting its trial results for a drug that was supposed to treat kidney cancer.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m a little bit confused, though, because it seems like such an important thing to do. And we reported on our program more than a year ago about this. Why a crackdown now?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, and they only sent this letter to one company called Acceleron while, actually, there’s many more, and especially universities and even federal agencies, that are also behind on reporting that haven’t yet been notified. So some have been wondering if this is a sign that the Biden administration is going to be taking this reporting rule much more clearly, and if this is just the first of many warnings and instances to come.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Is there anything in particular that Acceleron is alleged to have done that would have prompted this notice at this time?

AMY NORDRUM: Not that we know of. Right now, it just kind of seems like a one-off. But it would be, I think, surprising if this were the only letter that they ever issued. So I think that we could probably expect to see more action on trying to get trial sponsors to share their results, as they should have been doing the entire time.

JOHN DANKOSKY: All right. Well, speaking of crackdowns, you brought us a story here about a group of researchers who’ve set off a conversation in the open software community Linux. And it’s kind of a fascinating story. Tell us about it.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, so there’s this very well-known open source software called Linux. It’s an operating system that can be used to do lots of different things. And like other open source projects, it’s maintained by a community of volunteers who write new code for it and check each other’s code and try to improve the software over time.

But lately, some security researchers from the University of Minnesota have been in hot water with this community because they wanted to test how vulnerable open source projects like this are to hackers. So in the name of security research, they submitted some code to the project that patched a minor issue, but also introduced new code that could theoretically later be used by the same group to carry out an attack. And they were able to get these patches approved.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So they upset this larger community because they say that they were trying to do something that would, in the long term, help.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, exactly. And the fake patches they sent never actually got incorporated into the software because the researchers told volunteers about their tests, and they withdrew the fake patches and sent them the right ones instead. And they published a paper on their study, so they were public about it and wanted to just use that as proof that these projects are vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. But the whole method did not go over well with the volunteers, and they’ve effectively banned anyone from the University of Minnesota for contributing to the project for the time. And they’re going back through and reverting to all of the university’s earlier contributions.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, there’s two different things that are interesting here to me. One is this is kind of a conundrum about how you go about testing security if not this way. And the second thing is this sort of blanket ban of all the email addresses from the University of Minnesota. That seems like an odd way to crack down.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, I mean, the researchers say, or originally said– they’ve apologized since, but they said that this was an ethical and acceptable way to do security research, which often does try to involve trying to identify new vulnerabilities and draw attention to them. But the volunteers argue it’s a violation of the community’s principles of trust. The project shouldn’t be experimented on in that way.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, so your final story looks at something that could be really exciting here– a new type of earthquake early warning system that’s going live in Washington state. How does it work?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. The system’s called ShakeAlert. And basically, when an earthquake happens, there are these seismic waves that travel out through the ground. And this system uses seismometers placed all over the state to detect the very first waves that occur.

And those first waves don’t cause any damage. They’re not the waves we feel. But they can be used to generate an early warning alert for anybody in the area a few seconds ahead of when the more damaging waves actually hit. And that’s exactly what this new ShakeAlert system that’s coming to Washington state next week is designed to do.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is pretty exciting. I read that Google’s looking to develop something that’s similar, but using smartphones.

AMY NORDRUM: Right, so Google is separately working on its own system that would rely on the motion sensors in smartphones to detect earthquakes and alert people that they were about to hit. And if that works, that would be a lot faster and cheaper to set up than the ShakeAlert system, which did require installing hundreds of seismometers. The Google system isn’t yet available. It’s still being tested in a couple of countries.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, so there’s the standard seismometers we have, and there’s this new system that’s being worked on in Washington state. And then Google has an entirely new way of doing things over smartphones. Do we have any sense whether one of these ways of learning about earthquakes early is going to be more adopted or better than the other?

AMY NORDRUM: I think both could do great things in terms of giving people advance warning. I think if they’re roughly accurate and they both exist in the world, that’s a great thing. And they both have their limitations. The closer you are to the epicenter, the less warning time you’re going to get, for example. And Google’s system wouldn’t be as good at detecting offshore earthquakes, because there aren’t people holding smartphones out there.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, that’s right. Offshore, where a lot of earthquakes happen and you could be worried about tsunamis, you’re not going to have any readings because there’s nobody out there in the middle of the ocean.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, exactly. So I think these will be improvements on what we’ve had in the past, which is an earthquake just hits and you don’t have any time to take cover or pull your car over to the side of the road. And so a few seconds notice could really make a big difference here, but it’s not as if this would be a perfect system either way.

JOHN DANKOSKY: When it comes to cell phones reading early earthquake signals, it seems like a great technology, but I guess I worry that anything from tremors from fracking to, I don’t know, a really vigorous aerobics class could make it seem as though there’s tremors going to the phone and maybe set off a false alarm. Are there worries?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that has actually happened in a few cases. I was reading about Google’s system, where even a bad thunderstorm might cause the alert to go off. But that is why they’re testing it, and they’re trying to kind of see if they can distinguish the difference between an early warning earthquake wave and then other rumbles and vibrations that happen in our daily lives.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Amy Nordrum is an editor at the MIT Technology Review. Thanks so much, Amy, for bringing us these stories. I really appreciate it.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks for having me.

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