Five reasons why you don’t need to panic about coronavirus variants
2. The immune response is robust
Scientists testing vaccine efficacy often focus on antibodies and their ability to block the virus from infecting cells. In lab experiments, they mix blood from people who have been infected or vaccinated with cells in a dish to see if antibodies in the blood can “neutralize” the virus. These experiments are easy to perform. But antibodies are “a very narrow slice of what the immune response might be” in the body, says Jennifer Dowd, an epidemiologist and demographer at the University of Oxford.
Immune cells called T cells also help keep infections in check. These cells can’t neutralize the virus, but they can seek out infected cells and destroy them. That helps protect against severe disease. And data from people who’ve had covid-19 suggests that T-cell response should provide ample protection against most of the SARS-CoV-2 variants.
3. When vaccinated people do get infected, the shots protect against the worst outcomes
A vaccine that can block infection is wonderful. But “the most important thing is to keep people out of the hospital and out of the ground,” says Friedrich. And there’s good evidence that the current vaccines do exactly that. In South Africa, one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine provided 85% protection against covid-19-related hospitalizations and deaths. At the time, 95% of cases were caused by the B.1.351 variant. In Israel, where B.1.1.7 has become the dominant strain, two doses of Pfizer offered 97% protection against symptomatic covid-19 and hospitalizations linked to covid-19.
4. The same mutations keep popping up
Once the virus enters a cell, it begins to replicate. The more copies it makes, the greater the likelihood that random errors, or mutations, will crop up. Most of these copying errors are inconsequential. A handful, however, might give the virus a leg up. For example, a spike-protein mutation known as D614G appears to help transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Another, E484K, might help the virus evade the body’s antibody response. If the viruses carrying these advantageous mutations get transmitted from one person to the next, they can start to outcompete the viruses that lack them, a process known as natural selection. That’s how the B.1.1.7 variant, which is more transmissible, became the predominant strain in the US.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the mutations that improve the virus keep popping up in different parts of the globe, a phenomenon known as convergent evolution. “We are seeing the same combinations evolving over and over and over again,” says Vaughn Cooper, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Imagine a game of Tetris, Cooper writes in a recent story for Scientific American. “A limited number of building blocks can be assembled in different ways, in different combinations, to achieve the same winning structures.”
Cooper and some other researchers see this evidence of convergent evolution as a hopeful sign: the virus may be running out of new ways to adapt to the current environment. “It’s actually a small deck of cards right now,” he says. “If we can control infections, that deck of cards is going to remain small.”
5. If the effectiveness of the vaccines begins to wane, we can make booster shots.
Eventually, the current vaccines will become less effective. “That’s to be expected,” Chandran says. But he expects that to happen gradually: “There will be time for next-generation vaccines.” Moderna has already begun testing the efficacy of a booster shot aimed at protecting against B.1.351 (first identified in South Africa). Last week the company released the initial results. A third dose of the current covid-19 shot or a B.1.351-specific booster increased protection against the variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil. But the new variant-specific booster prompted a bigger immune response against B.1.351 than the third dose of the original shot.
That’s a relief for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that variant-specific boosters can work. “I think the feasibility of these RNA-based vaccines to produce boosters is the achievement of our lifetime,” Cooper says.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”