Fully vaccinated Americans can now gather indoors, maskless and without distancing—as long as it’s with others who’ve gotten their shots, according to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The advice, which comes as vaccinations continue to gain speed in America, are a positive signal for those who have had a course of shots. But it shows there’s a lot we still don’t know about how the virus behaves—and leaves plenty of questions about who can do what, and what’s fair.
Three things the new CDC guidance says
- Indoor, maskless, and non-distanced gatherings are okay, as long as individuals have been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks. The CDC says medium and large gatherings should still be avoided, although it doesn’t specify a number of people for a small gathering.
- In public, keep your mask on and continue to distance from others. When you’re out and about in your community, on the train or at the grocery store, you might cross paths with people who haven’t been vaccinated yet.
- Vaccinated and unvaccinated people can gather together, with limitations. If you’re vaccinated, the CDC says you can visit indoors unmasked with unvaccinated people from one other household. There are important considerations discussed below, like the health profiles of the unvaccinated people involved.
Three things that are still unanswered
- Whether vaccinated people are still considered a transmission risk. We know that vaccinated individuals are much less likely to become infected, and much less likely to transmit the virus—but the CDC hasn’t yet advised what this means for people’s behavior. It’s crucial for vaccinated people to understand that interacting with others who haven’t been vaccinated or infected carries “an undefined, finite risk,” says Thomas Russo, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Buffalo. That risk of transmission may be decreased, but it’s probably not zero.
- Whether vaccines can prevent long-term effects of covid-19—and what they are. All vaccines approved for emergency use in the US have proved to be highly effective at preventing death, but we’re still learning about the long-term effects of covid-19. Even people with relatively minor cases could still battle symptoms for weeks or months. The safest bet, Russo says, is to do everything you can not to get infected.
- What your personal risk tolerance should be. Though the CDC guidelines say unmasked indoor gatherings are acceptable between a vaccinated person and unvaccinated people from one household, there’s a big caveat: whether anyone in the unvaccinated household is at an increased risk for severe illness from covid-19.
Even if you read up on the health conditions that are proved to increase risk, “there are still people that end up getting severe disease for reasons that we’re not certain about,” Russo says. “[The guidelines] count on the public to sort that out.” That risk calculation may be especially tricky if you live with some people who are vaccinated but others who aren’t. Russo, who is in a mixed household, says he is taking a conservative approach and being as careful as possible.
More of the same … for now
Though these new guidelines might give some families the peace of mind to organize much-needed visits with grandparents, not much changed today for the vast majority of the US—particularly for people of color. A New York Times analysis found Black people were undervaccinated relative to their population in each one of the 38 states that report on race and ethnicity for vaccinations. A gap exists for Hispanic people, too. And though the new CDC guidance applies only to private activities—not large-scale public reopening—bioethicists have warned that using vaccination status as a prerequisite to participating in reopening could further entrench existing racial inequities.
“We need to make every effort [to ensure] that the vaccination process is equitable and fair,” Russo says. “And we’re still struggling.”
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Climate tech is back—and this time, it can’t afford to fail
Boston Metal’s strategy is to try to make the transition as digestible as possible for steelmakers. “We won’t own and operate steel plants,” says Adam Rauwerdink, who heads business development at the company. Instead, it plans to license the technology for electrochemical units that are designed to be a simple drop-in replacement for blast furnaces; the liquid iron that flows out of the electrochemical cells can be handled just as if it were coming out of a blast furnace, with the same equipment.
Working with industrial investors including ArcelorMittal, says Rauwerdink, allows the startup to learn “how to integrate our technology into their plants—how to handle the raw materials coming in, the metal products coming out of our systems, and how to integrate downstream into their established processes.”
The startup’s headquarters in a business park about 15 miles outside Boston is far from any steel manufacturing, but these days it’s drawing frequent visitors from the industry. There, the startup’s pilot-scale electrochemical unit, the size of a large furnace, is intentionally designed to be familiar to those potential customers. If you ignore the hordes of electrical cables running in and out of it, and the boxes of electric equipment surrounding it, it’s easy to forget that the unit is not just another part of the standard steelmaking process. And that’s exactly what Boston Metal is hoping for.
The company expects to have an industrial-scale unit ready for use by 2025 or 2026. The deadline is key, because Boston Metal is counting on commitments that many large steelmakers have made to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Given that the life of an average blast furnace is around 20 years, that means having the technology ready to license before 2030, as steelmakers plan their long-term capital expenditures. But even now, says Rauwerdink, demand is growing for green steel, especially in Europe, where it’s selling for a few hundred dollars a metric ton more than the conventional product.
It’s that kind of blossoming market for clean technologies that many of today’s startups are depending on. The recent corporate commitments to decarbonize, and the IRA and other federal spending initiatives, are creating significant demand in markets “that previously didn’t exist,” says Michael Kearney, a partner at Engine Ventures.
One wild card, however, will be just how aggressively and faithfully corporations pursue ways to transform their core businesses and to meet their publicly stated goals. Funding a small pilot-scale project, says Kearney, “looks more like greenwashing if you have no intention of scaling those projects.” Watching which companies move from pilot plants to full-scale commercial facilities will tell you “who’s really serious,” he says. Putting aside the fears of greenwashing, Kearney says it’s essential to engage these large corporations in the transition to cleaner technologies.
Susan Schofer, a partner at the venture firm SOSV, has some advice for those VCs and startups reluctant to work with existing companies in traditionally heavily polluting industries: Get over it. “We need to partner with them. These incumbents have important knowledge that we all need to get in order to effect change. So there needs to be healthy respect on both sides,” she says. Too often, she says, there is “an attitude that we don’t want to do that because it’s helping an incumbent industry.” But the reality, she says, is that finding ways for such industries to save energy or use cleaner technologies “can make the biggest difference in the near term.”
It’s tempting to dismiss the history of cleantech 1.0. It was more than a decade ago, and there’s a new generation of startups and investors. Far more money is around today, along with a broader range of financing options. Surely we’re savvier these days.
Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone
“If you’re doing a specific application, like searching through email … do you really need these big models that are capable of anything? I would say no,” Luccioni says.
The energy consumption associated with using AI tools has been a missing piece in understanding their true carbon footprint, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI, who was not part of the study.
Comparing the carbon emissions from newer, larger generative models and older AI models is also important, Dodge adds. “It highlights this idea that the new wave of AI systems are much more carbon intensive than what we had even two or five years ago,” he says.
Google once estimated that an average online search used 0.3 watt-hours of electricity, equivalent to driving 0.0003 miles in a car. Today, that number is likely much higher, because Google has integrated generative AI models into its search, says Vijay Gadepally, a research scientist at the MIT Lincoln lab, who did not participate in the research.
Not only did the researchers find emissions for each task to be much higher than they expected, but they discovered that the day-to-day emissions associated with using AI far exceeded the emissions from training large models. Luccioni tested different versions of Hugging Face’s multilingual AI model BLOOM to see how many uses would be needed to overtake training costs. It took over 590 million uses to reach the carbon cost of training its biggest model. For very popular models, such as ChatGPT, it could take just a couple of weeks for such a model’s usage emissions to exceed its training emissions, Luccioni says.
This is because large AI models get trained just once, but then they can be used billions of times. According to some estimates, popular models such as ChatGPT have up to 10 million users a day, many of whom prompt the model more than once.
Studies like these make the energy consumption and emissions related to AI more tangible and help raise awareness that there is a carbon footprint associated with using AI, says Gadepally, adding, “I would love it if this became something that consumers started to ask about.”
Dodge says he hopes studies like this will help us to hold companies more accountable about their energy usage and emissions.
“The responsibility here lies with a company that is creating the models and is earning a profit off of them,” he says.
The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle
And really, what’s the point of such a hard-won triumph unless it’s to enforce your rights? “Honestly, this train has been coming down the track since at least 2014, if not earlier. We’re at the collision point. I struggle to imagine there’s going to be a diversion,” says Sherkow. “Brace for impact.”
The Broad Institute didn’t answer any of my questions, and a spokesperson for MIT didn’t even reply to my email. That’s not a surprise. Private universities can be exceedingly obtuse when it comes to acknowledging their commercial activities. They are supposed to be centers of free inquiry and humanitarian intentions, so if employees get rich from biotechnology—and they do—they try to do it discreetly.
There are also strong reasons not to sue. Suing could make a nonprofit like the Broad Institute look bad. Really bad. That’s because it could get in the way of cures.
“It seems unlikely and undesirable, [as] legal challenges at this late date would delay saving patients,” says George Church, a Harvard professor and one of the original scientific founders of Editas, though he’s no longer closely involved with the company.
If a patent infringement lawsuit does get filed, it will happen sometime after Vertex notifies regulators it’s starting to sell the treatment. “That’s the starting gun,” says Sherkow. “There are no hypothetical lawsuits in the patent system, so one must wait until it’s sufficiently clear that an act of infringement is about to occur.”
How much money is at stake? It remains unclear what the demand for the Vertex treatment will be, but it could eventually prove a blockbuster. There are about 20,000 people with severe sickle-cell in the US who might benefit. And assuming a price of $3 million (my educated guess), that’s a total potential market of around $60 billion. A patent holder could potentially demand 10% of the take, or more.
Vertex can certainly defend itself. It’s a big, rich company, and through its partnership with the Swiss firm CRISPR Therapeutics, a biotech co-founded by Charpentier, Vertex has access to the competing set of intellectual-property claims—including those of UC Berkeley, which (though bested by Broad in the US) hold force in Europe and could be used to throw up a thicket of counterarguments.
Vertex could also choose to pay royalties. To do that, it would have to approach Editas, the biotech cofounded by Zhang and Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which previously bought exclusive rights to the Broad patents on CRISPR in the arena of human treatments, including sickle-cell therapies.