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Inside the risky bat-virus engineering that links America to Wuhan

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Inside the risky bat-virus engineering that links America to Wuhan


For Baric, that research started in the late 1990s. Coronaviruses were then considered low risk, but Baric’s studies on the genetics that allowed viruses to enter human cells convinced him that some might be just a few mutations away from jumping the species barrier.

That hunch was confirmed in 2002–’03, when SARS broke out in southern China, infecting 8,000 people. As bad as that was, Baric says, we dodged a bullet with SARS. The disease didn’t spread from one person to another until about a day after severe symptoms began to appear, making it easier to corral through quarantines and contact tracing. Only 774 people died in that outbreak, but if it had been transmitted as easily as SARS-CoV-2, “we would have had a pandemic with a 10% mortality rate,” Baric says. “That’s how close humanity came.”

As tempting as it was to write off SARS as a one-time event, in 2012 MERS emerged and began infecting people in the Middle East. “For me personally, that was a wake-up call that the animal reservoirs must have many, many more strains that are poised for cross-species movement,” says Baric.

By then, examples of such dangers were already being discovered by Shi’s team, which had spent years sampling bats in southern China to locate the origin of SARS. The project was part of a global viral surveillance effort spearheaded by the US nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. The nonprofit—which has an annual income of over $16 million, more than 90% from government grants—has its office in New York but partners with local research groups in other countries to do field and lab work. The WIV was its crown jewel, and Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, has been a coauthor with Shi on most of her key papers.

By taking thousands of samples from guano, fecal swabs, and bat tissue, and searching those samples for genetic sequences similar to SARS, Shi’s team began to discover many closely related viruses. In a cave in Yunnan Province in 2011 or 2012, they discovered the two closest, which they named WIV1 and SHC014.

Shi managed to culture WIV1 in her lab from a fecal sample and show that it could directly infect human cells, proving that SARS-like viruses ready to leap straight from bats to humans already lurked in the natural world. This showed, Daszak and Shi argued, that bat coronaviruses were a “substantial global threat.” Scientists, they said, needed to find them, and study them, before they found us.

Many of the other viruses couldn’t be grown, but Baric’s system provided a way to rapidly test their spikes by engineering them into similar viruses. When the chimera he made using SHC014 proved able to infect human cells in a dish, Daszak told the press that these revelations should “move this virus from a candidate emerging pathogen to a clear and present danger.”

To others, it was the perfect example of the unnecessary dangers of gain-of-function science. “The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk,” the Rutgers microbiologist Richard Ebright, a longtime critic of such research, told Nature.

To Baric, the situation was more nuanced. Although his creation might be more dangerous than the original mouse-adapted virus he’d used as a backbone, it was still wimpy compared with SARS—certainly not the supervirus Senator Paul would later suggest.

In the end, the NIH clampdown never had teeth. It included a clause granting exceptions “if head of funding agency determines research is urgently necessary to protect public health or national security.” Not only were Baric’s studies allowed to move forward, but so were all studies that applied for exemptions. The funding restrictions were lifted in 2017 and replaced with a more lenient system.

Tyvek suits and respirators

If the NIH was looking for a scientist to make regulators comfortable with gain-of-function research, Baric was the obvious choice. For years he’d insisted on extra safety steps, and he took pains to point these out in his 2015 paper, as if modeling the way forward.

The CDC recognizes four levels of biosafety and recommends which pathogens should be studied at which level. Biosafety level 1 is for nonhazardous organisms and requires virtually no precautions: wear a lab coat and gloves as needed. BSL-2 is for moderately hazardous pathogens that are already endemic in the area, and relatively mild interventions are indicated: close the door, wear eye protection, dispose of waste materials in an autoclave. BSL-3 is where things get serious. It’s for pathogens that can cause serious disease through respiratory transmission, such as influenza and SARS, and the associated protocols include multiple barriers to escape. Labs are walled off by two sets of self-closing, locking doors; air is filtered; personnel use full PPE and N95 masks and are under medical surveillance. BSL-4 is for the baddest of the baddies, such as Ebola and Marburg: full moon suits and dedicated air systems are added to the arsenal.

“There are no enforceable standards of what you should and shouldn’t do. It’s up to the individual countries, institutions, and scientists.”

Filippa Lentzos, King’s College London

In Baric’s lab, the chimeras were studied at BSL-3, enhanced with additional steps like Tyvek suits, double gloves, and powered-air respirators for all workers. Local first-responder teams participated in regular drills to increase their familiarity with the lab. All workers were monitored for infections, and local hospitals had procedures in place to handle incoming scientists. It was probably one of the safest BSL-3 facilities in the world. That still wasn’t enough to prevent a handful of errors over the years: some scientists were even bitten by virus-carrying mice. But no infections resulted.

Brand-new pathogens

In 2014, the NIH awarded a five-year, $3.75 million grant to EcoHealth Alliance to study the risk that more bat-borne coronaviruses would emerge in China, using the same kind of techniques Baric had pioneered. Some of that work was to be subcontracted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

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Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

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The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises


Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, is also excited to see a whole new approach. “We really haven’t seen this coming out of the deep-learning community so much,” she says. She also agrees with LeCun that large language models cannot be the whole story. “They lack memory and internal models of the world that are actually really important,” she says.

Natasha Jaques, a researcher at Google Brain, thinks that language models should still play a role, however. It’s odd for language to be entirely missing from LeCun’s proposals, she says: “We know that large language models are super effective and bake in a bunch of human knowledge.”

Jaques, who works on ways to get AIs to share information and abilities with each other, points out that humans don’t have to have direct experience of something to learn about it. We can change our behavior simply by being told something, such as not to touch a hot pan. “How do I update this world model that Yann is proposing if I don’t have language?” she asks.

There’s another issue, too. If they were to work, LeCun’s ideas would create a powerful technology that could be as transformative as the internet. And yet his proposal doesn’t discuss how his model’s behavior and motivations would be controlled, or who would control them. This is a weird omission, says Abhishek Gupta, the founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and a responsible-AI expert at Boston Consulting Group. 

“We should think more about what it takes for AI to function well in a society, and that requires thinking about ethical behavior, amongst other things,” says Gupta. 

Yet Jaques notes that LeCun’s proposals are still very much ideas rather than practical applications. Mitchell says the same: “There’s certainly little risk of this becoming a human-level intelligence anytime soon.”

LeCun would agree. His aim is to sow the seeds of a new approach in the hope that others build on it. “This is something that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says. “I’m putting this out there because I think ultimately this is the way to go.” If nothing else, he wants to convince people that large language models and reinforcement learning are not the only ways forward. 

“I hate to see people wasting their time,” he says.

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The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises

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The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises


“We’re addicted to being on Facebook.”

—Jordi Berbera, who runs a pizza stand in Mexico City, tells Rest of World why he has turned to selling his wares through the social network instead of through more conventional food delivery apps.

The big story

“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking

August 2020

Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.

There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.

On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. After her death, her family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer. He found she had subscribed to hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit; online communities where self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations—and the internet legitimizes them. Read the full story.

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The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?

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The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?


Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.

While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.

The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.

Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.

Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.

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