Pfizer did not confirm the authenticity of the study document. Its lead authors are Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health for Israel’s health ministry, and Eric Haas, a ministry researcher. In addition, the study was carried out by a team of eight Pfizer researchers, including epidemiologists Farid Khan and John McLaughlin and the company’s global medical lead for covid vaccines, David Swerdlow, an infectious disease expert previously with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The research represents the first joint report by the health ministry and Pfizer since they reached an agreement earlier this year for Israel to share vaccination data in return for a steady supply of doses.
The cooperation is part of a wider effort by Pfizer to track how its vaccine, named Comirnaty, works in large populations. The company told MIT Technology Review earlier this week that it is studying “the vaccine’s real-world effectiveness at several locations worldwide, including Israel,” and “particularly looking at real-world data from Israel to understand any potential impact of the vaccine to protect against covid-19 arising from emerging variants.” Pfizer’s vaccine, like one from Moderna, another mRNA vaccine authorized for use in the US and Europe, uses two injections of messenger RNA carrying information about the virus to train people’s immune system to recognize and combat the infection.
The new findings are broadly consistent with separate announcements in recent days from two of Israel’s large health organizations, Maccabi Healthcare Services and Clalit Health Services, which together care for 80% of Israelis.
On February 14, Ran Balicer, chief of innovation and research at Clalit, the largest Israeli HMO, said that evidence collected on 1.2 million members “shows unequivocally that Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is extremely effective in the real world a week after the second dose.”
Other analyses suggest that serious infections and deaths have fallen among older Israelis, who got the vaccine first, but not among those younger than 44 who have not been vaccinated.
The Israeli report describes observations made during three weeks in January and February when researchers were able to compare health records of unvaccinated people and people who had gotten their second shot more than a week before. They then compared the groups for five covid-19 outcomes: infection, symptoms, hospitalizations, critical hospitalization, and death. The unpublished study says the vaccine was around 93% effective in preventing symptomatic covid-19. Pfizer and its partner, the German biotechnology firm BioNTech, had found 95% effectiveness in their clinical trials carried out in 2020. The country-wide study was also able to show that hospitalizations and deaths dropped by similar amounts in the vaccinated group.
Because Israel tests people fairly comprehensively, the researchers were also able to estimate that the vaccine was 89.4% effective in preventing any detectable infection at all, including asymptomatic infections.
That finding, which is new, suggests that the vaccine could strongly suppress transmission of the virus between people and could help bring the outbreak to an end, a possibility Pfizer and the Israeli researchers say they are closely watching. “Israel provides a unique opportunity to observe the nation-wide impact of an increasing prevalence of immunity on Sars-Cov-2 transmission,” the authors wrote. Eric Topol, a doctor at Scripps Research in California, who reviewed the document, says that “the blocking of infections here speaks to the vaccine’s impact on asymptomatic transmission, which we’ve been unsure about.”
These robots know when to ask for help
A new training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to address this problem by teaching robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Andy Zeng, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who helped develop the new technique, says that while robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense.
For example, when asked to bring you a Coke, the robot needs to first understand that it needs to go into the kitchen, look for the refrigerator, and open the fridge door. Conventionally, these smaller substeps had to be manually programmed, because otherwise the robot would not know that people usually keep their drinks in the kitchen.
That’s something large language models (LLMs) could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in, says Zeng.
Now when the robot is asked to bring a Coke, an LLM, which has a generalized understanding of the world, can generate a step-by-step guide for the robot to follow.
The problem with LLMs, though, is that there’s no way to guarantee that their instructions are possible for the robot to execute. Maybe the person doesn’t have a refrigerator in the kitchen, or the fridge door handle is broken. In these situations, robots need to ask humans for help.
KnowNo makes that possible by combining large language models with statistical tools that quantify confidence levels.
When given an ambiguous instruction like “Put the bowl in the microwave,” KnowNo first generates multiple possible next actions using the language model. Then it creates a confidence score predicting the likelihood that each potential choice is the best one.
The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots
The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.
Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way
The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.
We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. Read the full story.
5 things we didn’t put on our 2024 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies
We haven’t always been right (RIP, Baxter), but we’ve often been early to spot important areas of progress (we put natural-language processing on our very first list in 2001; today this technology underpins large language models and generative AI tools like ChatGPT).
Every year, our reporters and editors nominate technologies that they think deserve a spot, and we spend weeks debating which ones should make the cut. Here are some of the technologies we didn’t pick this time—and why we’ve left them off, for now.
New drugs for Alzheimer’s disease
Alzmeiher’s patients have long lacked treatment options. Several new drugs have now been proved to slow cognitive decline, albeit modestly, by clearing out harmful plaques in the brain. In July, the FDA approved Leqembi by Eisai and Biogen, and Eli Lilly’s donanemab could soon be next. But the drugs come with serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding, which can be fatal in some cases. Plus, they’re hard to administer—patients receive doses via an IV and must receive regular MRIs to check for brain swelling. These drawbacks gave us pause.
Sustainable aviation fuel
Alternative jet fuels made from cooking oil, leftover animal fats, or agricultural waste could reduce emissions from flying. They have been in development for years, and scientists are making steady progress, with several recent demonstration flights. But production and use will need to ramp up significantly for these fuels to make a meaningful climate impact. While they do look promising, there wasn’t a key moment or “breakthrough” that merited a spot for sustainable aviation fuels on this year’s list.
One way to counteract global warming could be to release particles into the stratosphere that reflect the sun’s energy and cool the planet. That idea is highly controversial within the scientific community, but a few researchers and companies have begun exploring whether it’s possible by launching a series of small-scale high-flying tests. One such launch prompted Mexico to ban solar geoengineering experiments earlier this year. It’s not really clear where geoengineering will go from here or whether these early efforts will stall out. Amid that uncertainty, we decided to hold off for now.