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The pandemic problems that boosters won’t solve

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The pandemic problems that boosters won’t solve


But fully vaccinated healthy people in “high-risk” jobs, meaning that they have more chances of being exposed to the virus, aren’t necessarily at higher risk of getting sick even if they catch the virus. That’s the whole point of getting vaccinated —so you won’t get very sick even if you are exposed to the virus.

But “high-risk” job is a fluid definition. There is now a federal requirement for health care workers to get vaccinated, and more schools are requiring staff and eligible students to get vaccinated. So here is the irony: if you are already fully vaccinated, you are in a “high-risk” job mostly because your colleagues or others who come through your doors aren’t or can’t be vaccinated. Get them vaccinated, and you won’t be in a high-risk job anymore!

So it’s tricky for the CDC. The ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) didn’t think healthy people, regardless of where they work, need the booster dose yet to protect themselves. The protection from the vaccines against severe illnesses and hospitalization have remained high across age groups. And even though a booster dose may further increase antibody levels, it’s not clear whether that is needed to protect against severe COVID-19, and whether that would decrease viral transmission. 

We know that some people still haven’t had access to an initial course of vaccination. Does it make sense to offer boosters, when we haven’t even thoroughly vaccinated everyone who wants a shot in the US?

The booster doses won’t do much if we still have big pockets of unvaccinated people. These people should be our urgent focus. It takes resources to have community outreach to get to bring the vaccines to those who can’t take time off work, or live in more rural or low-resource neighborhoods where they don’t have access to the news or reliable scientific information.

There is already a shortage of nurses, pharmacists, and community health workers right now. Would we have the resources to plan booster doses and still reach the unvaccinated?

Can you tell us how the ethical picture has shifted since the last time we spoke in January? Does the Biden administration’s pledge to donate half a billion more vaccines change the calculus? 

It’s disheartening that more than 18 months after the pandemic was declared, we still have not reached what I call relational solidarity, for the global community to work together to promote the common good, to make sure nobody is left behind.  Donation is better than nothing, but poorer countries are left at the mercy of rich countries. Many of these 500 million Pfizer doses won’t arrive until later next year. If it is urgent for Americans who have better health care access to get vaccinated as soon as possible, or even get the booster dose, how would later next year be considered acceptable? This means that many people in poorer countries won’t be getting their first shot until more than 18 months after the US gave out its first doses. 

The disparity we create and allow is simply appalling. And the Pfizer vaccine requires special refrigeration, so the poorest countries that don’t have the storage and handling capacity may still not benefit. To solve the supply chain issues, we need to build capacity and have manufacturing plants for different vaccines spread across the globe. Pharmaceutical companies should partner with drug companies in the global south to do that. This can also help to make sure that the shots can be adapted for local variants quicker.

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How do I know if egg freezing is for me?

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How do I know if egg freezing is for me?


The tool is currently being trialed in a group of research volunteers and is not yet widely available. But I’m hoping it represents a move toward more transparency and openness about the real costs and benefits of egg freezing. Yes, it is a remarkable technology that can help people become parents. But it might not be the best option for everyone.

Read more from Tech Review’s archive

Anna Louie Sussman had her eggs frozen in Italy and Spain because services in New York were too expensive. Luckily, there are specialized couriers ready to take frozen sex cells on international journeys, she wrote.

Michele Harrison was 41 when she froze 21 of her eggs. By the time she wanted to use them, two years later, only one was viable. Although she did have a baby, her case demonstrates that egg freezing is no guarantee of parenthood, wrote Bonnie Rochman.

What happens if someone dies with eggs in storage? Frozen eggs and sperm can still be used to create new life, but it’s tricky to work out who can make the decision, as I wrote in a previous edition of The Checkup.

Meanwhile, the race is on to create lab-made eggs and sperm. These cells, which might be made from a person’s blood or skin cells, could potentially solve a lot of fertility problems—should they ever prove safe, as I wrote in a feature for last year’s magazine issue on gender.

Researchers are also working on ways to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab, which could allow them to store and use their eggs without having to pause gender-affirming medical care or go through other potentially distressing procedures, as I wrote last year.

From around the web

The World Health Organization is set to decide whether covid still represents a “public health emergency of international concern.” It will probably decide to keep this status, because of the current outbreak in China. (STAT)  

Researchers want to study the brains, genes, and other biological features of incarcerated people to find ways to stop them from reoffending. Others warn that this approach is based on shoddy science and racist ideas. (Undark)

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A watermark for chatbots can expose text written by an AI

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


For example, since OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT was launched in November, students have already started cheating by using it to write essays for them. News website CNET has used ChatGPT to write articles, only to have to issue corrections amid accusations of plagiarism. Building the watermarking approach into such systems before they’re released could help address such problems. 

In studies, these watermarks have already been used to identify AI-generated text with near certainty. Researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, were able to spot text created by Meta’s open-source language model, OPT-6.7B, using a detection algorithm they built. The work is described in a paper that’s yet to be peer-reviewed, and the code will be available for free around February 15. 

AI language models work by predicting and generating one word at a time. After each word, the watermarking algorithm randomly divides the language model’s vocabulary into words on a “greenlist” and a “redlist” and then prompts the model to choose words on the greenlist. 

The more greenlisted words in a passage, the more likely it is that the text was generated by a machine. Text written by a person tends to contain a more random mix of words. For example, for the word “beautiful,” the watermarking algorithm could classify the word “flower” as green and “orchid” as red. The AI model with the watermarking algorithm would be more likely to use the word “flower” than “orchid,” explains Tom Goldstein, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who was involved in the research. 

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


That’s why the team behind a new decision-making tool hope it will help to clear up some of the misconceptions around the procedure—and give would-be parents a much-needed insight into its real costs, benefits, and potential pitfalls. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Elon Musk held a surprise meeting with US political leaders 
Allegedly in the interest of ensuring Twitter is “fair to both parties.” (Insider $)
+ Kanye West’s presidential campaign advisors have been booted off Twitter. (Rolling Stone $)
+ Twitter’s trust and safety head is Musk’s biggest champion. (Bloomberg $) 

2 We’re treating covid like flu now
Annual covid shots are the next logical step. (The Atlantic $)

3 The worst thing about Sam Bankman-Fried’s spell in jail? 
Being cut off from the internet. (Forbes $)
+ Most crypto criminals use just five exchanges. (Wired $)
+ Collapsed crypto firmFTX has objected to a new investigation request. (Reuters)

4 Israel’s tech sector is rising up against its government
Tech workers fear its hardline policies will harm startups. (FT $)

5 It’s possible to power the world solely using renewable energy
At least, according to Stanford academic Mark Jacobson. (The Guardian)
+ Tech bros love the environment these days. (Slate $)
+ How new versions of solar, wind, and batteries could help the grid. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Generative AI is wildly expensive to run 
And that’s why promising startups like OpenAI need to hitch their wagons to the likes of Microsoft. (Bloomberg $)
+ How Microsoft benefits from the ChatGPT hype. (Vox)
+ BuzzFeed is planning to make quizzes supercharged by OpenAI. (WSJ $) 
+ Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone? (MIT Technology Review)

7 It’s hard not to blame self-driving cars for accidents
Even when it’s not technically their fault. (WSJ $)

8 What it’s like to swap Google for TikTok
It’s great for food suggestions and hacks, but hopeless for anything work-related. (Wired $)
+ The platform really wants to stay operational in the US. (Vox)
+ TikTok is mired in an eyelash controversy. (Rolling Stone $)

9 CRISPR gene editing kits are available to buy online
But there’s no guarantee these experiments will actually work. (Motherboard)
+ Next up for CRISPR: Gene editing for the masses? (MIT Technology Review)

10 Tech workers are livestreaming their layoffs
It’s a candid window into how these notoriously secretive companies treat their staff. (The Information $)

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