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We reviewed three at-home covid-19 tests. Here’s what happened

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shipping Abbott tests


As a result, I don’t think home tests are as useful as some have hoped. If used at scale to screen for covid, they could send millions of anxious people in search of lab tests and medical care they don’t need.

Still relevant?

As the covid-19 pandemic spread around the globe last year, economists and scientists called for massive expansion of testing and contact tracing in the US, to find and isolate infected people. But the number of daily tests in the US has never much exceeded 2 million, according to the Covid Tracking Project, and most of those were done in labs or on special instruments.

Home tests will now be manufactured in the tens of millions, say their makers, but some experts aren’t sure how much they will matter at this point. “The real value of these tests was six months ago,” says Amitabh Chandra, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “I think that the move to over-the-counter is great, but it has limited value in a world where vaccines become more widely available.” Vaccination credentials could be more important for travel and dining than test results are.

Companies selling the tests say they are still a relevant strategy for getting back to normal, especially given that kids aren’t getting vaccinated yet. For employers who want to keep an office or factory open, they say, self-directed consumer tests might be a good option. A spokesperson for Abbott told me that they might also help people “start thinking about coordinating more covid-conscious bridal showers, baby showers, or birthday parties.”

The UK government started giving away covid antigen tests for free, by mail and on street corners, on April 9, saying it wants people “to get in the habit” of testing themselves twice a week as social distancing restrictions are eased. Along with vaccines, free tests are part of that nation’s plan to quash the virus. Later, though, a leaked government memo said health officials were privately worried about a tsunami of false positives.

In the US, there’s no still no national campaign around home tests or subsidy for them, and as an out-of-pocket expense, they are still too expensive for most people to use with any frequency. That may be for the best, given my experience.

Types of tests

The three tests we tried included two antigen tests, BinaxNow from Abbott Laboratories and a kit from Ellume, as well as one molecular test, called Lucira. In general, molecular tests, which detect the genes of the coronavirus, are more reliable than antigen tests, which sense the presence of the virus’s outer shell.

Everything you need is in one box, except in the case of the Ellume test, which must be paired with an app. Overall, the Lucira test had the best combination of advertised accuracy and simplicity, but it was also the most expensive at $55.

We didn’t try Quidel QuickVue, another antigen test, or a molecular test from Cue Health. Those tests, while authorized for home use, are not being sold directly to the public yet.

After trying all the tests, I am not planning to invest in using them regularly. I work from home and don’t socialize, so I don’t really need to. Instead, I plan to keep at least one test in my cupboard so that if I do feel sick, or lose my sense of smell, I will be able to quickly find out whether it’s covid-19. The ability to test at home might become more important next winter when cold and flu season returns.

ABBOTT LABS

BinaxNow by Abbott

Time required: about 20 minutes
Price: $23.99 for two
Availability: At some CVS stores starting in April. Abbott says it is making tens of millions of BinaxNow tests per month.
Accuracy: 84.6% for detecting covid-19 infections, 98.5% for correctly identifying covid-19 negatives

This is the at-home version of the fast, 15-minute test the White House was using last year to screen staff and visitors. It’s an antigen test, meaning that it examines a sample from a nasal swab to detect a protein in the shell of the virus. It went on sale in the US last week, and I was able to buy a two-test kit at CVS for $23.99 plus tax.

The technology used is called a “lateral flow immunoassay.” In simple terms, that means it works like a pregnancy test. It’s basically a paper card with a test strip. As the sample flows through it, it hits antibodies that stick to the virus protein and then to a colored marker. If the virus is present, a pink bar appears on the strip.

I found the test fairly easy to perform. You use an eye dropper to dispense six drops of chemical into a small hole in the card; then you insert a swab after you’ve run it around in both nostrils. Rotate the swab counterclockwise, fold the card to bring the test strip in contact with the swab, and that’s it. Fifteen minutes later, a positive result will show up as a faint pink line.

The drawback of the test is that there’s room for two different kinds of user error. It’s hard to see the drops come out of the dropper, and using too few could cause a false negative. So could swabbing your nose incorrectly. Unlike the other tests, this one can’t tell if you’ve made a mistake.

And besides the prospect of user error, the test itself has issues with accuracy. BinaxNow is the cheapest test out there, but it’s also the most likely to be wrong, missing about one in seven real infections. Abbott cautions that results “should be treated as presumptive” and “do not rule out SARS-Cov-2.”

But a buyer won’t find the accuracy rate without digging into the fine print. The company also buries a crucial requirement imposed by regulators: to compensate for the lower accuracy, you are supposed to use both tests in the kit, at least 36 hours apart. I doubt a casual buyer will realize that. The two-test requirement is barely mentioned in the instructions.

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm


The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions.

The results were in line with what one might expect given those sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief of being transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased their internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youths themselves had no say in the study, and there’s no telling if they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman acknowledges that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”) 

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in her 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer contagion” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door for biases in who chose to respond to the survey and how they did so. She also highlighted that Littman asked parents to offer “diagnoses” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were unqualified to do without professional training. It’s even possible that Littman’s data could contain multiple responses from the same parent, Restar wrote. Littman told MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] is a really common practice.” She also called attention to the corrected ROGD paper, which notes that a pro-gender-­affirming parents’ Facebook group with 8,000 members posted the study’s recruitment information on its page—although Littman’s study was not designed to be able to discern whether any of them responded.

But politics is blind to nuances in methodology. And the paper was quickly seized by those who were already pushing back against increasing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine had put Laverne Cox, the trans actress from Orange Is the New Black, on its cover and declared a “transgender tipping point.” By 2016, bills across the country that aimed to bar trans people from bathrooms that fit their gender identity failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost its Republican governor, Pat McCrory, his job.  

Yet by 2018 a renewed backlash was well underway—one that zeroed in on trans youth. The debate about trans youth competing in sports went national, as did a heavily publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who didn’t. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing off bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions. The paper “laundered what had previously been the rantings of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the resemblance of serious scientific study,” Branstetter says. She believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, a similar argument would have been made by someone else. Despite its limitations, it has become a crucial weapon in the fight against trans people, largely through online dissemination. “It is astonishing that such a blatantly bad-faith effort has been taken so seriously,” Branstetter says.

Littman plainly rejects that characterization, saying her goal was simply to “find out what’s going on.” “This was a very good-faith attempt,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and I investigated, found that it was different than what was in the scientific literature.” 

One reason for the success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans kids are new. But Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Histories of the Transgender Child, says that is “empirically untrue.” Trans children have only recently started to be discussed in mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t around before, she says, but “there have been children transitioning for as long as there has been transition-related medical technology,” and children were socially transitioning—living as a different gender without any medical or legal interventions—long before that.

Many trans people are young children when they first observe a dissonance between how they are identified and how they identify. The process of transitioning is never simple, but the explanation of their identity might be.

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Inside the software that will become the next battle front in US-China chip war

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screenshot of KiCad software for circuit board design and prototyping


EDA software is a small but mighty part of the semiconductor supply chain, and it’s mostly controlled by three Western companies. That gives the US a powerful point of leverage, similar to the way it wanted to restrict access to lithography machines—another crucial tool for chipmaking—last month. So how has the industry become so American-centric, and why can’t China just develop its own alternative software? 

What is EDA?

Electronic design automation (also known as electronic computer-aided design, or ECAD) is the specialized software used in chipmaking. It’s like the CAD software that architects use, except it’s more sophisticated, since it deals with billions of minuscule transistors on an integrated circuit.

Screenshot of KiCad, a free EDA software.

JON NEAL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There’s no single dominant software program that represents the best in the industry. Instead, a series of software modules are often used throughout the whole design flow: logic design, debugging, component placement, wire routing, optimization of time and power consumption, verification, and more. Because modern-day chips are so complex, each step requires a different software tool. 

How important is EDA to chipmaking?

Although the global EDA market was valued at only around $10 billion in 2021, making it a small fraction of the $595 billion semiconductor market, it’s of unique importance to the entire supply chain.

The semiconductor ecosystem today can be seen as a triangle, says Mike Demler, a consultant who has been in the chip design and EDA industry for over 40 years. On one corner are the foundries, or chip manufacturers like TSMC; on another corner are intellectual-property companies like ARM, which make and sell reusable design units or layouts; and on the third corner are the EDA tools. All three together make sure the supply chain moves smoothly.

From the name, it may sound as if EDA tools are only important to chip design firms, but they are also used by chip manufacturers to verify that a design is feasible before production. There’s no way for a foundry to make a single chip as a prototype; it has to invest in months of time and production, and each time, hundreds of chips are fabricated on the same semiconductor base. It would be an enormous waste if they were found to have design flaws. Therefore, manufacturers rely on a special type of EDA tool to do their own validation. 

What are the leading companies in the EDA industry?

There are only a few companies that sell software for each step of the chipmaking process, and they have dominated this market for decades. The top three companies—Cadence (American), Synopsys (American), and Mentor Graphics (American but acquired by the German company Siemens in 2017)—control about 70% of the global EDA market. Their dominance is so strong that many EDA startups specialize in one niche use and then sell themselves to one of these three companies, further cementing the oligopoly. 

What is the US government doing to restrict EDA exports to China?

US companies’ outsize influence on the EDA industry makes it easy for the US government to squeeze China’s access. In its latest announcement, it pledged to add certain EDA tools to its list of technologies banned from export. The US will coordinate with 41 other countries, including Germany, to implement these restrictions. 

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Bright LEDs could spell the end of dark skies

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a satellite view of Earth on the hemisphere away from the sun with city lights visible


A global view of Earth assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite.

NASA

Specifications in the current proposal provide a starting point for planning, including a color temperature cutoff of 3,000 K in line with Pittsburgh’s dark-sky ordinance, which passed last fall. However, Martinez says that is the maximum, and as they look for consultants, they’ll be taking into account which ones show dark-sky expertise. The city is also considering—budget and infrastructure permitting—a “network lighting management system,” a kind of “smart” lighting that would allow them to control lighting levels and know when there is an outage. 

Martinez says there will be citywide engagement and updates on the status as critical milestones are reached. “We’re in the evaluation period right now,” she says, adding that the next milestone is authorization of a new contract. She acknowledges there is some “passionate interest in street lighting,” and that she too is anxious to see the project come to fruition: “Just because things seem to go quiet doesn’t mean work is not being done.”

While they aren’t meeting with light pollution experts right now, Martinez says the ones they met with during the last proposal round—Stephen Quick and Diane Turnshek of CMU— were “instrumental” in adopting the dark-sky ordinance.


In recent months, Zielinska-Dabkowska says, her “baby” has been the first Responsible Outdoor Light at Night Conference, an international gathering of more than 300 lighting professionals and light pollution researchers held virtually in May. Barentine was among the speakers. “It’s a sign that all of this is really coming along, both as a research subject but also something that attracts the interest of practitioners in outdoor lighting,” he says of the conference.

There is more work to be done, though. The IDA recently released a report summarizing the current state of light pollution research. The 18-page report includes a list of knowledge gaps to be addressed in several areas, including the overall effectiveness of government policies on light pollution. Another is how much light pollution comes from sources other than city streetlights, which a 2020 study found accounted for only 13% of Tucson’s light pollution. It is not clear what makes up the rest, but Barentine suspects the next biggest source in the US and Europe is commercial lighting, such as flashy outdoor LED signs and parking lot lighting. 

Working with companies to reduce light emissions can be challenging, says Clayton Trevillyan, Tucson’s chief building officer. “If there is a source of light inside the building, technically it’s not regulated by the outdoor lighting code, even if it is emitting light outside,” Trevillyan says. In some cases, he says, in order to get around the city’s restrictions, businesses have suspended illuminated signs inside buildings but aimed them outside. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety.

For cities trying to implement a lighting ordinance, Trevillyan says, the biggest roadblocks they’ll face are “irrelevant” arguments, specifically claims that reducing the brightness of outdoor lighting will cut down on advertising revenue and make the city more vulnerable to crime. The key to successfully enforcing the dark-sky rules, he says, is to educate the public and refuse to give in to people seeking exceptions or exploiting loopholes. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety. In Tucson, for example, Barentine says, neither traffic accidents nor crime appeared to increase after the city started dimming its streetlights at night and restricting outdoor lighting in 2017. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed crime rates alongside 300,000 streetlight outages over an eight-year period. They concluded there is “little evidence” of any impact on crime rates on the affected streets—in fact, perpetrators seemed to seek out better-lit adjacent streets. Barentine says there is some evidence that “strategically placed lighting” can help decrease traffic collisions. “Beyond that, things get murky pretty quickly,” he says.

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