Covid cases in the US have doubled over the past two weeks, and scientists are now racing to understand the delta variant, which appears to account for the vast majority of new infections. Disturbingly, delta is more contagious than other variants and has also been causing some symptomatic “breakthrough” cases in vaccinated people.
While vaccines still overwhelmingly prevent severe disease and death, the delta variant has been changing how we think about coronavirus spread. Here are some answers to a few important questions about what it all means.
1. What makes the delta variant more contagious?
According to estimates from the CDC, the delta variant is nearly twice as contagious as previous versions of the virus. Researchers are still trying to understand the mutations that account for this, but preliminary studies suggest that changes in its spike protein make it more efficient at both grabbing onto receptors and getting into your cells.
The delta variant also seems to lead to higher viral loads than other variants. Viral load is a measure of how much virus is in your nose and throat. One study found that at the beginning of their infection, people with the delta variant had viral loads 1,000 times greater than those of people infected with the original version of the virus. People with the delta variant also reached their peak viral load faster, according to this study, which has not yet gone through peer review.
2. How do scientists actually measure how contagious the delta variant is?
Viral load helps us understand how contagious a virus is. Coronavirus infections spread through aerosols and droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or just breathes—so the more virus particles are in someone’s airways, the more likely that person is to infect someone else.
To measure viral load, researchers use a laboratory method called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. They swab the nose of an infected person and extract any viral RNA that’s on the swab. Next, they run the reaction, which looks for genetic material from viruses and copies it over and over again, until there are enough copies for the lab equipment to detect.
We usually focus on the endgame of PCR—whether a test finds material from a virus, which produces a positive result. But researchers can also look at how long the machine took to return that positive result—how many copies were needed to get the viral material to a detectable level. The fewer copies, or cycles, needed to detect a virus, the more viral material there was to begin with.
This number of cycles—called the cycle threshold, or Ct—is the number that raised eyebrows at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a cluster of cases in Provincetown, Massachusetts, about 74% of the state residents involved were vaccinated. People who got infections tended to have similar Ct values, whether they were vaccinated or not. The CDC thought this might be an indicator that vaccinated people could transmit the virus, perhaps just as readily as unvaccinated people.
3. Can I still get sick with covid, even if I’m vaccinated?
Yes, it’s possible, although your infection will likely be much less severe than an unvaccinated person’s.
The vast majority of infections are still in unvaccinated people, says Liz Rogawski McQuade, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of Virginia. According to reporting from the Kaiser Family Foundation, US states that are tracking vaccination status of cases are finding that between 94% and 99.9% of cases are in unvaccinated people. And out of everyone who has been vaccinated, between 0.01% and 0.54% have experienced a breakthrough case.
Some studies have found that the efficacy of vaccines is a bit lower against the delta variant, especially if you’ve only gotten one dose of an mRNA vaccine. But so far, it looks as if vaccines still largely work, especially in preventing many cases of severe illness, says Rogawski McQuade.
Vaccines might eventually need a little extra help against the delta variant—some companies are pushing for booster shots. But experts say there’s not yet evidence that boosters are necessary, and the WHO maintains that initial vaccines for the rest of the world should take precedence over booster shots for people in rich countries.
4. What about transmission? Can vaccinated people spread the delta variant?
It appears so, but research is still in early stages.
While Ct values can be used as a proxy for viral load, there are a few problems with trying to assume too much on the basis of that number, especially when it comes to vaccinated people, according to Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease researcher at University of California, San Francisco.
First of all, PCR picks up all sorts of genetic material, even from dead viruses. If your vaccinated immune system has started fighting off the infection, “you may have a lot of viral particles in your nose, but they may not work,” Gandhi says. In order to really know how infectious someone is, you need to take those viruses and see if they’re alive and able to infect people. The CDC has noted that this data is still outstanding, Gandhi says.
Optimizing platforms offers customers and stakeholders a better way to bank
And so, they’ve started to see the benefits of doing things themselves. So, culture change I think has been one of the biggest things that we’ve achieved in the past few years since I joined. Second, we built a whole set of capabilities, we call them common capabilities. Things like how do you configure new workflows? How do you make decisions using spreadsheets and decision models versus coding it into systems? So, you can configure it, you can modify it, and you can do things more effectively. And then tools like checklists, which can be again put into systems and automated in a few minutes, in many cases. Today, we have millions of tasks and millions of decisions being executed through these capabilities, which has suddenly game-changed our ability to provide automation at scale.
And last but not least, AI and machine learning, it now plays an important role in the underpinnings of everything that we do in operations and client services. For example, we do a lot of process analytics. We do load balancing. So, when a client calls, which agent or which group of people do we direct that client call to so that they can actually service the client most effectively. In the space of payments, we do a lot with machine learning. Fraud detection is another, and I will say that I’m so glad we’ve had the time to invest and think through all of these foundational capabilities. So, we are now poised and ready to take on the next big leap of changes that are right now at our fingertips, especially in the evolving world of AI and machine learning and of course the public cloud.
Laurel: Excellent. Yeah, you’ve certainly outlined the diversity of the firm’s offerings. So, when building new technologies and platforms, what are some of the working methodologies and practices that you employ to build at scale and then optimize those workflows?
Vrinda: Yeah, as I said before, the private bank has a lot of offerings, but then amplify that with all the other offerings that JPMorgan Chase, the franchise has, a commercial bank, a corporate and investment bank, a consumer and community bank, and many of our clients cross all of these lines of business. It brings a lot of benefits, but it also has complexities. And one of the things that I obsess personally over is how do we simplify things, not add to the complexity? Second is a mantra of reuse. Don’t reinvent because it’s easy for technologists to look at a piece of software and say, “That’s great, but I can build something better.” Instead, the three things that I ask people to focus on and our organization collectively with our partners focus on is first of all, look at the business outcome. We coach our teams that success and innovation does not come from rebuilding something that somebody has already built, but instead from leveraging it and taking the next leap with additional features upon it to create high impact business outcomes.
So, focusing on outcome number one. Second, if you are given a problem, try and look at it from a bigger picture to see whether you can solve the pattern instead of that specific problem. So, I’ll give you an example. We built a chatbot called Casey. It’s one of the most loved products in our private bank right now. And Casey doesn’t do anything really complex, but what it does is solves a very common pattern, which is ask a few simple questions, get the inputs, join this with data services and join this with execution services and complete the task. And we have hundreds of thousands of tasks that Casey performs every single day. And one of them, especially a very simple functionality, the client wants a bank reference letter. Casey is called upon to do that thousands of times a month. And what used to take three or four hours to produce now takes like a few seconds.
So, it suddenly changes the outcome, changes productivity, and changes the happiness of people who are doing things that you know they themselves felt was mundane. So, solving the pattern, again, important. And last but not least, focusing on data is the other thing that’s helped us. Nothing can be improved if you don’t measure it. So, to give you an example of processes, the first thing we did was pick the most complex processes and mapped them out. We understood each step in the process, we understood the purpose of each step in the process, the time taken in each step, we started to question, do you really need this approval from this person? We observed that for the past six months, not one single thing has been rejected. So, is that even a meaningful approval to begin with?
Questioning if that process could be enhanced with AI, could AI automatically say, “Yes, please approve,” or “There’s a risk in this do not approve,” or “It’s okay, it needs a human review.” And then making those changes in our systems and flows and then obsessively measuring the impact of those changes. All of these have given us a lot of benefits. And I would say we’ve made significant progress just with these three principles of focus on outcome, focus on solving the pattern and focus on data and measurements in areas like client onboarding, in areas like maintaining client data, et cetera. So, this has been very helpful for us because in a bank like ours, scale is super important.
Laurel: Yeah, that’s a really great explanation. So, when new challenges do come along, like moving to the public cloud, how do you balance the opportunities of that scale, but also computing power and resources within the cost of the actual investment? How do you ensure that the shifts to the cloud are actually both financially and operationally efficient?
Vrinda: Great question. So obviously every technologist in the world is super excited with the advent of the public cloud. It gives us the powers of agility, economies of scale. We at JPMorgan Chase are able to leverage world class evolving capabilities at our fingertips. We have the ability also to partner with talented technologies at the cloud providers and many service providers that we work with that have advanced solutions that are available first on the public cloud. We are eager to get our hands on those. But with that comes a lot of responsibility because as a bank, we have to worry about security, client data, privacy, resilience, how are we going to operate in a multi-cloud environment because some data has to remain on-prem in our private cloud. So, there’s a lot of complexity, and we have engineers across the board who think a lot about this, and their day and night jobs are to try and figure this out.
As we think about moving to the public cloud in my area, I personally spend time thinking in depth about how we could build architectures that are financially efficient. And the reason I bring that up is because traditionally as we think about data centers where our hardware and software has been hosted, developers and architects haven’t had to worry about costs because you start with sizing the infrastructure, you order that infrastructure, it’s captive, it remains in the data center, and you can expand it, but it’s a one-time cost each time that you upgrade. With the cloud, that situation changes dramatically. It’s both an opportunity but also a risk. So, a financial lens then becomes super important right at the outset. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. Developers in the public cloud have a lot of power, and with that power comes responsibility.
The Download: China’s EV success in Europe, and ClimateTech is coming
This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.
Meet Europe’s surprising best-selling Chinese EV maker
China’s electric vehicle sector has been lavished with fame and attention. But its global ambitions hit a roadblock this month when the European Commission launched an investigation into whether Chinese-made EVs benefit from excessive government subsidies.
If the inquiry finds evidence for this claim, which experts say is very likely, it could result in increased import duties for Chinese-made EVs, which would likely make them less competitive in European markets.
Many of the Chinese brands that are causing concern are well-known names in China, like the established giant BYD and the promising startup Nio. But there’s one name in the mix you might not expect—former British luxury sports car maker MG. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things happening in tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
If you’re interested in reading more about China’s car sector, why not check out:
+ Europe is about to crack down on Chinese electric cars. The European Commission is set to launch an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese automakers. Here’s what you need to know about the likely impact.
+ From generous government subsidies to support for lithium batteries, here’s how China managed to build a world-leading industry in electric vehicles.
+ China’s car companies are turning into tech companies. China has already won the race to electrify its vehicles. Now it’s pushing ahead and adding more features and services to attract new customers. Read the full story.
+ A race for autopilot dominance is giving China the edge in autonomous driving. Electric vehicle makers and AI companies are taking Tesla FSD-like systems to China, but it’s still out of reach for most consumers. Read the full story.
ClimateTech is coming
How can we build a sustainable, greener future? Next week, MIT Technology Review is holding our second annual ClimateTech conference to discuss the innovations accelerating the transition to a green economy.
ClimateTech is taking place at the MIT Media Lab on MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 4-5. You can register for the event and either attend in-person or online, here—before it’s too late!
MIT Technology Review flash sale!
If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to MIT Technology Review to read more of our incisive reporting. We’re holding a flash sale for just 48 hours, allowing you to subscribe from just $8 a month.
Even better, you’ll receive a free print copy of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023 issue as well. Sign up today and save 17% off the full price.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Amazon is being sued by the FTC in a landmark monopoly case
It’s accused of using illegal tactics to stifle online competition. (Wired $)
+ Head honcho Andy Jassy is facing an uphill climb. (NYT $)
+ The Federal Trade Commission avoided calling to break Amazon up. (Bloomberg $)
2 OpenAI is seeking a new valuation
To the tune of between $80 billion and $90 billion, to be exact. (WSJ $)
+ ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like. (MIT Technology Review)
4 Linda Yaccarino’s first 100 days at X have been a wild ride
Forget pressure from advertisers: managing Elon Musk is her biggest challenge. (FT $)
+ X appears to have disabled an election misinformation reporting measure. (Reuters)
5 YouTube rewarded a creator who livestreamed attacks on Indian Muslims
Hindu nationalist Monu Manesar has been linked to multiple killings this year. (WP $)
6 Microsoft wants to use nuclear energy to power its AI data centers
It’s looking to nuclear fission to keep those expensive centers ticking over. (CNBC)
+ We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they? (MIT Technology Review)
7 Maybe we didn’t need to learn to code after all
Generative AI is making it easier than ever to write code, even if it’s far from perfect. (The Atlantic $)
+ Learning to code isn’t enough. (MIT Technology Review)
8 Inside China’s brave online feminist revolution
The country’s burgeoning women’s rights movement is fighting back against a conservative society. (Rest of World)
9 Attempting to reverse your age is the preserve of the ultra-rich
Now they’re competing to win the ‘Rejuvenation Olympics.’ (Vox)
+ Eating fewer calories could help. (Economist $)
+ I just met the founders of a would-be longevity state. (MIT Technology Review)
10 Japan’s female rickshaw pullers are online celebrities
Social media has helped to drive an influx of female recruits. (Reuters)
Quote of the day
“Sellers pay. Shoppers get lower-quality search results for higher-priced products. Only Amazon wins.”
—The US Federal Trade Commision spells out its case accusing the e-commerce giant of unfair shopping practices, 404 Media reports.
The big story
Novel lithium-metal batteries will drive the switch to electric cars
For all the hype and hope around electric vehicles, they still make up only about 2% of new car sales in the US, and just a little more globally.
For many buyers, they’re simply too expensive, their range is too limited, and charging them isn’t nearly as quick and convenient as refueling at the pump. All these limitations have to do with the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles.
But QuantumScape, a Silicon Valley startup is working on a new type of battery that could finally make electric cars as convenient and cheap as gas ones. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ Are America’s distinctive accents really dying out? Better ask Dolly Parton.
+ Lenny Kravitz’s gigantic scarf is back!
+ Trying to find the perfect time for a bathroom break during a movie? There’s an app for that.
+ On this day in 1964, the Beach Boys appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show performing this absolute tune.
+ This particular kind of jellyfish may not have a brain, but that doesn’t stop it from learning.
An inside look at Congress’s first AI regulation forum
It was leaked that you had an exchange with Elon Musk regarding the risks posed by AI. [Ed note: Musk said he had told the Chinese government that AI might eventually be able to overtake it, and Raji responded by questioning the safety of today’s driverless cars, like the autopilot feature in a Tesla.] Can you tell me more about that?
You know, it wasn’t just Elon. That was the one that got out. There was another CEO that was talking about curing cancer with AI, saying we have to make sure that it’s Americans that do that, and just narratives like that.
But first of all, we have medical AI technology that is hurting people and not working well for Black and brown patients. It’s disproportionately underprioritizing them in terms of getting a bed at a hospital; it’s disproportionately misdiagnosing them, and misinterpreting lab tests for them.
I also hope that one day AI will lead to cancer cures, but we need to understand the limitations of the systems that we have today.
What was it that you really wanted to achieve in the forum, and do you think you had the chance to do that?
I think we all had substantial opportunities to say what we needed to say. In terms of whether we were all equally heard or equally understood, I think that’s something that I’m still processing.
My main position coming in was to debunk a lot of the myths that were coming out of these companies around how well these systems are working, especially on marginalized folks. And then also to debunk some of the myths around solving bias and fairness.
Bias concerns and explainability concerns are just really difficult technical and social challenges. I came in being like, I don’t want people to underestimate the challenge.
So did I get that across? I’m not sure, because the senators loved saying that AI is gonna cure cancer.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the marketing terms and the sci-fi narratives and completely ignore what’s happening on the ground. I’m coming back from all of this more committed than ever to articulating and demonstrating the reality, because it just seems like there is this huge gap of knowledge between what’s actually happening and the stories that these senators are hearing from these companies.
What else I’m reading
- I just loved this story from Jessica Bennett at the New York Times about what it’s like to be a teen girl with a cell phone today. Bennett kept in touch with three 13-year-olds over the course of a year to learn about the ins and outs of their digital lives. Highly recommend!
- This social reflection on privacy by Charlie Warzel in the Atlantic has stuck with me for a few days. The story gets at the overwhelming questions we—certainly I—have about what we can do to preserve our privacy online.
- The United Nations General Assembly convened in New York this past week, and one big topic of discussion was, of course, AI. Will Henshall at Time did a deep dive into what we might expect from the body on AI regulation.
What I learned this week
A Disney director tried to use AI to create a soundtrack reminiscent of the work of symphonist Hans Zimmer—and came up disappointed. Gareth Edwards, director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, told my colleague Melissa Heikkilä that he was hoping to use AI to create a soundtrack for his forthcoming movie about … AI, of course! Well, the soundtrack fell flat, and Edwards even shared it with the famous composer, who he says found it amusing.
Melissa wrote, “Edwards said AI systems lack a fundamentally crucial skill for creating good art: taste. They still don’t understand what humans deem good or bad.”
In the end, the real Zimmer wrote the melodies for Edwards’s upcoming movie, The Creator.