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How the Trump admin devastated the CDC—and continues to cripple it

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Unconscionable

It also revisited how CDC experts were disregarded in handling cruise ship outbreaks. As Ars reported at the time, CDC officials objected to the State Department’s decision in February to fly home American passengers infected with the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined at a port in Japan. CDC officials told ProPublica they were appalled by both the decision and its execution. One official, speaking of the method to separate infected passengers on a flight back to the US, noted: “There’s a four-foot gap at the top of the shower curtain that you bought from Home Depot—and you’re calling this a quarantine area? If I were to write a book, it would be called Operation Clusterfuck, and it would start with this chapter.”

When the agency was further brushed off in March when it proposed no-sail orders for the cruise industry, Martin Cetron, the agency’s veteran director of global migration and quarantine, exclaimed with anguish, “this is unconscionable” at a packed meeting. Though a no-sail order did eventually go into place, the Trump Administration again overruled the CDC in September on its recommendation to extend it into next year, seemingly bowing to the cruise industry’s wishes.

Cetron was again infuriated in March when Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller insisted that the CDC use its quarantine powers to keep migrants from crossing the US-Mexico border. Miller argued it would keep migrants from carrying the infection into the country. But Cetron noted to staff that Miller misrepresented data and overstated the threat. In the end, Cetron refused to sign the order.

“I will not be a part of this,” Cetron reportedly told a colleague while furious. “It’s just morally wrong to use a public authority that has never, ever, ever been used this way. It’s to keep Hispanics out of the country. And it’s wrong.”

CDC Director Robert Redfield signed the order.

Birxed

ProPublica also detailed how White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx came to strip the CDC of the responsibility of collecting data on COVID-19 patients from hospitals. The move was aimed at streamlining data collection in order to get more accurate data faster. But it came at the expense of the CDC’s reputation and was done without the agency’s extensive experience and expertise at collecting and cleaning up the daunting amount of data on a daily basis. And Birx’s attempt failed spectacularly, putting data collection into the hands of an inexperienced private company that has provided far less data at a slower pace than the CDC. The report noted Birx’s reputation of having a “dictatorial” and “autocratic” style, a point echoed in a similar deep dive by Science Magazine.

The Science investigation noted that CDC staffers knew Birx’s plan would fail, with one staffer texting to another, “Birx has been on a monthslong rampage against our data. Good fucking luck getting the hospitals to clean up their data and update daily.”

Lastly, ProPublica’s investigation highlighted to role of Kyle McGowan, the CDC’s former chief of staff and main protector of Redfield. Though McGowan was a political appointee, “There was a sense that he’d gone native,” a senior scientist told the outlet. McGowan ended up defending and protecting CDC experts from the Trump Administration, particularly Michael Caputo, a Trump-appointed spokesperson to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In September, Caputo—a long-time Trump supporter, former Russian political advisor, and protégé of Roger Stone—claimed in a Facebook live video that the government’s scientists were engaging in “sedition” and said that the CDC is harboring a “resistance unit.” Caputo took leave of this post at HHS shortly after.

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Pfizer dashes hope for COVID-19 vaccine data before the election

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“Let’s be very patient,” he said on the call, according to The New York Times. “I know how much the stress levels are growing. I know how much the vaccine is needed for the world.”

He also tried to release political pressure on the vaccine results, saying: “This is not going to be a Republican vaccine or a Democratic vaccine. This is going to be a vaccine for the citizens of the world. I hope that it is going to be effective.”

As the Times has previously noted, Pfizer’s trial design is one of the fastest among the handful of trials furthest along—including trials conducted by Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson. People in Pfizer’s trial receive both doses of vaccine in a shorter time frame than some other trials. Then, the Times writes, researchers begin monitoring for COVID-19 cases earlier after the second dose than in other trials. Pfizer’s trial design also allows for a first preliminary glimpse—aka an interim analysis—after just 32 volunteers in the trial become ill with COVID-19. That’s in contrast to Moderna’s trial, which will conduct an interim analysis after 53 illnesses, and AstraZeneca’s, which will conduct an interim analysis after 75.

Pfizer’s 32-case interim analysis is the first of four planned for the trial, which is expected to run until 164 cases occur. For the first 32-case analysis, researchers will be optimistic about the vaccine’s prospects if 26 or more of those cases are in people who only got a placebo.

But for now, it doesn’t appear that the 32-case threshold has been met to trigger an interim analysis, Bourla suggested in the call today. This is both good and bad news, as STAT pointed out. It’s good that the vaccine hasn’t clearly failed yet. But it also suggests that the trial is moving more slowly than expected, even though it has multiple international trial sites, including the United States, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Germany, and Turkey.

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US grid-battery costs dropped 70% over 3 years

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In recent years, the cost of solar and wind energy has declined precipitously, which has accelerated the growth of these renewable energy technologies. Increasingly, utilities are now planning for a future grid dominated by solar and wind. That will require changes in grid management and transmission upgrades as well as the addition of storage to smooth out the supply from variable generators.

Grid storage is still pretty early days, but we’re already seeing huge cost reductions as the industry matures. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) highlighted this recently, showing that grid-scale battery-project costs in the United States dropped 70 percent in just a few years.

Between 2015 and 2018, average project costs decreased from $2,152 per kilowatt-hour of storage to $625. Costs will need to drop much more for grid batteries to scale, but that’s a huge improvement in a short period of time.

Average costs (per kilowatt-hour capacity) dropped about 70 percent from 2015 to 2018.
Enlarge / Average costs (per kilowatt-hour capacity) dropped about 70 percent from 2015 to 2018.

By the end of 2018, the US had 869 megawatts of battery power capacity and 1,236 megawatt-hours of energy capacity. (Power is the rate at which the batteries can supply electricity, while energy is the total amount it can supply when going from full charge to empty.) EIA also has installation data for 2019, which saw the addition of another 150 megawatts/450 megawatt-hours. And in just the first seven months of 2020, yet another 300 megawatts of power capacity were installed.

EIA doesn’t see this slowing down. It expects installed battery storage to increase by 6,900 megawatts “in the next few years”—a figure ambiguous enough to allow for a rapid spike in planned projects.

While you might think that one battery is more or less the same as another, there are regional differences hidden within the average costs of recent projects. In in the Midwest-to-mid-Atlantic region of the grid managed by PJM, for example, the average cost between 2013 and 2018 was $1,946 per kilowatt-hour. Projects in Hawaii averaged just $947 per kilowatt-hour.

Average costs for different grid regions, with circle size representing capacity. Batteries can be designed to prioritize power (rate) or energy (total storage).
Enlarge / Average costs for different grid regions, with circle size representing capacity. Batteries can be designed to prioritize power (rate) or energy (total storage).

Much of this difference can be explained by the fact that batteries are serving many different purposes. In the PJM region, for example, that cost drops to $1,004 if you calculate it per kilowatt rather than per kilowatt-hour. And by that metric, Hawaii’s average cost goes up to $1,498.

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Trump admin’s pandemic surrender draws impassioned response from WHO

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WHO officials made the point repeatedly during the press conference Monday, at times in impassioned and strained pleas given the current state of the pandemic. Last week, the WHO recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the pandemic so far. The world is approaching 44 million cases and has recorded over 1.16 million deaths. Though many countries in the world are currently struggling with surges of new cases, the US stands out as one of the most ravaged, with 8.7 million cases and nearly 226,000 deaths.

The US is currently climbing to its third and highest peak in new cases yet. On Friday, the country logged its highest daily number of new cases in the pandemic, with 83,010, according to The COVID Tracking Project. The current seven-day rolling average is at nearly 70,000. As of Monday, nearly 43,000 people in the country were hospitalized with COVID-19, and the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths was nearly 800.

Protection

WHO officials have acknowledged many times that people generally are tired of efforts to try to control the virus—physical distancing, not visiting family, cancelling events. But, to put it frankly, the virus does not care, and ditching control efforts is a recipe for disaster.

What Meadows was basically suggesting—to not control, but to lessen the impacts of the virus—is to essentially allow the virus to spread among the healthy while trying to shield the most vulnerable. Protecting the most vulnerable is an “honorable objective,” WHO Executive Director Michael Ryan noted. But, “the difficulty arises in trying to actually achieve that goal.” This might work if, for instance, you can identify the most vulnerable people and they’re mostly in nursing homes. You might be able to shield them in that hypothetical situation, he says. But that’s not the reality:

The vast majority of vulnerable people live amongst us in multigenerational households—the old, the young, the vulnerable people on chemotherapy, people with underlying conditions, people with diabetes and hypertension. They’re mums, they’re dads, they’re brothers, they’re sisters, they’re sons, they’re daughters. So, the best way to protect those individuals is to do as much as possible to reduce the transmission of this disease at community level.

In other words, the best way to protect the most vulnerable is to protect everyone—and control the virus. “We should not give up on trying to suppress transmission and control transmission,” Ryan added.

Tsunami of cases

He also offered a grim caution of what can happen when countries and governments do not try to control the virus. He noted that in April and March many places in the world, including some in the US, used “mitigation”—he used air quotes for this word—as their strategy and “emergency rooms were overwhelmed and we were rolling freezer trucks up to the back of hospitals,” he said. “That’s the reality of mitigating a disease in the face of a tsunami of cases. You run out of capacity to cope and that is the fear right now.”

The US is currently seeing a surge in hospitalizations, with some area hospitals and intensive care units overwhelmed and forced to open field hospitals.

Ryan’s sweeping response to Meadow’s comments was unusually impassioned for the typically steady WHO press conferences. At times, he was clearly frustrated; at times he was energized. At other points, Ryan seemed stunned and tired, letting out defeated sighs. Perhaps the lowest point in his response came when he acknowledged that convincing some people to follow control efforts appeared hopeless.

Not everyone accepts what we need to do to save lives and stop the pandemic, he acknowledged. “They don’t believe in this disease,” Ryan said. “They don’t believe that we have a pandemic on our hands. How can you convince someone to do something if they don’t actually believe that there’s a problem. It’s truly impossible to think about this.”

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