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      mRNA technology for vaccines and more: An Ars Frontiers recap

      news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Tuesday, 30 May, 2023 - 22:55 · 1 minute

    Ars' John Timmer (left) with Karin Bok (center) and Nathaniel Wang (right).

    Enlarge / On May 22, John Timmer (left) moderated a panel featuring Karin Bok (center) and Nathaniel Wang (right) for the Ars Frontiers 2023 session titled, "Beyond COVID: What Does mRNA Technology Mean for Disease Treatment?" (credit: Ars Technica)

    The world of biomedicine has developed a lot of technology that seems a small step removed from science fiction, but the public isn't aware of much of it. mRNA-based vaccines, though, were a big exception as a lot of the public tracked the technology's development as a key step toward emerging from the worst of the pandemic and then received the vaccines in droves.

    mRNA technology has a lot of potential applications beyond COVID, and we talked a bit about those during the "Beyond COVID: What Does mRNA Technology Mean for Disease Treatment?" panel at last week's Ars Frontiers event. We've archived the panel on YouTube; if you want to focus on the discussion about mRNA therapies, you can start at the 1-hour, 55-minute mark .

    mRNA is a nucleic acid molecule that instructs the cell to make specific proteins. When used as vaccines, the instructions call for a protein produced by a pathogen, such as a virus. "It helps put up a wanted poster for the immune system," was how Nathaniel Wang, co-founder and CEO of Replicate Bioscience put it.

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      Post-Roe Privacy

      news.movim.eu / Schneier · Tuesday, 12 July, 2022 - 20:03 · 2 minutes

    This is an excellent essay outlining the post-Roe privacy threat model. (Summary: period tracking apps are largely a red herring.)

    Taken together, this means the primary digital threat for people who take abortion pills is the actual evidence of intention stored on your phone, in the form of texts, emails, and search/web history. Cynthia Conti-Cook’s incredible article “ Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary details what we know now about how digital evidence has been used to prosecute women who have been pregnant. That evidence includes search engine history, as in the case of the prosecution of Latice Fisher in Mississippi. As Conti-Cook says, Ms. Fisher “conduct[ed] internet searches, including how to induce a miscarriage, ‘buy abortion pills, mifepristone online, misoprostol online,’ and ‘buy misoprostol abortion pill online,'” and then purchased misoprostol online. Those searches were the evidence that she intentionally induced a miscarriage. Text messages are also often used in prosecutions, as they were in the prosecution of Purvi Patel, also discussed in Conti-Cook’s article.

    These examples are why advice from reproductive access experts like Kate Bertash focuses on securing text messages (use Signal and auto-set messages to disappear) and securing search queries (use a privacy-focused web browser, and use DuckDuckGo or turn Google search history off). After someone alerts police, digital evidence has been used to corroborate or show intent. But so far, we have not seen digital evidence be a first port of call for prosecutors or cops looking for people who may have self-managed an abortion. We can be vigilant in looking for any indications that this policing practice may change, but we can also be careful to ensure we’re focusing on mitigating the risks we know are indeed already being used to prosecute abortion-seekers.

    […]

    As we’ve discussed above, just tracking your period doesn’t necessarily put you at additional risk of prosecution, and would only be relevant should you both become (or be suspected of becoming) pregnant, and then become the target of an investigation. Period tracking is also extremely useful if you need to determine how pregnant you might be, especially if you need to evaluate the relative access and legal risks for your abortion options.

    It’s important to remember that if an investigation occurs, information from period trackers is probably less legally relevant than other information from your phone.

    See also EFF’s privacy guide for those seeking an abortion.

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      RNA vaccines seem to produce very different antibody levels

      John Timmer · news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Tuesday, 31 August, 2021 - 22:38 · 1 minute

    Image of a woman taking a blood sample from a seated person.

    Enlarge / A phlebotomist draws blood meant for antibody testing. (credit: Frederic J. Brown / Getty Images )

    We've tended to treat the RNA-based vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech as functionally equivalent. They take an identical approach to producing immunity and have a very similar set of ingredients. Clinical trial data suggested they had very similar efficacy—both in the area of 95 percent.

    So it was a bit of a surprise to have a paper released yesterday indicating that the two produce an antibody response that's easy to distinguish, with Moderna inducing antibody levels that were more than double that seen among people who received the Pfizer/BioNTech shot. While it's important not to infer too much from a single study, this one was large enough that the results are likely to be reliable. If so, the results serve as a caution that we might not want to base too many of our expectations on relatively crude measures of antibody levels.

    The new study

    The work itself was remarkably simple. A Belgian medical center was vaccinating its staff and asked for volunteers willing to give blood samples. Samples were taken both prior to vaccination and six to 10 weeks after, with the levels of antibody specific to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein tested at both points. About 700 participants received the Moderna vaccine, while roughly 950 took the one from Pfizer/BioNTech.

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      CDC lifts most mask restrictions for those vaccinated against COVID-19

      John Timmer · news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 13 May, 2021 - 18:32

    If you

    Enlarge / If you've been vaccinated, the CDC now says you can skip the mask and spacing. (credit: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images )

    As part of an ongoing press conference, the Centers for Disease Control responded to recent data on the effectiveness of vaccines and updated its guidance on mask use and physical distancing. Under the new guidance, anybody who is fully vaccinated (meaning two weeks after the final dose of their vaccine) can now skip mask use and social distancing both indoors and outdoors.

    "Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities—large or small—without wearing a mask or physical distancing," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. There are some limits to the locations where this applies, like hospitals, airplane, and other forms of public transport. But, for the most part, people who have been vaccinated can return to normal activities.

    The press conference is ongoing, and we'll update this story once it's over.

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      CDC advisory committee recommends COVID vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds

      John Timmer · news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 12 May, 2021 - 20:40 · 1 minute

    A masked child watches a healthcare worker perform an injection.

    Enlarge / With new data, we're able to expand vaccinations to ever-younger populations. (credit: Roberto Jimenez Mejias / Getty Images )

    On Wednesday, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that the CDC approve the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for the 12- to 15-year age group. The decision comes two days after the FDA granted an emergency use authorization for the same age group and will help the US further limit the pool of people who can spread infections or foster the evolution of new viral variants. Formal CDC approval could come quickly, given recent history.

    Given the FDA's earlier decision, the move might seem anticlimactic. But having the FDA and CDC officially on the same page is reassuring, and several state-run vaccination programs are awaiting the CDC's OK before expanding into that age group. Private providers and insurance companies were also varied in their response to the FDA's decision and were waiting for the CDC.

    The data that supported the approval was pretty decisive, as a small Phase III clinical trial of 2,260 adolescents saw 16 cases of COVID-19, with every single one occurring in the placebo group. Side effects were similar to those experienced by older people, with a brief period of flu-like symptoms. The committee was tasked with considering whether the benefits outweighed the risks; given the minor side effects and the increasingly obvious benefits of vaccination , it's not a surprise that the vote in favor of approval by the committee was 14 in favor, none opposing, and a single recusal. The CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, is overwhelmingly likely to follow the committee's recommendation, most likely before the day is over. (We'll update this story if and when this occurs.)

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      Neural implant lets paralyzed person type by imagining writing

      John Timmer · news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 12 May, 2021 - 17:03

    An artist

    Enlarge / An artist's schematic of the system. (credit: Nature)

    Elon Musk's Neuralink has been making waves on the technology side of neural implants, but it hasn't yet shown how we might actually use implants. For now, demonstrating the promise of implants remains in the hands of the academic community.

    This week, the academic community provided a rather impressive example of the promise of neural implants. Using an implant, a paralyzed individual managed to type out roughly 90 characters per minute simply by imagining that he was writing those characters out by hand.

    Dreaming is doing

    Previous attempts at providing typing capabilities to paralyzed people via implants have involved giving subjects a virtual keyboard and letting them maneuver a cursor with their mind. The process is effective but slow, and it requires the user's full attention, as the subject has to track the progress of the cursor and determine when to perform the equivalent of a key press. It also requires the user to spend the time to learn how to control the system.

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      Signs that SARS-CoV-2 is evolving to avoid immune responses

      John Timmer · news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Friday, 5 February, 2021 - 11:30 · 1 minute

    Ribbon diagram of the structure of the coronavirus spike protein.

    Enlarge / The structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. (credit: University of Arkansas )

    Over the summer, you could almost hear a sigh of relief rising from the portion of the research community that was tracking the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Viruses, especially those new to their hosts, often pick up mutations that help them adapt to their new habitat, or they evade drugs or immune attacks. But SARS-CoV-2 seemed to be picking up mutations at a relatively sedate pace, in part because its virus-copying enzymes had a feature that lets them correct some errors.

    But suddenly, new variants appear to be everywhere , and a number of them appear to increase the threat posed by the virus. A new study helps explain the apparent difference: while new base changes in the virus' genetic material remain rare, some deletions of several bases appear to have evolved multiple times, indicating that evolution was selecting for them. The research team behind this new work found evidence that these changes alter how the immune system can respond to the virus.

    This looks familiar

    The researchers' interest in deletions started with their involvement with an immunocompromised cancer patient, who held off the infection for over two months without being able to clear the virus. Samples obtained from late in the infection revealed two different virus strains that each had a deletion in the gene encoding the spike protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to attach to and enter cells.

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      Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine looks good in early analysis

      John Timmer · news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 3 February, 2021 - 22:16

    Image of two medical vials.

    Enlarge / Picture of vials of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, seen at the Cotahuma Hospital in La Paz, Bolivia. (credit: Jorge Bernal/Getty Images )

    Yesterday, the people behind Russia's leading vaccine, termed Sputnik V, issued a preliminary analysis of its function. The news was quite good: while the trial is ongoing and final results will have to wait, the interim data suggest that the vaccine could be over 90 percent effective.

    Sputnik V is based on similar technology to the vaccines being developed by Johnson & Johnson and the Oxford/AstraZeneca collaborations. Strikingly, however, the preliminary efficiency is quite a bit higher than those vaccines are showing, and it's not clear how the Sputnik-specific features could possibly account for the difference.

    Sounds great!

    The results come out of a Phase III clinical trial involving roughly 21,000 participants being run in Moscow. Participants were all over the age of 18, hadn't received other vaccinations recently, weren't pregnant or drug users, and met a number of other criteria. PCR-based SARS-CoV-2 tests were performed at enrollment, and participants were also tested for the presence of antibodies against the virus.

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      As new COVID cases drop, US may be repeating the same mistakes

      John Timmer · news.movim.eu / ArsTechnica · Tuesday, 2 February, 2021 - 23:25 · 1 minute

    Image of an orange dirt lot with a tractor digging near the edge of a grid of individual coffins.

    Enlarge / Aerial view showing a tractor digging graves in a new area of the Nossa Senhora Aparecida, where COVID-19 victims are buried, in Manaus, Brazil. (credit: Marcio James / Getty Images )

    While attention has been focused on the worrying new variants of SARS-CoV-2, there has been some good news: despite the evolution of a number of strains that appear to spread more readily, total COVID-19 cases have been dropping, both in the United States and globally. While there are a number of nations that are still seeing an increase in infections, a combination of reduced post-holiday spread and increased social interventions appear to be getting the surges seen in January under control.

    That said, there are worrying signs that, at least in the US, a number of states are making the same mistakes that ensured that the virus never really went away after the first surge in cases. And the spread of many new variants drives home the need to avoid complacency.

    Going down

    The general fall in cases came up at a recent press briefing from the World Health Organization. "For the third week in a row, the number of new cases of COVID-19 reported globally fell last week," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "There are still many countries with increasing numbers of cases, but at the global level, this is encouraging news."

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