Herewith three items of pandemic news you may have missed recently: Using artificial intelligence to diagnose asymptomatic Covid-19; Medicare will pay for an EUA’ed vaccine; and how obesity may complicate vaccination. Plus a pair of fripperies.
Cough twice into the microphone
A program at MIT aims to use artificial intelligence to determine if you have asymptomatic Covid-19. It’s an intriguing approach to pandemic surveillance that, if it proves out, could provide a quick and cheap supplement to widespread rapid testing.
The MIT researchers had been working on AI-enabled audio diagnosis of pneumonia, asthma, and Alzheimer’s (with some early success), and transferred that knowhow into a diagnostic test for asymptomatic Covid-19. This system uses audio markers for vocal cord strength, sentiment, lung and respiratory performance, and muscular degradation to detect subtle changes wrought by a SARS-CoV-2 infection, even if no overt symptoms develop.
The researchers stress that this is not a screen for symptomatic Covid-19 nor a way to distinguish its coughs from those of the flu, a cold, etc. Here’s what they do claim:
Imagine having this capability built into your smart speaker.
If you would like to participate in the ongoing MIT experiment, you can do so here in about 30 seconds. Just answer a few questions and cough where a microphone on your computer or phone can pick it up and record it.
(Hat tip to Mark Gibbs for this item.)
Medicare & Medicaid will cover EUA’ed vaccine
While it is far from certain that the FDA will issue an Emergency Use Authorization for any early vaccine candidate, such an authorization would face another obstacle: under long-time Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rules, neither service would pay for a drug released under EUA. That would leave 44 million in the most vulnerable cohort (Medicare) and another 63 million of the least able to pay (Medicaid) out of pocket or out of luck. Public health authorities and politicians have been scrambling behind the scenes to close this loophole. According to this report, it’s now a done deal, both for potential EUA’ed vaccines and for Covid-19 therapeutics.
Obesity may blunt vaccine efficacy
Since early in the pandemic it has been clear that obese people do worse with Covid-19. There are many reasons for this, but an underlying one is that their immune systems don’t work as well against the disease. Obesity can cause chronic low-grade inflammation (read: cytokines), which is not what you want when fighting a disease that overstimulate the immune response. Adipose tissue is rich in ACE2 receptors and might act as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 virus. And obesity is linked to lower diversity in the gut microbiome — microbes that can modulate immune responses, and also responses to a vaccine. Therein lies the worry: a vaccine against Covid-19 might not provide as much protection for obese individuals, a category that includes 13% of the world’s adults.
At last, here’s your double frippery. Matt Harbison, an amateur astronomer with a lifelong fascination for the familiar constellation Orion, spent 5 years capturing 12,816 individual astrophotographs of the constellation, then processing the resulting 46 GB of data into a single, zoomable, browsable image spanning 2.5 billion pixels. (See if you can find the Horsehead Nebula, pictured above.) Here is a writeup of Matt’s journey to this image, and his own site describing it.
The second image shows 10 million stars in the center of our galaxy in a patch of sky the size of your thumb at arm’s length. (The Milky Way comprises about 40,000 times as many stars as you can see here, and it is one of 2 trillion or so galaxies in just the visible part of the universe.) Here is the interactive version, but you might want to start with this simple YouTube video dive into the image. The Bad Astronomer has details on the making of the image using the Dark Energy Camera at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile. This camera’s detector comprises 520 megapixels. As far as I can tell this image was made from a single exposure; no 5-year journey was involved.