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COVID-19 just schooled a bunch of universities

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Colleges got a schooling in virology this week. After ignoring recommendations from the local health department to hold virtual classes this fall, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started classes on August 10, in person. Within a week, with outbreaks spreading on campus, the school abruptly shifted to online learning. A day later, also facing an outbreak, Notre Dame did the same.

That Greek chorus singing “Hate to Say I Told You So” in the distance? That’s public health experts, virologists and other experts who have repeatedly warned that cramming a lot of people together into close living and working quarters during a pandemic is a bad idea. They also warned that colleges would try to blame students for outbreaks on campus, instead of owning up to the holes in their re-opening plans. Now, that’s happening as well.

Why the chorus of Cassandras? Because they know the virus doesn’t care about education. Or campus boundaries. Or the economy. It’s a virus. The point of its existence is simply furthering its own existence. We can’t convince it to go away because school is important, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that we have that ability.

What we can do is continuously adjust to the wealth of new information that we’re learning about this virus. Some of that information is the same as it was in the beginning: avoid crowds, watch the case numbers in your area. A lot more of it has changed dramatically over the past few months. It can be hard to keep track of this firehose of information, especially because our brains tend to latch onto the first pieces of information we gather — a phenomenon called anchoring bias.

Challenging your own tightly held beliefs and assumptions is something that happens a lot in college. Now it’s just happening to colleges, too.

It’s very likely that we’ll keep seeing these swings in policies not just in schools, but in workplaces, movie theaters, restaurants, and gyms as this keeps unfolding. But at the same time, we’ll keep learning better ways to reduce the spread, until we can stop the virus altogether.

Here’s what else people were talking about last week:

Research

This Trawler’s Haul: Evidence That Antibodies Block the Coronavirus
Three sailors with antibodies didn’t catch the coronavirus during their time on a fishing trawler struck by a COVID-19 outbreak. That’s according to an early version of a study that was posted online this week. The results are intriguing to researchers studying coronavirus antibodies — but the study has not been formally reviewed by outside experts, and its conclusions could change in the future. (Apoorva Mandivalli/The New York Times)

Coronavirus is in the air. Here’s how to get it out.
“There are no perfectly safe indoor environments during the pandemic,” Brian Resnick writes in Vox. The virus can hang in the air, especially in poorly-ventilated spaces. And while there are no completely safe indoor spaces, there are ways we can improve ventilation inside our buildings. We’ve actually known how to build healthier buildings for a very long time — we just haven’t done it yet. (Brian Resnick/Vox)

Development

FDA authorizes COVID-19 saliva test trialed in the NBA bubble
A saliva-based COVID test that was trialed in the NBA was approved by the FDA this week. The test aims to be faster and cheaper than the more common nasal swabs currently used across the country. (Nicole Wetsman/The Verge)

Pfizer and BioNTech’s favored Covid-19 vaccine has fewer side effects than their first
Back in July, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they were ready to start a large-scale trial of a coronavirus vaccine. But it wasn’t the vaccine that they’d initially planned to test. The switcheroo was a surprise at the time, but this week they released data showing that their new vaccine does seem to cause fewer side effects than their initial choice. (Matthew Herper/STAT)

An ‘Unprecedented’ Effort to Stop the Coronavirus in Nursing Homes
A drug designed to stop coronavirus infections is being tested in nursing homes. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is sending researchers to nursing homes with confirmed COVID-19 cases to test a monoclonal antibody infusion. Monoclonal antibodies are synthetic antibodies that can help fight off infection. In the experiment profiled by The New York Times, they were developed from antibodies collected from a person in Seattle who has recovered from COVID-19. Theoretically, the infusion could keep people from getting sick for a limited time. This experiment is still in very early stages. (Gina Kolata/The New York Times)

First Covid-19 vaccine trial moving at a good clip, but officials still “very concerned”
The good news? Moderna has already recruited 8,374 people to its Phase 3 clinical trial — it’s on track to hit its target of 30,000 sometime in September. The bad news? Only 15 percent of the recruits are Black or Latinx, reports CNN. That’s a discrepancy that could hold up the vaccine, as both groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic — but are not being adequately represented in the vaccine trials. (Elizabeth Cohen/CNN)

How to make drugs for the next pandemic
While we’re busy searching for drugs to treat this pandemic, some researchers are thinking of ways to treat the next one too. Check out this video, which gets into the current state of antiviral research. (William Poor/The Verge)

Perspectives

Long-Haulers Are Redefining COVID-19
“We cannot fight what we do not measure,” Nisreen Alwan, a public health professor told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong. “Death is not the only thing that counts. We must also count lives changed.”

Yong has been tracking the experience of ‘long haulers’ with COVID-19 — people whose symptoms persist for months. Amidst uncertainty, skepticism, and debilitating symptoms, they’ve banded together for support. Yong’s story is a deep dive into their experiences, but it doesn’t end there. On Friday, a group of long-haulers met with officials at the World Health Organization to talk about how the disease has altered their lives. (Ed Yong/The Atlantic)

More than Numbers

To the more than 22,976,615 people worldwide who have tested positive, may your road to recovery be smooth.

To the families and friends of the 799,856 people who have died worldwide — 175,416 of those in the US — your loved ones are not forgotten.

Stay safe, everyone.

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Science

Too bright to breed

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Night light from coastal cities overpowers natural signals for coral spawning from neighboring reefs.

PHOTO: NOKURO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Most coral species reproduce through broadcast spawning. For such a strategy to be successful, coordination has had to evolve such that gametes across clones are released simultaneously. Over millennia, lunar cycles have facilitated this coordination, but the recent development of bright artificial light has led to an overpowering of these natural signals. Ayalon et al. tested for the direct impact of different kinds of artificial light on different species of corals. The authors found that multiple lighting types, including cold and warm light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, led to loss of synchrony and spawning failure. Further, coastal maps of artificial lighting globally suggest that it threatens to interfere with coral reproduction worldwide and that the deployment of LED lights, the blue light of which penetrates deeper into the water column, is likely to make the situation even worse.

Curr. Biol. 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.039 (2020).

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SpaceX launches Starlink app and provides pricing and service info to early beta testers

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SpaceX has debuted an official app for its Starlink satellite broadband internet service, for both iOS and Android devices. The Starlink app allows users to manage their connection – but to take part you’ll have to be part of the official beta program, and the initial public rollout of that is only just about to begin, according to emails SpaceX sent to potential beta testers this week.

The Starlink app provides guidance on how to install the Starlink receiver dish, as well as connection status (including signal quality), a device overview for seeing what’s connected to your network, and a speed test tool. It’s similar to other mobile apps for managing home wifi connections and routers. Meanwhile, the emails to potential testers that CNBC obtained detail what users can expect in terms of pricing, speeds and latency.

The initial Starlink public beta test is called the “Better than Nothing Beta Program,” SpaceX confirms in their app description, and will be rolled out across the U.S. and Canada before the end of the year – which matches up with earlier stated timelines. As per the name, SpaceX is hoping to set expectations for early customers, with speeds users can expect ranging from between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s, and latency of 20ms to 40ms according to the customer emails, with some periods including no connectivity at all. Even with expectations set low, if those values prove accurate, it should be a big improvement for users in some hard-to-reach areas where service is currently costly, unreliable and operating at roughly dial-up equivalent speeds.

Image Credits: SpaceX

In terms of pricing, SpaceX says in the emails that the cost for participants in this beta program will be $99 per moth, plus a one-time cost of $499 initially to pay for the hardware, which includes the mounting kit and receiver dish, as well as a router with wifi networking capabilities.

The goal eventually is offer reliably, low-latency broadband that provides consistent connection by handing off connectivity between a large constellation of small satellites circling the globe in low Earth orbit. Already, SpaceX has nearly 1,000 of those launched, but it hopes to launch many thousands more before it reaches global coverage and offers general availability of its services.

SpaceX has already announced some initial commercial partnerships and pilot programs for Starlink, too, including a team-up with Microsoft to connect that company’s mobile Azure data centers, and a project with an East Texas school board to connect the local community.

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Erratum for the Report “Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances” by R. Van Klink, D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, J. M. Chase

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S. Rennie, J. Adamson, R. Anderson, C. Andrews, J. Bater, N. Bayfield, K. Beaton, D. Beaumont, S. Benham, V. Bowmaker, C. Britt, R. Brooker, D. Brooks, J. Brunt, G. Common, R. Cooper, S. Corbett, N. Critchley, P. Dennis, J. Dick, B. Dodd, N. Dodd, N. Donovan, J. Easter, M. Flexen, A. Gardiner, D. Hamilton, P. Hargreaves, M. Hatton-Ellis, M. Howe, J. Kahl, M. Lane, S. Langan, D. Lloyd, B. McCarney, Y. McElarney, C. McKenna, S. McMillan, F. Milne, L. Milne, M. Morecroft, M. Murphy, A. Nelson, H. Nicholson, D. Pallett, D. Parry, I. Pearce, G. Pozsgai, A. Riley, R. Rose, S. Schafer, T. Scott, L. Sherrin, C. Shortall, R. Smith, P. Smith, R. Tait, C. Taylor, M. Taylor, M. Thurlow, A. Turner, K. Tyson, H. Watson, M. Whittaker, I. Woiwod, C. Wood, UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) Moth Data: 1992-2015, NERC Environmental Information Data Centre (2018); .

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