Eduvation Blog

Glimmers of Hope!

Good morning!

Without a doubt we need more good news these days. Far too many issues of this newsletter start by recounting the skyrocketing second wave (or third wave) in the northern hemisphere, new record case counts and hospitalizations, and the imminent threat of rising fatalities too.

Lately though, I’ve been collecting some “good news” stories, and I offer them today as a bit of a palate cleanser. I do include some caveats, which you can avoid if you want to keep your rose-coloured glasses spotless…

“Our country desperately needs more civil discourse, a better sense of our shared humanity, more critical thinking, and a better understanding and appreciation of science. These are the gifts of higher education, and we need them now more than ever.”Anne Houtman, President, Earlham College


Less Death!

Evidence-Based Medicine

Although COVID19 infections are surging well above the first wave in the spring across most of the northern hemisphere, 9 months of treatment experience has reduced the hospitalizations and fatalities. (Admittedly, it also helps that so many young people are now transmitting the virus, since they are far less likely to wind up in hospital, or even showing symptoms at all.) The death rate for ICU patients dropped from 60% in early March to 42% in late May, and now closer to 28% in Canada. Sticking to a checklist of proven practices improved patient survival by 15%, and proven therapies include steroids, blood thinners, and oxygenation rather than ventilators.  CTV

More Equity!

$2.35B for Rural Broadband

Yesterday PM Justin Trudeau announced a $1.75B “Universal Broadband Fund” to deliver high-speed internet to rural and remote Canadians, and a $600M contract with Telesat to provide broadband via satellite. The aim is to connect 98% of the country by 2026. (The UBF was included in the Liberal’s 2019 budget as a $1B fund.) During the pandemic, online access has become essential to access education, government services, healthcare providers and so much else.  CTV

Early Detection

Rapid testing is becoming crucial to identify potential COVID19 infections and get people into isolation immediately, without the need to wait for lab test results that can take days. Even when they are less accurate, rapid tests allow for more frequent testing of more people, and so ultimately can provide a valuable approach to manage the pandemic on a college campus…

Rapid Antigen Tests

Back in August (wow, I’ve been holding onto this one a while!) the US FDA gave emergency use authorization to BinaxNOW, a new $5 COVID19 antigen test from Abbott. (Antigen tests look not for viral genetic sequences but for the proteins on its surface, so they are somewhat less accurate.) Abbott reports correct positives 97.1% of the time, and correct negatives 98.5% of the time. A nasal swab sample gets inserted into a simple card, a bit like a pregnancy test, and can provide results (or a “digital health pass” to your smartphone in 15 minutes. Abbott expected to be producing 50M tests a month by now.  The Verge


COVID19 Pregnancy Stick

CalTech is developing a 5¢ sensor, the SARS-CoV-2 RapidPlex, which can detect COVID19 in a drop of blood or saliva within 10 minutes. In fact, it can detect both an active infection and antibodies from a prior infection. The user needs to add a few drops of solutions, and the results can be displayed on your smartphone over Bluetooth. The device still needs to be validated at scale, and approved by the government, but the design is intended for home use and might be on the market by fall 2021.  Fast Company


COVID19 Breathalyzers

Breathonix, a startup from the National University of Singapore, has developed a $20 breathalyzer test for COVID19 which provides test results with 90% accuracy – and within 60 seconds!  The test would be 70% cheaper than typical PCR tests using nasal swabs, and significantly faster – although PCR tests would probably still be used to confirm positives. The company hopes for regulatory approval in early 2021.  National Post

Similar technology is being developed at Ohio State and Northeastern U. One is a breathalyzer that detects volatile organic compounds that act as COVID19 biomarkers within 15 seconds. The other captures viral particles in electrochemical sensors with tiny imprinted cavities precisely the size and shape of COVID19’s spike proteins, and provides results in 1 or 2 seconds. With virtually no training required to operate, the researchers envision such breathalyzers being used ubiquitously, at theatres, airports, schools and workplaces.  Wired


Turn to your Phone and Cough

A new machine-learning algorithm from MIT can detect COVID19 with 98.5% accuracy, just by listening to the sound of your cough. Trained on tens of thousands of samples, it identifies characteristics, even in asymptomatic individuals, that are inaudible to humans. Similar efforts have been underway at Cambridge and elsewhere, but with smaller sample sets they have much lower accuracy. The algorithm could be used for daily screenings of students, employees, or audience members. The researchers would need regulatory approval to develop it into an app.  BBC


And Man’s Best Friend!

Oh, and don’t forget the sniffer dogs being used in Helsinki Airport. They can identify the scent of COVID19 in moments – although I do worry about their exposure after months of work.  Global

Potential Prevention!

Of course, the good news par excellence that got me started on this theme today…

Pfizer’s Good News

Yesterday, Pfizer announced promising preliminary results from the Stage 3 clinical trial of its 2-dose COVID19 vaccine, BNT162b2, developed with Germany’s BioNTech. (It is one of 11 vaccines currently in large-scale trials.) This “initial evidence” from the 43,538-person trial suggests that the vaccine might be >90% effective, far more than the minimum 50% threshold the FDA established. (Seasonal flu vaccines are only 60% effective at best.) And thanks to the pandemic roaring out of control in so much of the world, 94 study participants have already caught COVID19. Later this month, Pfizer will have 2 months of safety data and will request FDA emergency use authorization. By year-end, Pfizer projects it will have manufactured 40M doses – enough to vaccinate 20M people.

Caveats: This was a pharmaceutical press release, not a peer-reviewed study. We still don’t have long-term safety or efficacy data on the vaccine, which could still change, nor details on the severity of the infections that occurred. (Normally research subjects would be monitored for 2 years.) We don’t know how long the vaccine’s protection will last. The vaccine uses an mRNA process that has never before been approved for human use, and the review of safety data alone could take weeks. It likely won’t be authorized for use until the beginning of 2021, and distribution will require an unprecedented number of ultra-cold -70°C freezers. Oh, and few of us Canadians will be at the top of the priority list to get vaccinated “in the early next year” (as PM Trudeau estimates). Pfizer and BioNTech say they can produce 1.3B doses a year – enough to vaccinate 650M people, but not the whole planet. (As I pointed out in COVID101, we’ll still be wearing masks throughout 2021.) And plenty of us may want to wait a year to see what rare side effects might surface in the millions of early vaccinators.

So, Pfizer’s announcement is certainly cause for optimism and hope, but it would be premature to celebrate just yet. After an 8-month “winter of [pandemic] discontent,” people are naturally ecstatic at even the slightest glimpse of sunshine. It’s not an early Christmas present, nor will it save us from a truly challenging winter, but at least it brightens (American) Thanksgiving, and reassures us that spring will eventually return.

“This is really a spectacular number. I wasn’t expecting it to be this high. I was preparing myself for something like 55%.”Akiko Iwasaki, Immunologist, Yale University


“The take-home message is that there will likely be effective coronavirus vaccines in the coming months. There will be no silver bullet, but there will be bullets.”André Picard, Globe & Mail


Harvard Nasal Spray

Harvard scientist David Edwards has developed a 10-micron saline nasal spray, FEND, to repel airborne pathogens including anthrax and COVID19. Just 2 puffs reduce your chance of exhaling COVID19 droplets by 99% for 6 hours, by making the natural mucus in your throat “a sticky fly trap for the virus.” “The effect is refreshing in a way that even holding your nose up to a humidifier, or using a bottled saline spray, isn’t.” The system retails for $50, and includes 400 doses and the device itself. 200-dose refills are just $7.50.  Fast Company


COVID Repellant for your Nose

An international team of scientists from Columbia, Cornell, and institutions in Italy and the Netherlands, has developed a nasal spray that completely blocks the absorption of the coronavirus – at least in ferrets. The protective spray attaches to cells in the nose and lungs, and offers protection for about 24 hours. Although the small study has not yet been peer reviewed, it suggests that “a daily spritz up the nose” could act almost like a vaccine.  New York Times


Commanding Hope

All in the Same Boat

“Doom-meister” Thomas Homer-Dixon urges hope and cooperation in the face of simultaneous climate, health, and social crises. “They’re happening simultaneously because they’re related to each other,” he explains. “If we lose hope, especially if our children lose hope, then all really is lost.” The COVID19 pandemic demonstrated massive social action on a global scale, and climate action demands the same. He observes that, in most countries outside the US, the pandemic has increased social cohesion: “we have an incredibly pressing situation of shared fate.” Homer-Dixon’s new book is Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in PerilVictoria Times-Colonist



Creative Arts at Loughborough

Maybe it’s the charming British accents, dynamic camera angles and funky music, but I think this 4-min campus tour from Loughborough U (England) does a great job focusing not on buildings and empty spaces, but on what students do in those spaces – even during the time of COVID. The vid stays fast-paced by alternating between 3 different tour guides, who describe just enough processes and activities to whet a student’s appetite to learn more. Nicely done!  YouTube


I have to admit, I feel better writing about the positive stuff myself, ignoring the bad news stories and politics… but of course, tomorrow we’ll have some catching up to do!

Meanwhile, be safe and stay well!



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