Brought to you by the OneZero editorial team

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“Future Human” logo

As I write this letter, the long-predicted fall surge of Covid-19 is beginning in countries across the Northern Hemisphere. In the United States alone, more than 204,000 people have died from the coronavirus. People of color are bearing the brunt of the virus’s devastation, which has been immeasurably compounded by a long history of racist policy. Dry, hot winds threaten even more wildfires in heat-scorched California, which has lost 3.6 million acres this year alone. Sea ice in the Arctic has reached its second-lowest point in 40 years of recorded history. Nearly one in eight American households is going hungry.

The world we’ve created is threatening the survival of our species in an unprecedented way. …

Researchers are working on a wearable that can track cough patterns

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Photo: Northwestern University

The wearable industry was quick to realize the huge potential of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the pandemic unfurled, Fitbit unveiled a tracker that could detect unusual breathing patterns and heart rates associated with the disease. A device called the Pavlok threatened to zap wearers with 450 volts of electricity if they touched their face. Sharp-eyed Fitbit users also realized that a software update could turn their device into a pulse oximeter, which could detect the low blood oxygen sometimes associated with Covid-19.

The latest Covid-19 wearable looks a little different from the others: Small, flexible, and worn like a sticker at the base of the throat, a new device from researchers at Northwestern University looks a bit like the Band-Aids doctors place on a patient’s neck after intubation. Its unusual placement serves an important purpose: As Emily Mullin writes in Future Human, the device continuously measures body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory activity — including coughing. …

The nose-brain connection may hold the answer, researchers find

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Photo by Natasha Connell on Unsplash

It’s well known that Covid-19 is primarily a respiratory disease, but it has significant effects on other realms of the body, too. Its impact on the brain has garnered a lot of attention: The nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue, and loss of smell and taste experienced by a third of people with Covid-19 could all be considered neurological symptoms.

What scientists haven’t quite figured out is how the virus gets into the brain in the first place.

The brain — which is part of the central nervous system, together with the spinal cord — is relatively well protected from invaders. The blood-brain barrier, for example, is a semipermeable membrane that allows beneficial nutrients circulating in the blood to reach the brain but keeps pathogens out. …

But there’s still a long way to go before UV-blasting devices hit the mainstream

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Rosie, a virus-killing robot manufactured by Xenex. Photo: Essdras M Suarez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

San Antonio International Airport recently welcomed a new employee: a wheelchair-sized robot called the LightStrike that zaps the coronavirus and other pathogens with ultraviolet light. As the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, the $125,000 LightStrike spits out pulsating bursts of UV light while a human operator wheels it around the airport. Any SARS-CoV-2 particle lurking within a seven-foot radius of this thing is donezo, according to Xenex, the robot’s manufacturer.

Other airports, suffering from reduced business during the pandemic, are reportedly considering getting in on the LightStrike action. But don’t expect virus-zapping robots to hit the mainstream sanitation market just yet. As Julie Halpert previously wrote in OneZero, the science behind Xenex’s robots and similar devices is sound, but high costs, together with negative perceptions about UV light and concerns about the devices’ efficacy, remain obstacles. …

Judgment-free advice on how to act safely over the next two weeks

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Photo: Phil Mosley/Unsplash

On Sunday night, air travel in the United States reached its highest peak since the pandemic began despite pleas from public health officials to avoid travel over the Thanksgiving holiday. An estimated 9.4 million Americans flew during the Thanksgiving travel window, according to CNN; another 48 million were expected to travel by car. There are many reasons people decided to travel despite the risks, including pandemic fatigue, loneliness, isolation, and desperation to see loved ones during an especially emotional time of year.

The high number of travelers this weekend prompted a fresh wave of warnings from experts straining to quell the spread of Covid-19. On Sunday, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, MD, said that if you traveled this holiday, you “have to assume that you were exposed and you became infected and you really need to get tested in the next week.” In fact, experts are now urging heightened caution around others because the virus is spreading widely across the country, and people may be unaware they were exposed to it, even if they were very careful and don’t feel any symptoms. …

A science journalist asks: How do we reach the people who need it most?

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Credit: FilippoBacci / Getty Images

These days, I wake up every morning to notifications on my phone broadcasting the latest Covid-19 case count — 12.4 million in the United States by today’s tally — and scream inside my heart.

I scream because 12.4 million people could’ve avoided Covid-19 if they, the people around them, or their local leaders heeded the scientific advice on how to stop the spread. I scream because it isn’t their fault: I scream because it seems like there’s been a failure to communicate the risks to the public, and as a science journalist, I feel complicit.

Of course, the bewilderment I feel in my waking moments isn’t a fair evaluation of the wide range of public health and science messaging about Covid-19, which at its very best has been clear, compassionate, and expert-driven, and at its worst confusing, uninformed, and mired in ugly politics. I have nothing but admiration for the tireless work of my colleagues and peers, and the scientists they work with, in trying to get the word out to as many people who are willing to listen. And many people do listen — just not enough of them. …

All Tomorrow’s Kitchens

A weekly roundup of everything bringing humans closer to a food-secure future

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All Tomorrow’s Kitchens, a weekly series from Future Human, rounds up advances in food and agricultural science, tech, business, and culture bringing all humans closer to a food-secure future.

A new bill could return stolen land to Black farmers

After the Civil War, the federal government promised land to newly freed Black people. This promise didn’t quite come true: Land was often either given to Black people then taken away, or never granted at all. For those that did obtain land, racist policy and white supremacy in the following years made it hard for them to hold on to it. …

Everything that happened in the race to find a coronavirus vaccine this week

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Image: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

After several weeks without a change, there are now 13 vaccines in phase 3 clinical trials — up two from last week — and six approved for limited use. Still none have been approved for general use, but that could change soon.

Pfizer takes the lead in the vaccine race

Hot off last week’s news that its vaccine is 90% effective, based on early results from a late-stage trial, Pfizer announced on Wednesday that it had finished its trial and its full results show 95% effectiveness. In the announcement, the company, which developed the vaccine in partnership with the German biotechnology firm BioNTech, said it would submit to the U.S. …

Electronic medical implants can come with serious security risks

The collision of technology and medicine has resulted in the future that early science fiction writers dreamed of: One where electronic medical devices are implanted into the body, making people truly bionic.

At Future Human, we’ve written a lot about these devices and the ways they can revolutionize medical treatment. In October, staff writer and resident biotech expert Emily Mullin wrote about a tiny device, snaked through the jugular vein into the brain, that can read the thoughts of paralyzed people, allowing them to type. Earlier this year, she wrote about a scientist who got a deep brain stimulation device implanted into his brain to help him control his alcoholism as well as a tiny implant that could wake people from comas. …

Multiple teams are pursuing a promising pathway for treatment

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Credit: Evgenyi_Eg / Getty Images

While all eyes are on Pfizer’s and Moderna’s injectable Covid-19 vaccine, researchers elsewhere are pursuing treatments that take a different route: up the nose. Scientists are hoping that the right molecules, spritzed into the nostrils via a nasal spray, could provide protection from Covid-19 infection, at least temporarily.

The nose isn’t the only path into the body for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, but it is a major one. Some cells in the nasal passages have high numbers of viral receptors compared to other cells in the body, which may also be the reason why people with Covid-19 tend to lose their sense of smell and taste. Now, multiple teams of scientists are looking for ways to block the virus from getting into nasal cells. …


Yasmin Tayag

Senior editor, Future Human and OneZero at Medium, writer at Medium Coronavirus Blog. Previously at Inverse. Covering the science that’s shaping the future.

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