Fast and loose?: In an interview with the Financial Times, Stephen Hahn, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said he would authorize a coronavirus vaccine before Phase Three clinical trials were complete if the benefits outweigh the risks, but denied that he would rush the process to benefit Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. “It is up to the sponsor [vaccine developer] to apply for authorization or approval, and we make an adjudication of their application,” Hahn told The Financial Times. “If they do that before the end of Phase Three, we may find that appropriate.” Both China and Russia have approved vaccines before Phase Three trials were completed, and have faced criticism from public health officials in the U.S. and elsewhere for doing so before more rigorous tests for side effects and efficacy were performed. Trump has accused “deep state” elements at the FDA of holding up coronavirus treatments to harm his political campaign and image. After the interview was published, public health officials sounded the alarm again, prompting Hahn to promise in an interview with CBS News that the vaccine approval process would not be politicized. It’s the latest in a series of missteps at the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have doctors and scientists concerned, Denise Chow reports for NBC News. “It’s an enormous scandal,” Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington and an outspoken critic of the U.S. pandemic response, told NBC. “What it looks like at this point is you have a White House altering public health advice to improve election chances to the detriment of American lives.”
Following the herd: One of President Trump’s top medical advisers, Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who joined the White House’s pandemic response team in August, is advocating that the country follow the lead of Sweden and lift restrictions on movement and commerce so that most of the country is exposed to the virus until “herd immunity” is achieved, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey write for The Washington Post. The primary problem with this plan is that Sweden’s infection and death rates are among the highest in the world, and the country still hasn’t avoided economic problems. “The administration faces some pretty serious hurdles in making this argument. One is a lot of people will die, even if you can protect people in nursing homes,” Paul Romer, a professor at New York University who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2018, told The Post. “Once it’s out in the community, we’ve seen over and over again, it ends up spreading everywhere.” After The Post’s article was published, Hahn responded in a statement that said: “There is no policy of the President or this administration of achieving herd immunity. There never has been any such policy recommended to the President or to anyone else from me.”
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Covid on campus: The start of a new school year and, in some cases, in-person classes and residential life, has resulted in spikes of coronavirus cases at universities across the country. CNN reports that 36 states have reported more than 8,700 cases since August 19. A New York Times tracker of cases at colleges and universities shows there have been more than 26,000 cases across 750 institutions since the pandemic began. The Times also reports there have been 64 deaths linked to colleges and universities.
- Also: The number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. has passed 6 million, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, with more than 183,600 deaths. Globally there are now more than 25.5 million confirmed cases, and more than 851,000 deaths.
Test inequality: It’s possible to get tested for coronavirus and receive results in just a few hours, or even faster, but it will come at a price. J. David Goodman reports for The New York Times about the concierge medical services available to elite institutions and wealthy individuals that make getting tested for Covid fast and easy, while those receiving free tests through public health services can wait for as long as two weeks—often rendering the tests practically worthless.
Poultry plant closes, temporarily: The Merced County, California health department has ordered one of the state’s poultry plants operated by Foster Farms to close after eight workers died from coronavirus and nearly 400 employees tested positive, Rong-Gong Lin II reports for the Los Angeles Times. The outbreak at the facility lasted two months while the company failed to comply with orders to test workers. A previous order to close was delayed after Merced County got a call from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the amended order allowed parts of the facility that did not see outbreaks to remain open. “Where is [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] in all of this?” Edward Flores, a sociology professor with the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, told the Times. “The hundreds of cases and the eight deaths constitute an imminent hazard, and that’s grounds for shutting down the facility.” Dr. Erica Pan, acting state health officer, said there have been outbreaks at other Foster Farms facilities in multiple counties.
Third-party responsibility: Courts have historically agreed with Amazon that the e-commerce giant is not liable for health and safety hazards associated with items sold by third parties on its platform, but a few recent lawsuits have bucked that trend, Jay Greene writes for The Washington Post. California began debating legislation that would place responsibility for dangerous goods on e-commerce retailers, a bill Amazon actually supported under the condition that it apply to all online marketplaces. Josh Silverman, chief executive for leading arts-and-crafts marketplace Etsy, said that would saddle small businesses with “complex, hard-to-comply-with legislation that only [Amazon] can afford to absorb.” The legislation was pulled from consideration before the session ended Monday, without any commitments to reintroduce it when the next session begins in January.
Brain implant: Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk demonstrated new technology from his brain-machine interface company, Neuralink, on Friday, CNBC reports. Musk paraded around three pigs with brain implants, and showed the audience real-time neural signals from the pig Musk called Gertrude. He described the technology as “like a Fitbit in your skull.” Musk hopes that one day the device can be used to extend or restore human capabilities, as well as letting brains directly communicate with computers. But that’s still a long way off. Chad Bouton, a vice president of advanced engineering at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, told CNBC that there are “non-trivial” safety concerns with any kind of invasive technology. “There will be ethical and safety issues to work through, and for a long time, it’s likely that you’ll have to have a real medical need to access this technology,” he said. Former employees have flagged rushed timelines, haphazard direction and slow progress, Erin Brodwin and Rebecca Robbins report for STAT news, and just three of the original eight scientists on the team remain.
Gold rush: Nova Scotians are protesting a proposed gold mine next to the St Mary’s River, Nova Scotia’s longest single waterway, an important ecosystem that is home to endangered species, Zack Metcalfe writes for The Guardian. As rare metal deposits became more scarce, mines have to grow correspondingly to reap the vanishingly small fragments that remain. Jamie Kneen, who handles communications for MiningWatch Canada, a coalition that promotes sustainable mining practices, says that new mines in Canada rarely fail to receive federal approval. “Consider the St Mary’s River,” Kneen said. “Do you really want to mess with that? Even if you accept all [of Atlantic Gold’s] promises – that there’s a low probability of a serious problem – the consequences [of toxic waste] are still huge.” Scott Beaver, president of the St Mary’s River Association, said, “If they push a mine through to the St Mary’s, there’s no place in Nova Scotia, in my mind, that can be protected from mining. The St Mary’s is a sacred spot.”
FairWarning contributor Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.
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