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Medicine and Health

The onset of the next pandemic may occur sooner than anticipated. What will the appearance be?

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Half a decade ago, the notion of a global shutdown lasting for weeks would have been inconceivable. However, the concept of mass graves in New York City, a US Republican administration implementing a seemingly universal basic income, and a small number of individuals self-administering an ineffective horse dewormer to treat a virus would also be considered.

Presently, all of it appears to be not just feasible but outdated information. Having experienced and overcome the COVID-19 epidemic, what is the next anticipated event in the ongoing pandemic?

From whence will the forthcoming pandemic originate?
If we possessed knowledge of the nature and timing of the upcoming epidemic, we would take proactive measures to address it. However, the current situation necessitates a hopeful outlook and proactive preparation for potential negative outcomes.

“Undoubtedly, there are individuals who express concerns that this could potentially induce panic,” stated Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), during a panel in January 2024 regarding “Disease X,”  a provisional term for the yet-to-be-identified disease that is expected to have a widespread impact on the world in the near future.

He presented a counterargument. “It is more advantageous to proactively anticipate potential events, as they have occurred frequently in our past, and make necessary preparations.” We should not confront situations without enough preparation.

What is the consensus among specialists regarding the probable nature of disease X? There are several candidates in the competition: “We compile a yearly inventory of emerging diseases,” Ghebreyesus clarified, “and MERS, Zika, Ebola, and others could potentially be included.” COVID could be referred to as the inaugural disease X.

Possible scenarios for the emergence of the forthcoming pandemic encompass a spectrum of possibilities, spanning from speculative catastrophic scenarios wherein global warming triggers the release of previously unidentified viruses from arctic ice, akin to the depiction in the Chris Pratt time travel film, to alarmingly plausible instances of disease transmission from the animal kingdom, akin to the events that transpired shortly prior to the previous pandemic.

If you have observed a consistent pattern among those choices, you are correct: due to climate change, deforestation in the Amazon and Africa, and the increasing intrusion of human settlements into the natural environment, numerous experts believe that the occurrence of the next zoonotic disease pandemic is highly likely.

According to Nathalie MacDermott, a clinical lecturer in infectious diseases at King’s College London, the current circumstances are conducive to the occurrence of epidemics.

According to her statement, the duration of the situation could range from two years to 20 years or even longer. However, she emphasized the importance of maintaining vigilance. It is imperative to maintain a state of vigilance, preparedness, and readiness to make sacrifices once more.

How can we address this issue?
In the absence of knowledge on the kind or timing of the upcoming pandemic, how can we effectively make the necessary preparations? Indeed, it is simpler than one may anticipate: “We can make arrangements for unforeseen circumstances,” stated Ghebreyesus; “there are fundamental actions that can be taken.”

He proposed the establishment of an early warning system or the enhancement of preparedness plans. “Due to the COVID pandemic, our hospitals were overwhelmed, both in terms of physical capacity and staff,” he emphasized.

The speaker further asserted that the COVID pandemic has brought to light some deficiencies within medical supply chains, perhaps leading to the closure of gaps.

Adam Kucharski, co-director of the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness and Response at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, stated to Sky News that the UK’s NHS COVID app showed great potential for containing the spread of the pandemic.

He acknowledged that it would take difficult conversations regarding the compromises between public health and personal privacy. “However, by utilizing the digital contact tracing infrastructure present in certain Asian countries, it is possible to restrict disruption to individuals who are at a greater risk during a specific outbreak, rather than resorting to general measures.”

Frankly speaking, everything seemed highly feasible. Is it being done?

Navigating the upcoming epidemic
With minimal logistical planning and the inclusion of AI ethics courses, we should undoubtedly successfully navigate the upcoming pandemic. Is that correct?

Regrettably, that appears improbable at present. John Bell, a prominent immunologist and part of the UK’s Covid vaccination team during the epidemic, expressed in The Independent last year that despite our extensive knowledge, we are not adequately prepared for the upcoming pandemic.

He cautioned that the forthcoming epidemic has the potential to be considerably more catastrophic than its predecessor. It is imperative that we maintain a perpetual level of preparedness for forthcoming significant health crises, as failure to take action at present will result in a lack of forgiveness.

In the United States, the establishment of a novel governmental entity dedicated to global health and the prevention of pandemics may appear to be a positive progression. However, numerous commentators have highlighted that the country lacks essential infrastructure to withstand a pandemic. Notably, there is no universal healthcare system, and European readers should take a moment to understand that there is no entitlement to paid sick leave. Undoubtedly, during the COVID pandemic, about 25% of Americans had to make a decision between working while ill or forfeiting a day’s salary.

Despite experiencing significant global repercussions due to the global spread of COVID-19, the United States as an institution appears to have a notable reluctance to acquire substantial knowledge from the pandemic. Recent modeling estimates indicate that treatments such as social distancing and mask-wearing have proven to be highly effective in mitigating the transmission of the pandemic. Similarly, vaccines have demonstrated remarkable efficacy, resulting in the preservation of about 20 million lives within the initial year of their introduction. However, the country is witnessing the ongoing expansion of anti-vacxx and anti-science movements, which are permeating politics and exerting influence on legislation at both municipal and state levels.

Put simply, it appears unappealing.

The subsequent periods of lockdown
The Covid pandemic took us off guard, and there is a possibility that we may be taken off guard once more. What will the appearance of that be? A recurrence of the events of 2020, or an entirely distinct occurrence?

It is indisputable that significant changes have occurred since 2019, prior to the widespread awareness of the terms “novel coronavirus” or “Covid-19”. Irrespective of their level of effectiveness or extent of implementation, it is really accurate to say that numerous countries have already established pandemic infrastructure that was previously absent. This includes the implementation of contact-tracing applications and the provision of more flexible work arrangements for employees.

If the supply chain difficulties are rectified promptly, vaccine rollouts should be expedited. According to Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh and co-chair of the US National Academy of Sciences’ committee on advancing pandemic and seasonal influenza vaccine preparedness and response in 2021, the majority of governments are actively pursuing the objective of containing the spread of a virus within a 100-day timeframe. This timeframe allows for the approval, manufacturing, and distribution of scientific interventions, such as vaccines, diagnostic tools, or treatments, to the general public. This statement was published in The Guardian during the current week.

“In the United States, the recommended duration is 130 days from the identification of a pathogen until the entire population of the United States is provided with a vaccine,” she clarified, “and 200 days until there is a sufficient global supply.”

The nature of future lockdowns may vary significantly depending on geographical location, maybe resulting in the absence of lockdown measures altogether. “Shutdowns are a drastic policy measure that numerous governments employed in 2020 as a means to address the healthcare crisis,” Sridhar stated. “We currently have the opportunity to enhance containment methods and investigate strategies to ensure the safe operation of schools and businesses through more accurate public health interventions. These interventions should focus on improving understanding of transmission (such as increasing ventilation), diagnostics (testing for infectiousness), and data collection (surveillance of community prevalence).”

The successful implementation of preparedness procedures, as advocated by public health organizations over an extended period, is contingent upon the active engagement of governments and, when applicable, the business sector. This implies that—what about the upcoming pandemic? The appearance of it is uncertain.

As Editor here at GeekReply, I'm a big fan of all things Geeky. Most of my contributions to the site are technology related, but I'm also a big fan of video games. My genres of choice include RPGs, MMOs, Grand Strategy, and Simulation. If I'm not chasing after the latest gear on my MMO of choice, I'm here at GeekReply reporting on the latest in Geek culture.

Bionics

A new syndrome linked to COVID that could be fatal has appeared

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There is a new outbreak of a rare but deadly autoimmune disorder in the north of England. New research suggests that the outbreak may be linked to COVID-19. Anti-MDA5-positive dermatomyositis is the name of the disease. It was mostly found in Asian people before the pandemic, but now it’s becoming more common among white people in Yorkshire.

Antibodies that target the MDA5 (melanoma differentiation-associated protein 5) enzyme are what cause the illness. It is linked to progressive interstitial lung disease, which scars lung tissue. Between 2020 and 2022, doctors in Yorkshire reported 60 cases of MDA5 autoimmunity, which was the highest number ever. Eight people died as a result.

What the researchers found when they looked at this sudden rise in cases is that it happened at the same time as the main waves of COVID-19 infections during the pandemic’s peak years. This caught their attention right away because MDA5 is an RNA receptor that is very important for finding the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The study authors write, “This is to report a rise in the rate of anti-MDA5 positivity testing in our region (Yorkshire) in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was noteworthy because this entity is not commonly found in the UK.” They say this is likely a sign of “a distinct form of MDA5+ disease in the COVID-19 era.” They have named it “MDA5-autoimmunity and Interstitial Pneumonitis Contemporaneous with COVID-19” (MIP-C).

The researchers used tools that look for shared traits among people in the same medical cohort to figure out how this newly discovered symptom works. In this way, they found that people who had MDA5 autoimmunity also tended to have high levels of interleukin-15 (IL-15), a cytokine that causes inflammation.

The author of the study, Pradipta Ghosh, said in a statement that IL-15 “can push cells to the brink of exhaustion and create an immunologic phenotype that is very, very often seen as a hallmark of progressive interstitial lung disease, or fibrosis of the lung.”

Overall, only eight of the 60 patients had tested positive for COVID-19 before. This means that a lot of them may have had infections that didn’t cause any symptoms that they weren’t aware of. This means that even mild infections with no early symptoms might be enough to cause MDA5 autoimmunity.

The researchers say, “Given that the highest number of positive MDA5 tests happened after the highest number of COVID-19 cases in 2021 and at the same time as the highest number of vaccinations, these results suggest an immune reaction or autoimmunity against MDA5 after exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and/or vaccines.”

Ghosh says that the event probably isn’t just happening in Yorkshire. Reports on MIP-C are now coming in from all over the world.

The study was written up in the eBioMedicine journal.

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Medicine and Health

The largest-ever 3D-mapped segment of the human brain remains small enough to fit on a grain of rice

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This vibrant spectrum of cells depicts the most extensive and detailed three-dimensional map ever created of a specific region of the human brain. Although it is the largest, it is still only a cubic millimeter in size, which is approximately equivalent to half a grain of rice. Through this achievement, scientists are now able to observe the complex network of 57,000 cells, linked by 150 million synapses and numerous millimeters of blood vessels, which constitute this particular small area of the human cortex.

Over the past ten years, a partnership between scientists at Harvard University and Google has been dedicated to creating a comprehensive and detailed map of the mouse brain. This represents a significant and crucial advancement in our progress, as it unveils the previously unknown intricacy of a portion of brain matter at the level of synapses.

Senior author Jeff Lichtman stated that the term ‘fragment’ is ironic. His team generated electron microscopy images that serve as the foundation for the new map. “For the majority of individuals, a terabyte is considered to be enormous. However, even a small portion of the human brain, which is minuscule and tiny, still contains thousands of terabytes.”

Using AI algorithms created by Google Research, the imaging from Lichtman’s team at Harvard can be color-coded and reconstructed to unveil unparalleled levels of detail.

It is reasonable to assume that neurons, which are the fundamental nerve cells, would be the most prevalent in the primary organ of the central nervous system, as indicated by their name, correct? However, the team discovered that the number of these cells was actually twice as many as the supporting glial cells, which play a role in maintaining the optimal environment of the brain. The oligodendrocytes, which generate myelin, the crucial insulation surrounding nerve axons, were the most abundant cell type.

The tissue fragment displayed peculiarities such as robust neurons interconnected by 50 or more synapses each, enlarged axons containing what the research team referred to as “unusual material,” and a limited quantity of axons arranged in “extensive whorls.” Due to the fact that the tissue sample was obtained from a patient with epilepsy, it remains uncertain whether these characteristics are associated with the aforementioned condition or not.

Mapping down to this level of detail is crucial because it has the potential to offer future researchers valuable insights into the impact of small-scale connections within brain tissue. These connections may have significant effects on major functions and contribute to the development of diseases.

The scientific field that studies the connections within the brain is referred to as “connectomics.”. Recent advancements in the field include a large-scale global initiative to comprehensively map the intricate connections within the human brain, similar to how we have mapped the human genome. Additionally, the first comprehensive map of an insect brain has been published.

In addition to previous achievements such as last year’s unveiling of a brain cell atlas, scientists can now delve into our intricate network of “little gray cells” with unprecedented depth.

In order to advance this objective and increase the accessibility of these techniques to a wide range of scientists, the Harvard and Google teams have created a set of analytical tools that are openly accessible to the public. “Due to the substantial investment made in this project, it was crucial to present the findings in a manner that allows anyone else to easily access and derive advantages from them,” stated Viren Jain, a member of the Google Research team.

The ultimate objective of this project is to create a comprehensive map of the entire mouse brain. This map will yield approximately 1,000 times more data than what is currently being generated from this 1-cubic-millimeter fragment of the human brain. Therefore, there is still a considerable amount of progress to be made.

The authors acknowledge that approaches to understanding the meaning of neural circuit connectivity data are still in their early stages. However, they consider this petascale dataset as a starting point.

The research findings have been published in the scientific journal Science.

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Medicine and Health

A cutting-edge brain implant has been developed that can accurately translate imagined speech in real time, achieving the highest level of precision to date

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Caltech bioengineers’ new tool has proven to be exceptionally adept at deciphering brain signals related to internal speech. Although it has only been tested in two patients thus far, with further development, this technology has the potential to enable individuals who cannot speak to communicate solely through their thoughts.

BMIs are already achieving remarkable feats. These systems have been utilized to assist paralyzed patients in walking and, in the case of Neuralink’s first experimental subject, enable them to control a computer through a “telepathic” connection.

One of the primary applications of this technology involves facilitating communication. For people who are unable to speak, such as those with neurological conditions or brain injuries, BMIs can give them a voice.

There are some limitations to devices of this kind, like the one that the late Stephen Hawking famously used. One challenge is capturing the natural rhythm of speech, which scientists are actively researching, aided by Pink Floyd. Another limitation is that many speech BMIs rely on users attempting to vocalize words, which may not be feasible for everyone. An optimal solution would involve discovering a method to decipher internal speech, allowing individuals to simply imagine uttering a word. Progress in this field has been made, but it has been quite difficult, and the outcomes have been varied.

Now, the team at Caltech has created a system that can accurately decode internal speech with unprecedented precision.

Microelectrode arrays were surgically inserted into the brains of two male patients who were experiencing tetraplegia, one aged 33 and the other aged 39. The team focused on the primary somatosensory cortex and the supramarginal gyrus (SMG), a brain region that has not been investigated in previous studies on speech BMI.

The interface was trained on a combination of real and made-up words to determine their impact on the system’s effectiveness. The participants were presented with each word either visually or audibly and were subsequently instructed to mentally simulate saying the word for a duration of 1.5 seconds. They were then requested to vocalize the word.

According to first author Sarah Wandelt, this technology would be especially beneficial for individuals who have lost their ability to move. For example, let’s consider a condition such as locked-in syndrome.

Using the BMI, the researchers were able to analyze the real-time activity in the SMG while the participants were contemplating each word. One participant achieved an accuracy of 79 percent, which is comparable to the accuracy of decoding vocalized speech, according to Wandelt and co-author David Bjånes. The other participant, however, only achieved an accuracy of 23 percent.

The technology will require additional refinement and testing on a larger sample size with a broader range of words. However, the study does indicate that the SMG shows promise as a brain region to focus on.

“Although the second participant did not replicate these results, this study holds significance as it is, to my knowledge, the first successful implementation of a real-time speech brain-computer interface using single unit recordings in the SMG,” remarked Blaise Yvert of The Grenoble Institute of Neuroscience, who was not part of the study.

Additionally, the team is interested in exploring whether the BMI can effectively differentiate between different letters of the alphabet. Wandelt and Bjånes propose that decoding individual sound units of speech, known as phonemes, may offer a potential avenue for investigation.

According to Giacomo Ariani, the Associate Editor of the paper, this proof-of-concept study on high-performance decoding of internal speech will undoubtedly capture the attention of researchers who are dedicated to advancing the capabilities of BMIs and other therapeutic devices for individuals who have lost their ability to speak.

The study has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Human Behavior.

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