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#GeniusUpDailyNews!: When (not if) a global pandemic hits, we will not be ready

The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, a new, independent body that assesses how ready we are for a worldwide emergency, just released its first health preparedness report. Verdict: Not looking good.


It could happen at any moment—a pandemic with the potential to sweep across the globe in just 36 hours, wiping out 80 million people and irreversibly changing society. It would start like any other viral epidemic, with one infected person passing an airborne pathogen along to the next, until we hit a Black Death-level catastrophe that destroys a full 5% of the global economy.


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If this happens, will we be ready?

The official answer, according to the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent body made up of health and emergency response experts from around the world, is no.

Furthermore, it’s not really a matter of “if.” It’s a matter of “when.”

“There’s widespread agreement that it’s virtually certain we are going to be facing another epidemic, or pandemic,” says Scott Dowell, an expert on outbreak response who heads up vaccine surveillance at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the foundation provides support to the GPMB, and the foundation’s global development president, Christopher Elias, is a member of the GPMB). “The question is how soon—it could be many years. It could be next year.”

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If it’s next year, the world is not in good shape, as described in the GPMB’s first “Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies,” released on September 17. The GPMB started this report after the West African Ebola outbreak that took place from 2014 to 2016. The current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has already resulted in close to 2,000 deaths, with more than 3,000 confirmed cases. Fast-moving, lethal pathogens like Ebola concern the GPMB the most, along with the likes of SARS and similar viruses. “Top of the list is a new influenza strain,” says Dowell.

Cochaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway and former World Health Organization Director-General, and Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the board suggests seven steps world leaders must follow to prepare adequately for a health crisis, like the spread of a global respiratory pathogen.


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Step one is world leaders committing to International Health Regulations, like inspecting international cargo and ensuring travellers are given the proper vaccines, established in 2005—and investing in these commitments accordingly. “All 195 countries in the world signed on to prepare according to the International Health Regulations back in 2005,” says Dowell, “but as of last year, less than a third of the countries reported that they’ve achieved the preparedness they committed to.” The U.S. is among that minority, and it’s technically in the “green zone” for preparedness, but it’s still “not perfect,” says Dowell.

Step two encourages countries that are monitoring their preparedness to “lead by example.” Step three involves government heads installing high-level coordinators with the authority to conduct simulations—drills, in essence—of what the country must do if a pandemic hits. Additional steps call for investing in vaccines, additional hospital infrastructure, and other possible treatments, as well as upping relevant donations to the medical and emergency fields. Lastly, the report calls for the United Nations to get better at emergency response coordination across countries.

This is all a lot to ask, and implementing it won’t be easy—as we’ve already seen from the 2005 regulations, countries aren’t the best at following through with promises of preparedness. For the GPMB, releasing this report is “an important step,” according to Dowell. He hopes it prompts heads of state and international organizations, like the WHO, to “act more quickly than they have in the past.”

“The board has concluded that the world is not ready for the next global public health crisis, and I think people should take that quite seriously,” says Dowell, particularly because “this is a new independent board that has no stake in the outcome.”

As of last month, 100 countries around the world had agreed to let an external preparedness group assess how well equipped they are to deal with a rapidly spreading medical emergency. “Wealthier countries tend to be more prepared,” says Dowell, a perhaps unsurprising fact.

Between 2011 and 2017, somewhere between 164 and 213 epidemic events have happened each year in the world, according to data from the WHO. A readiness “score card”created by Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative put forth by U.S. nonprofit Vital Strategies, found Australia and South Korea to be the countries best prepared for disease outbreaks, with respective scores of 92. The U.S. is fifth with an 87, while the least prepared are located in Africa—Gambia has a 32, South Sudan has a 30, and both Somalia and Chad got the lowest scores at 29.


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Step one is world leaders committing to International Health Regulations, like inspecting international cargo and ensuring travellers are given the proper vaccines, established in 2005—and investing in these commitments accordingly. “All 195 countries in the world signed on to prepare according to the International Health Regulations back in 2005,” says Dowell, “but as of last year, less than a third of the countries reported that they’ve achieved the preparedness they committed to.” The U.S. is among that minority, and it’s technically in the “green zone” for preparedness, but it’s still “not perfect,” says Dowell.


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Step two encourages countries that are monitoring their preparedness to “lead by example.” Step three involves government heads installing high-level coordinators with the authority to conduct simulations—drills, in essence—of what the country must do if a pandemic hits. Additional steps call for investing in vaccines, additional hospital infrastructure, and other possible treatments, as well as upping relevant donations to the medical and emergency fields. Lastly, the report calls for the United Nations to get better at emergency response coordination across countries.

This is all a lot to ask, and implementing it won’t be easy—as we’ve already seen from the 2005 regulations, countries aren’t the best at following through with promises of preparedness. For the GPMB, releasing this report is “an important step,” according to Dowell. He hopes it prompts heads of state and international organizations, like the WHO, to “act more quickly than they have in the past.”

“The board has concluded that the world is not ready for the next global public health crisis, and I think people should take that quite seriously,” says Dowell, particularly because “this is a new independent board that has no stake in the outcome.”

As of last month, 100 countries around the world had agreed to let an external preparedness group assess how well equipped they are to deal with a rapidly spreading medical emergency. “Wealthier countries tend to be more prepared,” says Dowell, a perhaps unsurprising fact.

Between 2011 and 2017, somewhere between 164 and 213 epidemic events have happened each year in the world, according to data from the WHO. A readiness “score card”created by Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative put forth by U.S. nonprofit Vital Strategies, found Australia and South Korea to be the countries best prepared for disease outbreaks, with respective scores of 92. The U.S. is fifth with an 87, while the least prepared are located in Africa—Gambia has a 32, South Sudan has a 30, and both Somalia and Chad got the lowest scores at 29.

“The important point that comes out in the report is that the world is as ready as the weakest link,” says Dowell. “And it’s in everybody’s interest that we ensure there aren’t weak links.”

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#GeniusUpDailyNews!: Earthlings get first glimpse of a black hole

Earthlings get first glimpse of a black hole
Earthlings get first glimpse of a black hole

The history books will mark Wednesday, April 10, as the day humanity got its first look at a black hole.

That’s when astronomers around the world unveiled the results of the “herculean task” of providing the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole captured by a global network of eight telescopes on five continents, collectively called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The “event horizon” marks the distance from a black hole at which light is trapped by its enormous gravity, the point of no return.


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This is the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow. (Photo: nsf.gov)

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said EHT director Sheperd Doeleman at a press briefing hosted by the National Science Foundation and EHT in Washington, D.C. “We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole.”

“We’ve been studying black holes so long, sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us have actually seen one,” said France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation, at the D.C. conference, one of seven concurrent briefings in cities including Brussels, Shanghai and Tokyo.

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The black hole, which scientists said is 6.5 billion times more massive than the sun and spins clockwise, was discovered more than 50 million light years from Earth at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87 (M87).

“What we see is larger than the size of our entire solar system,” Heino Falcke, a Netherlands professor told BBC News. “And it is one of the heaviest black holes that we think exists. It is an absolute monster, the heavyweight champion of black holes in the universe.”

“You have probably seen many, many images of black holes before,” said Falcke at the press briefing. “But they were all simulations or animations. And this is precious to all of us, because this one is finally real.”

The decadeslong endeavor to capture the massive black hole culminated in one week in April 2017, during which all eight telescopes observed the same areas of space and collected vast amounts of data that then took months to analyze. Over 200 researchers took part in the project, computing data over the course of two years.

But before this revelation, three years ago Katie Bouman, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, led the development of a new algorithm to help astronomers produce the first image of a black hole.

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Black holes are invisible, dense remnants of a large star that died in a supernova explosion, according to NASA. Their intense gravity field pulls in everything around it, including light.

“But some black holes, especially supermassive ones dwelling in galaxies’ centers, stand out by voraciously accreting bright disks of gas and other material,” reported Science News. “The EHT image reveals the shadow of M87’s black hole on its accretion disk. Appearing as a fuzzy, asymmetrical ring, it unveils for the first time a dark abyss of one of the universe’s most mysterious objects.”

The picture of the black hole captured by the Earth-spanning telescope network shows a halo of “emission from hot gas swirling around [the black hole] under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon.” It is further confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general Theory of Relativity, which predicted the existence of black holes.

“This has been our first chance to see the inner workings of black holes and to test a fundamental prediction of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity,” Feryal Ozel, an astrophysicist who was the modeling and analysis lead on the project, told ABC News. “Not only the existence of a shadow that indicates a point of no return — or an event horizon — but also the size and shape of that shadow.”

“It’s a dream come true, on many levels,” she added.

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#GeniusUpDailyNews!: NASA twins study explores space, the final genetic frontier.

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@EMPIREGENIUS Publishing — From his eyes to his immune system, astronaut Scott Kelly’s body sometimes reacted strangely to nearly a year in orbit, at least compared to his Earth-bound identical twin — but newly published research shows nothing that would cancel even longer space treks, like to Mars.

The good news: Kelly largely bounced back after returning home, say scientists who released final results from NASA’s “twins study,” a never-before opportunity to track the biological consequences of spaceflight in genetic doubles.

It marks “the dawn of human genomics in space,” said Dr. Andrew Feinberg of Johns Hopkins University. He led one of 10 teams of researchers that scrutinized the twins’ health down to the molecular level before, during and after Kelly’s 340-day stay at the International Space Station.

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More importantly, the study “represents more than one small step for mankind” by pointing out potential risks of longer-duration spaceflight that need study in more astronauts, said Markus Lobrich of Germany’s Darmstadt University and Penny Jeggo of the University of Sussex, who weren’t involved in the work.

The findings were published in Friday’s edition of the journal Science, on some notable space anniversaries — when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961, and the first launch of the space shuttle in 1981.

KEY FINDINGS

NASA already knew some of the toll of space travel, such as bone loss that requires exercise to counter. This time, NASA-funded scientists looked for a gamut of physiologic and genomic changes that Scott Kelly experienced in space, comparing them to his DNA double on the ground, former astronaut Mark Kelly. Some results had been reported in February.

Possibly the weirdest finding had to do with something called telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes. Those tips gradually shorten as we get older, and are thought to be linked to age-related diseases including some cancers.

But in space, Scott Kelly’s telomeres got longer. “We were surprised,” said Colorado State University telomere expert Susan Bailey. She can’t explain it although it doesn’t mean Kelly got younger. Back on Earth, his telomeres mostly returned to preflight average although he did have more short telomeres than before.

Next, Kelly’s DNA wasn’t mutated in space but the activity of many of his genes — how they switch on and off — did change, especially in the last half of the voyage, which ended in March 2016.

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Immune system genes especially were affected, putting it “almost on high alert as a way to try and understand this new environment,” said study co-author Christopher Mason, a Weill Cornell Medicine geneticist in New York.

Again, most gene expression returned to normal back home, but some of the immune-related genes were hyperactive six months later.

“We learned that the human body is pretty resilient and we can survive and to some extent maybe even thrive on these long-duration flights,” Mark Kelly said.

Other findings:

—Some changes in the structure of Kelly’s eye and thickening of his retina suggested that, like about 40% of astronauts, he experienced symptoms of “spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome.” It may be caused by fluids shifting in the absence of gravity.

—He experienced some chromosomal instability that might reflect radiation exposure in space.

—A flu shot given in space worked as well as one on Earth.

—Kelly aced cognitive tests in space but slowed down after his return, maybe as more things competed for his attention.

WHAT THE KELLYS SAY

“It was a real privilege to be part of this study,” said Scott Kelly, who spent the year in space along with Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko. Kelly retired from NASA soon after his return.

He said it probably took him six months once back on Earth before he felt 100% again, but acknowledged his wife said it seemed more like eight months. What was particularly hard, he said, was getting used to not having a schedule dictating his life in five-minute increments every single day, like there was in space.

During a teleconference he joked with his twin, “I got all the glory and you got a lot of work.”

“I got people coming to my house, right, for tubes of blood,” responded Mark Kelly.

“But it’s great we saw and we learned that the human body is pretty resilient and we can survive and to some extent maybe even thrive on these long-duration flights,” he added.

As for trips to Mars, Mark Kelly said: “I hope it’s sooner rather than later, and hopefully, our participation in this study will help us get closer to making a mission like that a success.”

ULTRA LONG-DISTANCE TESTING

Researchers needed months’ worth of blood, urine and fecal samples, along with cognitive and physical tests and ultrasound scans. That meant getting creative: Some blood samples required analysis so rapidly that Kelly would time collection so the blood could travel on Russian Soyuz capsules carrying other astronauts back to Earth.

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That wouldn’t be an option on a three-year trip to Mars. One of the study’s technological advances: Portable DNA-sequencing equipment that will let astronauts run some of their own genomic analyses on future missions, said Weill Cornell’s Mason.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Studying one pair of twins can’t prove risks of spaceflight, researchers cautioned. And longer missions, to the moon or Mars, will mean greater stress and radiation exposure.

Colorado State’s Bailey plans to study 10 additional astronauts on yearlong missions, using the twin findings as a road map. More one-year missions are planned by NASA, officials said, but no details were given Thursday.

“We need to get outside of low-Earth orbit and we need for the astronauts to spend longer periods of time to really evaluate some of these health effects,” she said.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Now That Mars rover Opportunity is dead. Here’s Where It Have Helped #GeniusUp! Humankind Intelligent Minds!

The spacecraft lasted more than 50 times longer than originally planned, delivering groundbreaking science and inspiring a generation

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After more than 14 years driving across the surface of Mars, the NASA rover Opportunity has fallen silent—marking the end of a defining mission to another world.

At a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, NASA bid farewell to the rover it placed on Mars on January 25, 2004: before Facebook, before the iPhone, and even before some of the scientists now in charge of it graduated high school. In its record-breaking time on Mars, the rover drove more than 28 miles, finding some of the first definitive signs of past liquid water on the red planet’s surface.

“With this mission, more than other robotic missions, we have made that human bond, so saying goodbye is a lot harder. But at the same time, we have to remember this phenomenal accomplishment—this historic exploration we’ve done,” says John Callas, the project manager for the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. “I think it’ll be a long time before any mission surpasses what we were able to do.”

NASA had not heard from the rover since June 2018, when one of the most severe dust storms ever observed on Mars blotted out much of the red planet’s sky and overtook the solar-powered rover. Initially, the storm didn’t give the team pause. From about November to January, the red planet saw seasonal winds strong enough to wipe accumulated dust from Opportunity’s solar panels, which is one of the major reasons the rover lasted so long in the first place. But when “rover cleaning” season came and went without signals from Opportunity, hopes that it had survived began to dim

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On January 25, the team sent Opportunity a set of last-ditch commands, hoping that the rover had fallen silent because of malfunctioning antennae and an internal clock on the fritz. But the commands meant to fix this admittedly unlikely scenario didn’t wake the rover.

Now, as Martian fall and winter overtake it, NASA says that the rover will remain forever paused halfway down a windswept gully, named Perseverance Valley for the rover’s dogged effort.

The announcement marks the end of the record-smashing Mars Exploration Rovers mission, which built and operated Opportunity and its sibling rover, Spirit. The two rovers were each designed to go less than a mile and last 90 to a hundred Martian days, or sols. But the pair surpassed every conceivable expectation. After landing on January 4, 2004, Spirit drove hard through rugged terrain until it got stuck in 2009 and went silent in 2010. Meanwhile, Opportunity went farther for longer than any other vehicle on another world—and all other Mars rovers combined.

“It was one heck of a mission, wasn’t it?” Mike Seibert, a former driver of Opportunity, says in an email. “I am looking forward to the future when Opportunity’s records fall, because that will mean that we continue to explore our solar system. And I look forward to congratulating the team that puts Opportunity into second place.” (See amazing pictures from 20 years of nonstop rovers on Mars.)

“I always felt that were really two honorable ways for a mission like this to end,” adds Cornell planetary scientist Steve Squyres, the mission’s longtime principal investigator. “One is simply that we wear the vehicles out. The other is Mars just finally reaches out and kills them. To have Opportunity go for 14-and-a-half years and then get taken out by one of the most ferocious Mars dust storms in decades—if that’s the way it plays out, we can walk away with our heads held high.”

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