Does Vitamin D Help Protect People from COVID-19? Some Evidence Suggests Yes

A comprehensive global study published in 2017 on respiratory infections would say yes:

A new global collaborative study has confirmed that vitamin D supplementation can help protect against acute respiratory infections. The study, a participant data meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials including more than 11,000 participants, has been published online in The BMJ.

“Most people understand that vitamin D is critical for bone and muscle health,” said Carlos Camargo of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the study’s senior author. “Our analysis has also found that it helps the body fight acute respiratory infection, which is responsible for millions of deaths globally each year.”

Additionally, a professor of respiratory infection and immunity at Queen Mary University of London had this to say about vitamin D:

“Vitamin D could almost be thought of as a designer drug for helping the body to handle viral respiratory infections,” he said. “It boosts the ability of cells to kill and resist viruses and simultaneously dampens down harmful inflammation, which is one of the big problems with Covid.”

The pharmaceutical industry obviously can’t make enormous profits from vitamin D, and that’s part of why it hasn’t been explored more as a protective mechanism. With all the benefits of vitamin D and the lack of downsides to it however, it is worth getting enough vitamin D (through sufficient sunlight exposure and a good diet) to protect against respiratory infections such as the flu and COVID-19.

Widely Available Drug Dexamethasone Shown to Cut Deaths by a Third in Severely Ill COVID-19 Patients

The coronavirus pandemic remains severe, but dexamethasone (a steroid) is a cheap and relatively common drug that has apparently been shown in a rigorous trial to significantly reduce mortality rates in the most severely ill COVID-19 patients. This drug is not a cure and it wasn’t shown to help patients with moderate COVID-19 symptoms, but the drug has been shown to save lives, and that’s important since presumably more people will eventually be able to recover instead of dying to the coronavirus.

An inexpensive and commonly used steroid can save the lives of people seriously ill with COVID-19, a randomized, controlled clinical trial in the United Kingdom has found. The drug, called dexamethasone, is the first shown to reduce deaths from the coronavirus that has killed more than 430,000 people globally. In the trial, it cut deaths by about one-third in patients who were on ventilators because of coronavirus infection.

“It’s a startling result,” says Kenneth Baillie, an intensive-care physician at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who serves on the steering committee of the trial, called RECOVERY. “It will clearly have a massive global impact.” The RECOVERY study announced the findings in a press release on 16 June, but its researchers say that they are aiming to publish their results quickly and that they are sharing their findings with regulators in the United Kingdom and internationally.

The RECOVERY trial, launched in March, is one of the world’s biggest randomized, controlled trials for coronavirus treatments; it is testing a range of potential therapies. The study enrolled 2,100 participants who received dexamethasone at a low or moderate dose of six milligrams per day for ten days, and compared how they fared against about 4,300 people who received standard care for coronavirus infection.

The effect of dexamethasone was most striking among critically ill patients on ventilators. Those who were receiving oxygen therapy but were not on ventilators also saw improvement: their risk of dying was reduced by 20%. The steroid had no effect on people with mild cases of COVID-19 — those not receiving oxygen or ventilation.

Shortly after the results were released, the UK government announced that it had immediately authorized use of dexamethasone for patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who required oxygen, including those on ventilators.

Rigorous study

“It is a major breakthrough,” says Peter Horby, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Oxford, UK, and a chief investigator on the trial. Use of steroids to treat viral respiratory infections such as COVID-19 has been controversial, Horby notes. Data from steroid trials during outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Middle East respiratory syndrome caused by related coronaviruses were inconclusive, he says. Nevertheless, given dexamethasone’s widespread availability, and some promising results from steroid studies in previous outbreaks, Horby says RECOVERY investigators felt it important to test the treatment in a rigorous clinical trial.

Treatment guidelines from the World Health Organization and many countries have cautioned against treating people with coronavirus with steroids, and some investigators were concerned about anecdotal reports of widespread steroid treatment. The drugs suppress the immune system, which could provide some relief from patients whose lungs are ravaged by an over-active immune response that sometimes manifests in severe cases of COVID-19. But such patients may still need a fully functioning immune system to fend off the virus itself.

The RECOVERY trial suggests that at the doses tested, the benefits of steroid treatment may outweigh the potential harm. The study found no outstanding adverse events from the treatment, investigators said. “This treatment can be given to pretty much anyone,” says Horby.

And the pattern of response — with a greater impact on severe COVID-19 and no effect on mild infections — matches the notion that a hyperactive immune response is more likely to be harmful in long-term, serious infections, says Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “When you’re so far advanced that you’re on a ventilator, it’s usually that you have an aberrant or hyperactive inflammatory response that contributes as much to the morbidity and mortality as any direct viral effect.”

“Finding effective treatments like this will transform the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and economies across the world,” said Nick Cammack, head of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator at Wellcome, a UK biomedical research charity in London, in a statement. “While this study suggests dexamethasone only benefits severe cases, countless lives will be saved globally.”

Easy to administer

So far, the only drug shown to benefit COVID-19 patients in a large, randomized, controlled clinical trial is the antiviral drug remdesivir. Although remdesivir1 was shown to shorten the amount of time that patients may need to spend in the hospital, it did not have a statistically significant effect on deaths.

Remdesivir is also in short supply. Although the drug’s maker — Gilead Sciences of Foster City, California — has taken steps to ramp up production of remdesivir, it is currently available only to a limited number of hospitals around the world. And remdesivir is complex to administer: it must be given by injection over the course of several days.

Dexamethasone, by contrast, is a medical staple found on pharmaceutical shelves worldwide and is available as a pill — a particular benefit as coronavirus infections continue to rise in countries with limited access to healthcare. “For less than £50, you can treat 8 patients and save one life,” said Martin Landray, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, and another chief investigator on the RECOVERY trial.

The findings could also have implications for other severe respiratory illnesses, Baillie adds. For example, steroid treatments for a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome are also controversial. “This really gives us a very good reason to look closely at that, because the mortality benefit is so extraordinarily large,” Baillie says. “I think this will affect patients well beyond COVID-19.”

Low Vitamin D Levels Associated With Higher Coronavirus Mortality Rates

Patients with severe vitamin D deficiencies have been found in research to experience more coronavirus-related complications. Exposure to 20 or 30 minutes of sunlight a day and a healthy diet are good ways to keep high vitamin D levels.

After studying global data from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers have discovered a strong correlation between severe vitamin D deficiency and mortality rates.

Led by Northwestern University, the research team conducted a statistical analysis of data from hospitals and clinics across China, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States.

The researchers noted that patients from countries with high COVID-19 mortality rates, such as Italy, Spain and the UK, had lower levels of vitamin D compared to patients in countries that were not as severely affected.

This does not mean that everyone — especially those without a known deficiency — needs to start hoarding supplements, the researchers caution.

“While I think it is important for people to know that vitamin D deficiency might play a role in mortality, we don’t need to push vitamin D on everybody,” said Northwestern’s Vadim Backman, who led the research. “This needs further study, and I hope our work will stimulate interest in this area. The data also may illuminate the mechanism of mortality, which, if proven, could lead to new therapeutic targets.”

The research is available on medRxiv, a preprint server for health sciences.

Backman is the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. Ali Daneshkhah, a postdoctoral research associate in Backman’s laboratory, is the paper’s first author.

Backman and his team were inspired to examine vitamin D levels after noticing unexplained differences in COVID-19 mortality rates from country to country. Some people hypothesized that differences in healthcare quality, age distributions in population, testing rates or different strains of the coronavirus might be responsible. But Backman remained skeptical.

“None of these factors appears to play a significant role,” Backman said. “The healthcare system in northern Italy is one of the best in the world. Differences in mortality exist even if one looks across the same age group. And, while the restrictions on testing do indeed vary, the disparities in mortality still exist even when we looked at countries or populations for which similar testing rates apply.

“Instead, we saw a significant correlation with vitamin D deficiency,” he said.

By analyzing publicly available patient data from around the globe, Backman and his team discovered a strong correlation between vitamin D levels and cytokine storm — a hyperinflammatory condition caused by an overactive immune system — as well as a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and mortality.

“Cytokine storm can severely damage lungs and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and death in patients,” Daneshkhah said. “This is what seems to kill a majority of COVID-19 patients, not the destruction of the lungs by the virus itself. It is the complications from the misdirected fire from the immune system.”

This is exactly where Backman believes vitamin D plays a major role. Not only does vitamin D enhance our innate immune systems, it also prevents our immune systems from becoming dangerously overactive. This means that having healthy levels of vitamin D could protect patients against severe complications, including death, from COVID-19.

“Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half,” Backman said. “It will not prevent a patient from contracting the virus, but it may reduce complications and prevent death in those who are infected.”

Backman said this correlation might help explain the many mysteries surrounding COVID-19, such as why children are less likely to die. Children do not yet have a fully developed acquired immune system, which is the immune system’s second line of defense and more likely to overreact.

“Children primarily rely on their innate immune system,” Backman said. “This may explain why their mortality rate is lower.”

Backman is careful to note that people should not take excessive doses of vitamin D, which might come with negative side effects. He said the subject needs much more research to know how vitamin D could be used most effectively to protect against COVID-19 complications.

“It is hard to say which dose is most beneficial for COVID-19,” Backman said. “However, it is clear that vitamin D deficiency is harmful, and it can be easily addressed with appropriate supplementation. This might be another key to helping protect vulnerable populations, such as African-American and elderly patients, who have a prevalence of vitamin D deficiency.”

Backman is the director of Northwestern’s Center for Physical Genomics and Engineering and the associate director for Research Technology and Infrastructure at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University.

New Blood Test Offers Detection of 50 Types of Cancer

Another helpful advance in modern medicine.

A new blood test that can detect more than 50 types of cancer has been revealed by researchers in the latest study to offer hope for early detection.

The test is based on DNA that is shed by tumours and found circulating in the blood. More specifically, it focuses on chemical changes to this DNA, known as methylation patterns.

Researchers say the test can not only tell whether someone has cancer, but can also shed light on the type of cancer they have.

Dr Geoffrey Oxnard of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, part of Harvard Medical School, said the test was now being explored in clinical trials. “You need to use a test like this in an independent group at risk of cancer to actually show that you can find the cancers, and figure out what to do about it when you find them,” he said.

Writing in the journal Annals of Oncology, the team reveal how the test was developed using a machine learning algorithm – a type of artificial intelligence. Such systems pick up on patterns within data and as a result learn to classify it.

The team initially fed the system with data on methylation patterns in DNA from within blood samples taken from more than 2,800 patients, before further training it with data from 3,052 participants, 1,531 of whom had cancer and 1,521 of whom did not.

Using this information, the system sorted the samples into groups based on the methylation patterns. The team then taught the system which groups reflected which type of cancer.

“In pregnant women we look in their free-floating DNA for foetal abnormalities,” said Oxnard. “We know this [approach] exists, the question is how do you fine-tune and perfect the art of looking for cancer in this free-floating DNA? And that is what the machine learning did.”

The team then tested the trained system on another set of samples from 1,264 individuals, about half of whom had cancer.

The results reveal that less than 1% of those without cancer were wrongly identified by the system as having the disease. “It is really important you don’t tell non-cancer patients they have cancer,” said Oxnard.

When it came to identifying people with cancers the team found that, across more than 50 different types of cancer, the system correctly detected that the disease was present 44% of the time – although the team stress that figure could differ if the test was used to screen a general population, rather than those known to have cancer.

Detection was better the more advanced the disease was. Overall, cancer was correctly detected in 18% of those with stage I cancer, but in 93% of those with stage IV cancer.

The team say the results are exciting as they offer the possibility of a new way to screen for cancers that are otherwise difficult to detect. For example, the system correctly identified 63% of those with stage I pancreatic cancer, rising to 100% in stage IV.

The team further found that the system could shed light on the type of cancer. For 96% of samples deemed to show cancer, the test was able to offer a prediction for in which the tissue the cancer originated, with 93% of these predictions found to be correct.

Dr David Crosby, head of early detection at Cancer Research UK, said that detecting cancers in their early stages is important as they are less aggressive and more treatable.

Although this test was still at an early stage of development, the initial results were encouraging, he said. “And if the test can be fine-tuned to be more efficient at catching cancers in their earliest stages, it could become a tool for early detection.”

But Crosby added there was work to do. “More research is needed to improve the test’s ability to catch early cancers and we still need to explore how it might work in a real cancer screening scenario,” he said.

Noam Chomsky Interview on Popular Movements

A notable interview:

It is Sen. Bernie Sanders who is regarded by the political establishment as the most dangerous politician because of his commitment to a just and equitable social order and a sustainable future. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the Davos meeting in January demonstrated the global elites’ ongoing commitment to unimpeded planetary destruction.

This is indeed the state of the contemporary U.S. political environment, as the great public intellectual Noam Chomsky points out in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: The impeachment trial of Donald Trump isnearly over, and what a farce it has been — something you had predicted from the start, which is also the reason why you thought that an impeachment inquiry was a rather foolish move on the part of the Democrats. With that in mind, what does this farcical episode tell us about the contemporary state of U.S. politics, and do you anticipate any political fallout in the 2020 election?

Noam Chomsky: It seemed clear from the outset that the impeachment effort could not be serious, and would end up being another gift by the Democrats to Trump, much as the Mueller affair was. Any doubts about its farcical nature were put to rest by its opening spectacle: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts struggling to keep a straight face while swearing in senators who solemnly pledged that they would be unmoved by partisan concerns, and at once proceeded — as everyone know they would — to behave and vote along strictly party lines. Could there be a clearer exhibition of pure farce?

Are the crimes discussed a basis for impeachment? Seems so to me. Has Trump committed vastly more serious crimes? That is hardly debatable. What might be debatable is whether he is indeed the most dangerous criminal in human history (which happens to be my personal view). Hitler had been perhaps the leading candidate for this honor. His goal was to rid the German-run world of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other “deviants,” along with tens of millions of Slav “Untermenschen.” But Hitler was not dedicated with fervor to destroying the prospects of organized human life on Earth in the not-distant future (along with millions of other species).

Trump is. And those who think he doesn’t know what he’s doing haven’t been looking closely.

Is that a wild and ludicrous exaggeration? Or the very simple and apparent truth? It’s not difficult to figure out the answer. We’ve discussed it often before. There is no need to review what is happening on Trump’s watch while he devotes every effort to accelerating the race to catastrophe, trailed by such lesser lights as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Australia’s Scott Morrison.

Every day brings new forebodings. We have just learned, for example, that the gigantic Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica has been eroding from warm water below. The Washington Post describes this as “a troubling finding that could speed its melt in a region with the potential to eventually unleash more than 10 feet of sea-level rise,” adding, “Scientists already knew that Thwaites was losing massive amounts of ice — more than 600 billion tons over the past several decades, and most recently as much as 50 billion tons per year.” It has now been confirmed, as suspected, that “this was occurring because a layer of relatively warmer ocean water, which circles Antarctica below the colder surface layer, had moved closer to shore and begun to eat away at the glaciers themselves, affecting West Antarctica in particular.” The chief scientist involved in the study warns that this may signal “an unstoppable retreat that has huge implications for global sea-level rise.

That’s today. Tomorrow will be something worse.

What’s causing the warmer water? No secret. This is only one of the likely irreversible tipping points that may be reached if “the Chosen One,” as he modestly describes himself, is granted another four years to carry out his project of global destruction.

We have just witnessed an extraordinary event at the January Davos meeting of the Masters of the Universe, as they are called; for Adam Smith, they were only “the masters of mankind,” but 250 years ago it was just British merchants and manufacturers.

The conference opened with Trump’s oration about what a fabulous creature he is. The encomium was interrupted only by a comment that we should not be “alarmist” about the climate. His Magnificence was followed by the quiet and informed comments of a 17-year old girl instructing the heads of state, CEOs, media leaders and grand intellectuals about what it means to be a responsible adult.

Quite a spectacle.

Trump’s war on organized life on Earth is only the barest beginning. More narrowly, in recent days, the Chosen One has issued executive orders ridding the country of the plague of regulations that protect children from mercury poisoning and preserve the country’s water supplies and lands, along with other impediments to further enrichment of Trump’s primary constituency, extreme wealth and corporate power.

On the side, he has been casually proceeding to dismantle the last vestiges of the arms control regime that has provided some limited degree of security from terminal nuclear war, eliciting cheers from the military industry. And as we have just learned, the great pacifist who is committed to end interventions “dropped more bombs and other munitions in Afghanistan last year than any other year since documentation began in 2006, Air Force data shows.”

He is also ramping up his acts of war — which is what they are — against Iran. I won’t even go into his giving Israel what the Israeli press calls “a gift to the right,” formally giving the back of his imperial hand to international law, the World Court, the UN Security Council and overwhelming international opinion, while shoring up the Evangelical vote for the 2020 election. The prerogative of supreme power.

In brief, the list of Trump’s crimes is immense, not least the worst crime in human history. But none merit a nod in the impeachment proceedings. This is hardly a novelty; rather the norm. The current proceedings are often compared with Watergate. Nixon’s hideous crimes were eliminated from the charges against him despite the efforts of Rep. Robert Frederick Drinan and a few others. The Nixon impeachment charges focused on his illegal acts to harm Democrats.

Any resemblance to the farce that is now winding up? Does it suggest some insight into what motivates the powerful?

Speaking of the 2020 election, the corporate Democratic establishment and the liberal media are once again mobilizing to undermine Bernie Sanders, even though he may very well be the most electable Democrat. First, can you summarize for us what you perceive to be the core of Sanders’s politico-ideological gestalt, and then explain what scares both conservatives and liberals the possibility of someone like Sanders leading the country?

The core of Sanders’s “politico-ideological gestalt” is his long-standing commitment to the interests of the large majority of the population, not the top 0.1 percent (not 1 percent, 0.1 percent) who hold more than 20 percent of the country’s wealth, not the very rich who were the prime beneficiaries of the slow recovery from the 2008 disaster caused by financial capital. The U.S. achievement in this regard far surpasses that of other developed countries, so we learn from recently released studies, which show that in the U.S., 65 percent of the growth of the past decade went to the very rich; next in line was Germany, at 5percent, then declining sharply. The same studies show that if current trends persist, in the next decade all growth in the U.S. will go to the rich.

The welfare of these sectors has never been Sanders’s concern.

The Democratic establishment and liberal media are hardly likely to look kindly on someone who forthrightly proclaims, I have no use for those  regardless of their political party — who hold some foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when unorganized labor was a huddled, almost helpless mass…. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.” By right to work” laws, for example, or by hiring scabs, or by threatening to ship jobs to Mexico to undermine organizing efforts, to sample the bipartisan political leadership.

That’s surely the kind of socialist wild man whom the country is not ready to tolerate.

The wild man in this case is President Dwight Eisenhower, the last conservative president. His remarks are a good illustration of how far the political class has shifted to the right under Clintonite “New Democrats” and the Reagan-Gingrich Republicans. The latter have drifted so far off the political spectrum that they are ranked near neo-fascist parties in the international spectrum, well to the right of “conservatives.”

Even more threatening than Sanders’s proposals to carry forward New Deal-style policies, I think, is his inspiring a popular movement that is steadily engaged in political action and direct activism to change the social order — a movement of people, mostly young, who have not internalized the norms of liberal democracy: that the public are “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” who are to be “spectators, not participants in action,” entitled to push a lever every four years but are then to return to their TV sets and video games while the “responsible men” look after serious matters.

This is a fundamental principle of democracy as expounded by prominent and influential liberal 20thcentury American intellectuals, who took cognizance of “the stupidity of the average man” and recognized that we should not be deluded by “democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.” They are not; we are — the “responsible men,” the “intelligent minority.” The “bewildered herd” must therefore be “put in their place” by “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent simplifications.” These are among the pronouncements of the most influential 20thcentury public intellectual, Walter Lippmann, in his “progressive essays on democracy”; Harold Lasswell, one of the founders of modern political science; and Reinhold Niebuhr, the admired “theologian of the (liberal) establishment.” All highly respected Wilson-FDR-Kennedy liberals.

Inspiring a popular movement that violates these norms is a serious attack on democracy, so conceived, an intolerable assault against good order.

I believe we witnessed something similar in the last U.K. elections in the case of Jeremy Corbyn. Do you agree? And, if so, what does this tell us about liberal democracy, which is nowadays in serious trouble itself on account of the rise and spread of authoritarianism and the far right in many parts of the world?

There are definite similarities. Corbyn, a decent and honorable man, was subjected to an extraordinary flood of vilification and defamation, which he was unable to confront. At the same time, polls indicated that the policies that he put forth — and that had led to a remarkable victory for Labour in 2017 — remained popular. A special feature in the U.K. was Brexit, a matter I won’t go into here (my personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that it is a serious blow to both Britain and the EU, and is likely to cause Britain — or what remains of it — to become even more of a vassal of the U.S. than it has been under Blair’s New Labour and the Tories, whose social and economic policies have caused the country great harm). Corbyn’s vacillation on the Brexit issue, which became a toxic one, surely contributed to the negative feelings about him that seem to have been a major factor in the electoral disaster for Labour, but it was only one.

As in the case of Sanders, I suspect that the prime reason for the bitter hatred of Corbyn on the part of a very wide spectrum of the British establishment is his effort to turn the Labour Party into a participatory organization that would not leave electoral politics in the hands of the Labour bureaucracy and would proceed beyond the narrow realm of electoral politics to far broader and constant activism and engagement in public affairs.

More generally, much of the world is aflame. As the men of Davos recognized with trepidation at their January meeting, the peasants are coming with their pitchforks: The neoliberal order they have imposed for the past 40 years, while ultra-generous to them and their class, has had a bitter impact on the general population. A leading theme at Davos was that the Masters must declare that they are changing their stance from service to the rich to attending to the concerns of “stakeholders” — working people and communities. Another theme was that while not “alarmists,” they acknowledge the threat of global warming.

The unstated implication is that there is no need for regulations and other actions about climate change: We Big Boys will take care of it. Greta Thunberg and the other children demonstrating out there can go back to school. And now that we see the flaws in our neoliberal model of capitalism, you can put aside all those disruptive political programs calling for health care, rights of workers, women, the poor. We’re taking care of it, so just go back to your private pursuits, keeping to democratic norms.

As the neoliberal order is visibly collapsing, it is giving rise to “morbid symptoms” (to borrow Gramsci’s famous phrase when the fascist plague was looming). Among these are the spread of authoritarianism and the far right that you mention. More generally, what we are witnessing is quite understandable anger, resentment and contempt for the political institutions that have implemented the neoliberal assault — but also the rise of activist movements that seek to overcome the ills of global society and to stem and reverse the race to destruction.

The confrontation could hardly have been exhibited more dramatically than by the appearance of Greta Thunberg immediately after the most powerful man in the world — the leader in the race to destruction — had admonished the Masters to disdain the “heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers” (virtually 100 percent of climate scientists) and to take up his wrecking ball.

The Science Behind Friendship and Its Largely Overlooked Importance

Yes, there’s scientific research on that too.

For many of us, the top of our life priority list might look something like this: family, work—maybe exercise. Time with friends can sometimes end up near the bottom.

That’s a mistake, says Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and the author of the new book “Friendship,” which was published last month by W.W. Norton & Co. Ms. Denworth interviews animal biologists studying baboons and rhesus macaque monkeys, anthropologists and neuroscientists to uncover just how important friendship is not only for happiness and emotional health, but, she argues, physical health, too. In fact, friends are key to our very survival, Ms. Denworth asserts.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview.

What does studying how animals relate to each other tell us about human friendships?

At its simplest, it’s just how critical quality social bonds and friendships are. In animals, the big measures that evolutionary biologists study are reproductive success, which they count as either how many babies you have or how long those babies live, and longevity, or how long you survive. Nonhuman primates have very structured hierarchies that they exist in, and everyone assumed that that must have more importance for how long you live and how many babies you have and how healthy they are. And it wasn’t. The most important thing was the strength of the social bonds, how positively and well and regularly an individual animal interacted with other animals. Scientists really couldn’t believe it.

How does friendship affect physical health?

Friendship literally improves your body’s cardiovascular functioning, how your immune system works, how you sleep. You can imagine the food you put in your body makes you healthy or not. But sitting in a coffee shop with someone and just chatting about what’s going on with your life, we always thought emotionally that made you feel good. But actually it really is doing much more.

A big study at Harvard of men across their lives from 20 to 80 found that the single best predictor of your health and happiness at 80 was not your wealth or your professional success. It was your relationships at 50.

What makes a good friendship?

The simple definition that biologists use is a friendship is positive, it makes you feel good, it is long-lasting and stable and it has reciprocity and cooperation in it. So there’s a little give and take. Friendship is about setting up your life so you have people you can rely on when you need them. Literally, it was for when the lions came hunting for your friends. Baboons and monkeys do better when they are together. It’s why humans were never really alone.

There’s not one way to do friendship. Some people are introverts and that’s fine. The difference between not having any close friends and having one is enormous in terms of your emotional health and physical health. Quality matters so much more than quantity. Most people only have an average of four really close friends.

Why do we become friends with one person and not another?

There’s this interesting chemistry to friendship. Just like in romance, you are more drawn to some people than you are others. Some of it is very straightforward: You are interested in the same things, you spend time in the same place. That’s one reason why we are close to relatives, because you have a head start, you spend more time with them than you do anyone else. We do tend to be better friends with people who are more like us.

Having a shared world-view turns out to be important. Scientists looked at all these people in a social network, showed them the same sets of videos and looked at how their brains responded to these videos. They could predict just by looking at the brain processing who was friends with whom. Literally, you hear and see the world more like the people you are friends with. The big question is: Is it cause or effect? Are you drawn to people who already see and process the world more similarly from the start or do you become more similar? Of course, as with so many things, the answer is probably both.

What impact is digital communication and social media having on friendships?

With relationships, it usually is net positive. One reason is just because people who are active on social media tend to have wider, bigger, more diverse social networks. What the research is showing is we tend to use social media as just an extra way to communicate with your good friends. And older adults, relationally, they absolutely benefit from social media because they have a harder time getting out or getting around or they’re further from their families. It really has opened up a new channel for people.

That doesn’t mean if you only operate online, you get all those benefits. You don’t. You need a lot of face-to-face time to get the health benefits. But it’s just not true that being online is automatically this big negative. The people for whom social media has a clearer negative effect seem to be people who are already suffering from depression maybe or loneliness.

Experimental Drugs Reverse Arthritis in Rats Study

The science shows potential results in treating a debilitating condition.

People with osteoarthritis, or “wear and tear” arthritis, have limited treatment options: pain relievers or joint replacement surgery. Now, Salk researchers have discovered that a powerful combination of two experimental drugs reverses the cellular and molecular signs of osteoarthritis in rats as well as in isolated human cartilage cells. Their results were published in the journal Protein & Cell on January 16, 2020.

“What’s really exciting is that this is potentially a therapy that can be translated to the clinic quite easily,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, lead author and a professor in Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory. “We are excited to continue refining this promising combination therapy for human use.”

Affecting 30 million adults, osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder in the United States and its prevalence is expected to rise in coming years due to the aging population and increasing rate of obesity. The disease is caused by gradual changes to cartilage that cushions bones and joints. During aging and repetitive stress, molecules and genes in the cells of this articular cartilage change, eventually leading to the breakdown of the cartilage and the overgrowth of underlying bone, causing chronic pain and stiffness.

Previous research had pinpointed two molecules, alpha-KLOTHO and TGF beta receptor 2 (TGFβR2), as potential drugs to treat osteoarthritis. αKLOTHO acts on the mesh of molecules surrounding articular cartilage cells, keeping this extra-cellular matrix from degrading. TGFβR2 acts more directly on cartilage cells, stimulating their proliferation and preventing their breakdown.

While each drug alone had only moderately curbed osteoarthritis in animal models of the disease, Izpisua Belmonte and his colleagues wondered if the two drugs would act more effectively in concert.

“We thought that by mixing these two molecules that work in different ways, maybe we could make something better,” says Paloma Martinez-Redondo, a Salk postdoctoral fellow and co-first author of the new study.

The researchers treated young, otherwise healthy rats with osteoarthritis with viral particles containing the DNA instructions for making αKLOTHO and TGFβR2.

Six weeks after the treatment, rats that had received control particles had more severe osteoarthritis in their knees, with the disease progressing from stage 2 to stage 4. However, rats that had received particles containing αKLOTHO and TGFβR2 DNA showed recovery of their cartilage: the cartilage was thicker, fewer cells were dying, and actively proliferating cells were present. These animals’ disease improved from stage 2 to stage 1, a mild form of osteoarthritis, and no negative side effects were observed.

“From the very first time we tested this drug combination on just a few animals, we saw a huge improvement,” says Isabel Guillen-Guillen, the paper’s co-first author. “We kept checking more animals and seeing the same encouraging results.”

Further experiments revealed 136 genes that were more active and 18 genes that were less active in the cartilage cells of treated rats compared to control rats. Among those were genes involved in inflammation and immune responses, suggesting some pathways by which the combination treatment works.

To test the applicability of the drug combination to humans, the team treated isolated human articular cartilage cells with αKLOTHO and TGFβR2. Levels of molecules involved in cell proliferation, extra-cellular matrix formation and cartilage cell identity all increased.

“That’s not the same as showing how these drugs affect the knee joint in humans, but we think it’s a good sign that this could potentially work for patients,” says Martinez-Redondo.

The research team plans to develop the treatment further, including investigating whether soluble molecules of the αKLOTHO and TGFβR2 proteins can be taken directly, rather than administered through viral particles. They also will study whether the combination of drugs can prevent the development of osteoarthritis before symptoms develop.

“We think that this could be a viable treatment for osteoarthritis in humans,” says Pedro Guillen, director of the Clinica CEMTRO and co-corresponding author.

U.S. Drinking Water Contamination Far Worse Than Previously Thought

Dark humor comedian George Carlin liked to say that he didn’t consider himself a good American if he didn’t let his food and water poison himself a bit every day. For real though, if you want at least some defense against the contamination, the people in the know recommend robust water filtration systems.

America is great again! Keep this version of America great 2020, don’t change it! Only over a hundred million people there drink contaminated water every day!

The contamination of US drinking water with manmade “forever chemicals” is far worse than previously estimated with some of the highest levels found in Miami, Philadelphia and New Orleans, said a report on Wednesday by an environmental watchdog group.

The chemicals, resistant to breaking down in the environment, are known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Some have been linked to cancers, liver damage, low birth weight and other health problems.

The findings here by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show the group’s previous estimate in 2018, based on unpublished US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, that 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS, could be far too low.

“It’s nearly impossible to avoid contaminated drinking water from these chemicals,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the report.

The chemicals were used in products like Teflon and Scotchguard and in firefighting foam. Some are used in a variety of other products and industrial processes, and their replacements also pose risks.

Of tap water samples taken by EWG from 44 sites in 31 states and Washington DC, only one location, Meridian, Mississippi, which relies on 700ft (215m) deep wells, had no detectable PFAS. Only Seattle and Tuscaloosa, Alabama had levels below 1 part per trillion (PPT), the limit EWG recommends.

In addition, EWG found that on average six to seven PFAS compounds were found at the tested sites, and the effects on health of the mixtures are little understood. “Everyone’s really exposed to a toxic soup of these PFAS chemicals,” Andrews said.

In 34 places where EWG’s tests found PFAS, contamination had not been publicly reported by the EPA or state environmental agencies.

The EPA has known since at least 2001 about the problem of PFAS in drinking water but has so far failed to set an enforceable, nationwide legal limit. The EPA said early last year it would begin the process to set limits on two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS.

The EPA said it has helped states and communities address PFAS and that it is working to put limits on the two main chemicals but did not give a timeline.

In 2018 a draft report from an office of the US Department of Health and Human Services said the risk level for exposure to the chemicals should be up to 10 times lower than the 70 PPT threshold the EPA recommends. The White House and the EPA had tried to stop the report from being published.

If Worker Pay Had Kept Pace With U.S. Productivity Gains Since 1968, Today’s Minimum Wage Would Be $24 an Hour

A full-time minimum wage worker would be earning $48,000 a year in the United States if they made $24 an hour.

If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be close to $12 an hour today, more than 65 percent higher than the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. While this would make a huge difference in the lives of many people earning close to the national minimum wage, it is actually a relatively unambitious target.

Until 1968, the minimum wage not only kept pace with inflation, it rose in step with productivity growth. The logic is straightforward; we expect that wages in general will rise in step with productivity growth. For workers at the bottom to share in the overall improvement in society’s living standards, the minimum wage should also rise with productivity.

This is an important distinction. If the minimum wage rises in step with inflation, we are effectively ensuring that it will allow minimum wage earners to buy the same amount of goods and services through time, protecting them against higher prices. However, if it rises with productivity that means that as workers are able to produce more goods and services per hour, on average, minimum wage earners will be able to buy more goods and services through time.

While the national minimum wage did rise roughly in step with productivity growth from its inception in 1938 until 1968, in the more than five decades since then, it has not even kept pace with inflation. However, if the minimum wage did rise in step with productivity growth since 1968 it would be over $24 an hour today, as shown in the Figure below.[1]

Graph (1)

It is worth considering what the world would look like if this were the case. A minimum wage of $24 an hour would mean that a full-time full year minimum wage worker would be earning $48,000 a year. A two minimum wage earning couple would have a family income of $96,000 a year, enough to put them in the top quintile of the current income distribution.

It is worth noting the standard counter to the argument that the minimum wage should keep pace with productivity growth. It would be claimed that the productivity of minimum wage workers has not kept pace with average productivity growth, so that it would not be feasible for minimum wage workers to earn pay that rises in step with average productivity growth.

There is some truth to this claim, but only at a superficial level. The productivity of any individual worker is determined not just by their skills and technology, but also by the institutional structure we put in place. In a world without patent and copyright monopolies, the skills of bio-technicians and software designers would likely be much less valuable than they are today.

Similarly, the skills of experts in stock trading and designing complex financial instruments would have much less value if we had a financial transactions tax in place and allowed large banks to fail when their mistakes made them insolvent. And, the skills of doctors and other highly paid professionals would have much less value if our trade policy was as committed to subjecting them to international competition, as has been the case with auto and textile workers.

Lower pay for those at the top increases the real pay for those at the bottom and middle. A $15 an hour wage goes much further when all drugs are selling as low costs generics, the financial sector is not sucking 2 percent of GDP ($230 billion a year) out of the economy, and doctors get paid the same as their West European counterparts.

If the productivity of less-skilled workers has not kept pace with average productivity, this was by design. It was not the fault of these workers; it was the fault of those who designed policies that had the effect of devaluing their skills.

This raises a final point: we can’t imagine that we can just raise the minimum wage to $24 an hour without serious disruptions to the economy, many of which would have bad effects (i.e., unemployment) for those at the bottom. While there is certainly room to raise the minimum wage, and many states have done so with no measureable impact on employment, there clearly is a limit to how far and how fast we can go.

It is quite reasonable to have a target where the minimum wage returns to where it would be, if it had tracked productivity growth over the last 50 years. But we will have to reverse many of the institutional changes that have been put in place over this period to get there. This is where the sort of policies described in Rigged (it’s free) come in, but that is a much longer story.


[1] This calculation uses a productivity growth figure that is economy-wide, is based on net output, and adjusts for differences between the NDP deflator and the consumer price index. These issues are discussed in more detail here.

America’s Economy Outside of Unemployment and GDP

It’s rather striking that median male wages in America are 3 percent lower today than they were 40 years ago. Where the hell is the societal progress with damning statistics like that? And other stats worth mentioning are that 75 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck while their country’s child poverty rate is well over 20 percent. It is rather appalling that people are saying that America’s economy is booming.

As the world’s business elites trek to Davos for their annual gathering, people should be asking a simple question: Have they overcome their infatuation with US President Donald Trump?

Two years ago, a few rare corporate leaders were concerned about climate change, or upset at Trump’s misogyny and bigotry. Most, however, were celebrating the president’s tax cuts for billionaires and corporations and looking forward to his efforts to deregulate the economy. That would allow businesses to pollute the air more, get more Americans hooked on opioids, entice more children to eat their diabetes-inducing foods, and engage in the sort of financial shenanigans that brought on the 2008 crisis.

Today, many corporate bosses are still talking about the continued GDP growth and record stock prices. But neither GDP nor the Dow is a good measure of economic performance. Neither tells us what’s happening to ordinary citizens’ living standards or anything about sustainability. In fact, US economic performance over the past four years is Exhibit A in the indictment against relying on these indicators.

To get a good reading on a country’s economic health, start by looking at the health of its citizens. If they are happy and prosperous, they will be healthy and live longer. Among developed countries, America sits at the bottom in this regard. US life expectancy, already relatively low, fell in each of the first two years of Trump’s presidency, and in 2017, midlife mortality reached its highest rate since World War II. This is not a surprise, because no president has worked harder to make sure that more Americans lack health insurance. Millions have lost their coverage, and the uninsured rate has risen, in just two years, from 10.9% to 13.7%.

One reason for declining life expectancy in America is what Anne Case and Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton call deaths of despair, caused by alcohol, drug overdoses, and suicide. In 2017 (the most recent year for which good data are available), such deaths stood at almost four times their 1999 level.

The only time I have seen anything like these declines in health—outside of war or epidemics—was when I was chief economist of the World Bank and found out that mortality and morbidity data confirmed what our economic indicators suggested about the dismal state of the post-Soviet Russian economy.

Trump may be a good president for the top 1%—and especially for the top 0.1%—but he has not been good for everyone else. If fully implemented, the 2017 tax cut will result in tax increases for most households in the second, third, and fourth income quintiles.

Given tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the ultrarich and corporations, it should come as no surprise that there was no significant change in the median US household’s disposable incomebetween 2017 and 2018 (again, the most recent year with good data). The lion’s share of the increase in GDP is also going to those at the top. Real median weekly earnings are just 2.6% above their level when Trump took office. And these increases have not offset long periods of wage stagnation. For example, the median wage of a full-time male worker (and those with full-time jobs are the lucky ones) is still more than 3% below what it was 40 years ago. Nor has there been much progress on reducing racial disparities: in the third quarter of 2019, median weekly earnings for black men working full-time were less than three-quarters the level for white men.

[…]

And despite Trump’s vaunted promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, the increase in manufacturing employment is still lower than it was under his predecessor, Barack Obama, once the post-2008 recovery set in, and is still markedly below its pre-crisis level. Even the unemployment rate, at a 50-year low, masks economic fragility. The employment rate for working-age males and females, while rising, has increased less than during the Obama recovery, and is still significantly below that of other developed countries. The pace of job creation is also markedly slower than it was under Obama.

Again, the low employment rate is not a surprise, not least because unhealthy people can’t work. Moreover, those on disability benefits, in prison—the US incarceration rate has increased more than sixfold since 1970, with some two million people currently behind bars – or so discouraged that they are not actively seeking jobs are not counted as “unemployed.” But, of course, they are not employed. Nor is it a surprise that a country that doesn’t provide affordable childcare or guarantee family leave would have lower female employment—adjusted for population, more than ten percentage points lower—than other developed countries.

Parrots That Show Selfless Kindness

A good study has recently been done on grey parrots.

experiment

According to Charles Darwin, helping others just doesn’t make sense. Yet we’ve seemingly seen altruism time and again in the animal kingdom: in primates, in canines, in cetaceanspinnipeds, even vampire bats. Now, for the first time, it’s been demonstrated in birds.

The kind bird is one of the titans of avian intelligence, the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). New experiments have shown these birds happily helping each other acquire treats, without any assumption or anticipation that their altruism will be reciprocated.

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” explained behavioural biologist Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology.

But the birds take it one step further. Unlike primates, for example, the parrots display no anger or envy if one of their friends receives favourable treatment, instead seeming quite content that good things are happening to a buddy.

Among the bird kingdom, it’s the corvids – such as crows and ravens – that are probably the most famed for their wicked smarts, and with very good reason. In fact, corvids have demonstrated skills previously only observed in primates.

However, the researchers said, corvids have failed tests of altruism. But there are other smart birds out there – like parrots. Cockatoos can make their own tools, and have even demonstrated playful creativity. And African grey parrots have proven to be smarter than a human child in some tests.

So, the research team designed a test for altruism, and gave it to two different types of parrots – eight African greys, and six blue-headed macaws (Primolius couloni).

The birds had been previously trained to exchange tokens (metal washers) for treats. This training was refreshed, and the scientists assessed their subjects’ relationships with other birds of their species. Each bird was tested with one bird with whom they had a close bond, and a second bird with a less close bond.

The birds were then placed in a clear perspex enclosure, with a dividing wall between them. The front of the box had holes through which items could be exchanged with a human; and the dividing wall between the birds also had a hole, through which the two birds could also exchange items.

All the birds quickly understood the concept of swapping the washer for a piece of walnut, and were able to do so. But, when only one of two birds was given tokens, only the African grey parrots, not the macaws, also deliberately gave tokens to their buddies.

“Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very ‘prosocially,'” said zoologist Auguste von Bayern of Oxford University.

“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously – in their very first trial – thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on. Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”

In all, they voluntarily gave other African grey parrots 157 out of 320 tokens – nearly half. And, interestingly, although they passed tokens regardless of their social bond, they did give more tokens to birds with whom they shared a close bond.

The macaws, by contrast, rarely passed their tokens through to the other parrot. If they did, they dropped it through the hole; and they did it more often when the human experimenter was present. This led the scientists to believe the macaws were trying to pass the token to the human, not their buddy.

The difference could be due to social differences between the species in the wild, but there was one more interesting thing. In a separate recent study, the researchers showed that, when an African grey parrot sees a friend getting a better treat, they didn’t seem particularly bothered. This is in contrast to animals such as chimpanzees, who tend to get riled up about it.

According to von Bayern, this could be because the parrots monogamously mate for life.

“Given that parrots are so closely bonded with a single individual and thus so mutually interdependent, it does not make any difference if one of them gets a better pay-off once in a while,” she said.

“What counts is that together, they function as a unit that can achieve much more than each of them on their own (in addition to raising their joint offspring). This is probably why parrots are much more tolerant towards unequal treatment than species that are not long-term monogamous, while still being excellent cooperators.”

The research has been published in Current Biology.

Extreme Weather Will Continue to Worsen as the Climate Crisis Becomes More Severe

The changing climate is already having dire consequences on global societies, and the effects will become much worse in the future unless political leaders suitably address the environmental crisis of rising temperatures.

The past decade has been the hottest on record, the UN said Wednesday, warning that the higher temperatures were expected to fuel numerous extreme weather events in 2020 and beyond.​

The World Meteorological Organization, which based its findings on analysis of leading international datasets, said increases in global temperatures had already had dire consequences, pointing to “retreating ice, record sea levels, increasing ocean heat and acidification, and extreme weather”.

WMO said its research also confirmed data released by the European Union’s climate monitor last week showing that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016.

“The year 2020 has started out where 2019 left off – with high-impact weather and climate-related events,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement, pointing in particular to the devastating bushfires that have been raging in Australia for months.

The bushfires, unprecedented in their duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives and highlighted the type of disasters that scientists say the world will increasingly face due to global warming.

The fires have already destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million hectares (100,000 square kilometres) of land – an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Taalas said.

The UN agency said that average global temperatures during both the past five-year (2015-2019) and 10-year (2010-2019) periods were the highest ever recorded.

“Since the 1980s each decade has been warmer than the previous one,” the UN agency said in a statement, warning that “this trend is expected to continue”.

The United Nations said last year that human-made greenhouse gas emissions needed to tumble 7.6 percent each year to 2030 in order to limit temperature rises to 1.5 Celsius – the more ambitious cap nations signed up to in the landmark Paris climate deal.

Current pledges to cut emissions put Earth on a path of several degrees warming by the end of the century.

Not a fluke

Taalas said that since modern records began in 1850, the average global temperature had risen by around 1.1 degrees Celsius, and warned of significant warming in the future.

“On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, we are heading towards a temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” he warned.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which provided one of the datasets, added that the trend line was unmistakable and could not be attributed to normal climate variability – a position taken by US President Donald Trump.

“What’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon: we know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he said.

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meanwhile revealed that polar sea ice coverage continued its downward trend in 2019.

Both the Arctic and Antarctic oceans recorded their second-smallest average annual sea-ice coverage during the 1979–2019 period of record, the agency said.

Broken record

WMO also highlighted a new study published this week in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences with data showing that ocean heat content was at a record high in 2019.

The past five years were also the warmest on record in terms of ocean heat content, that study showed.

Since more than 90 percent of excess heat is stored in the world’s oceans, their heat content is a good way to quantify the rate of global warming, WMO said.

Conservationists said the UN agency’s findings were to be expected.

“It is no surprise that 2019 was the second hottest year on record – nature has been persistently reminding us that we have to pick up the pace,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice, calling for dramatic measures to halt the warming trend.

“This is not so much a record as a broken record,” added Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London.

“The message repeats with grim regularity. Yet the pace and scale of action to address climate change remains muted and far from the need.”