The Filtrate: Warning Signs, FDA SNAFUs, and Unbearable Light

Besides a constant feed of news, The Filtrate relies on electricity to operate, and last week that was in short supply around here; a brief but violent squall knocked a huge tree across a nearby power line, and Turbid Plaque Headquarters went offline for a couple of days. We’re back now with two weeks’ worth of news, but we’ve still filtered it down to just a few salient items. Enjoy.

A “check engine” light for public health

If we’d had national or even global monitoring systems of the right kinds, we could’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic coming and acted sooner. That’s the conclusion of a new paper in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, though why it’s in that particular journal is a mystery to me. The researchers found that hospital reports of influenza-like illness, along with internet searches and social media postings containing particular illness-related terms, spiked well before public health officials were aware of the scope of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak.

This is yet another “lesson learned” that I expect many governments will try to apply to public health surveillance in the future. That way, when the next pandemic comes along, we’ll be well-prepared to deal with this pandemic. It’s like the way the military is always ready to fight the previous war.

Some of the lessons, at least, should transfer well. Hand washing, for example. Public health experts have been exhorting people to clean their damned hands for decades, citing mountains of evidence that this simple intervention can help prevent a long list of nasty diseases. Has a global pandemic finally gotten the message across? According to a survey reported in last week’s MMWR, maybe. Either that, or people have just gotten more diligent in lying about it.

The big orange quarantine flag

The maritime quarantine (“Quebec”) flag is yellow, but perhaps we should redden it slightly in honor of recent events. Many folks – including me – have been quite concerned that a certain citrus-hued politician might try to shove an inadequately tested COVID-19 vaccine onto the market early, in a desperate attempt to buoy his foundering re-election campaign. But in early October, representatives from vaccine manufacturers, research institutions, and US government agencies met to allay those fears, saying they’ll stick to the science and not be swayed by politics. We should know within a few weeks whether they meant it.

It turns out that high-level pandemic shenanigans aren’t the only cause for worry about FDA approvals, though. The chief regulatory agency for drugs, tests, and medical devices in the US has in fact been showing signs of serious decay for years. A deep investigative report by journalist Charles Piller lays bare the problems, which we can only hope a new administration will be able to fix soon.

Water bear blues

The pandemic has caused many organizations to go around bathing environmental surfaces in ultraviolet light, in an effort to inactivate any stray viruses. But does anyone think of the tardigrades? Perhaps the most charismatic microfauna we have, “water bears” are widespread in nature and widely respected for their ability to survive natural and artificial hazards. In a new paper in Biology Letters, researchers added “lethal UV irradiation” to the list of insults tardigrades can tolerate. They actually absorb the lethal wavelengths and re-radiate them as harmless blue light.

That’s all for this week. As always, if you have a story you think will fit through our filter, please let us know directly or post a comment below.