Online Reading Onpaper

We have six weekly contributors here at EWED and I try to read every single post. I don’t always read them the same day that they are published. Being subscribed is convenient because I can let my count of unread emails accumulate as a reminder of what I’ve yet to read.

Shortly after my fourth child was born over the summer, I understandably got quite behind in my reading. I think that I had as many as twelve unread posts. I would try to catchup on the days that I stayed home with the children. After all, they don’t require constant monitoring and often go do their own thing. Then, without fail, every time that I pull out my phone to catch up on some choice econ content, the kids would get needy. They’d start whining, fighting, or otherwise suddenly start accosting me for one thing or another – even if they were fine just moments before. It’s as if my phone was the signal that I clearly had nothing to do and that I should be interacting with them. Don’t get me wrong, I like interacting with my kids. But, don’t they know that I’m a professional living in the 21st century? Don’t they know that there is a lot of good educational and intellectually stimulating content on my phone and that I am not merely zoning out and wasting my time?

No. They do not.

I began to realize that it didn’t matter what I was doing on my phone, the kids were not happy about it.

I have fond childhood memories of my dad smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper. I remember how he’d cross his legs and I remember how he’d lift me up and down with them. I less well remember my dad playing his Game Boy. That was entertaining for a while, but I remember feeling more socially disconnected from him at those times. Maybe my kids feel the same way. It doesn’t matter to them that I try to read news articles on my phone (the same content as a newspaper). They see me on a 1-player device.

So, one day I printed out about a dozen accumulated EWED blog posts as double-sided and stapled articles on real-life paper.

The kids were copacetic, going about their business. They were fed, watered, changed, and had toys and drawing accoutrement. I sat down with my stack of papers in a prominent rocking chair and started reading. You know what my kids did in response? Not a darn thing! I had found the secret. I couldn’t comment on the posts or share them digitally. But that’s a small price to pay for getting some peaceful reading time. My kids didn’t care that I wasn’t giving them attention. Reading is something they know about. They read or are read to every day. ‘Dad’s reading’ is a totally understandable and sympathetic activity. ‘Dad’s on his phone’ is not a sympathetic activity. After all, they don’t have phones.

They even had a role to play. As I’d finish reading the blog posts, I’d toss the stapled pages across the room. It was their job to throw those away in the garbage can. It became a game where there were these sheets of paper that I cared about, then examined , and then discarded… like yesterday’s news. They’d even argue some over who got to run the next consumed story across the house to the garbage can (sorry fellow bloggers).

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, then I’ve got nothing for you. It turns out that this works for us. My working hypothesis is that kids often don’t want parents to give them attention in particular. Rather, they want to feel a sense of connection by being involved, or sharing experiences. Even if it’s not at the same time. Our kids want to do the things that we do. They love to mimic. My kids are almost never allowed to play games or do nearly anything on our phones. So, me being on my phone in their presence serves to create distance between us. Reading a book or some paper in their presence? That puts us on the same page.

Steal My Paper Ideas!

Since early in graduate school I’ve kept a running list of ideas for economics papers I’d like to write and publish some day. I’ve written many of the papers I planned to, and been scooped on others, but the list just keeps growing. As I begin to change my priorities post-tenure, I decided it was time to publicly share many of my ideas to see if anyone else wants to run with them. So I added an ideas page to my website:

Steal My Paper Ideas! I have more ideas than time. The real problem is that publishing papers makes the list bigger, not smaller; each paper I do gives me the idea for more than one new paper. I also don’t have my own PhD students to give them to, and don’t especially need credit for more publications. So feel free to take these and run with them, just put me in the acknowledgements, and let me know when you publish so I can take the idea off this page.

Here’s one set of example ideas:

State Health Insurance Mandates: Most of my early work was on these laws, but many questions remain unanswered. States have passed over a hundred different types of mandated benefits, but the vast majority have zero papers focused on them. Many likely effects of the laws have also never been studied for any mandate or combination of mandates. Do they actually reduce uncompensated hospital care, as Summers (1989) predicts? Do mandates cause higher deductibles and copays, less coverage of non-mandated care, or narrower networks? How do mandates affect the income and employment of relevant providers? Can mandates be used as an instrument to determine the effectiveness of a treatment? On the identification side, redoing older papers using a dataset like MEPS-IC where self-insured firms can be used as a control would be a major advance.

You can find more ideas on the full page; I plan to update to add more ideas as I have them and to remove ideas once someone writes the paper.

Thanks to a conversation with Jojo Lee for the idea of publicly posting my paper ideas. I especially encourage people to share this list with early-stage PhD students. It would also be great to see other tenured professors post the ideas they have no immediate plans to work on; I’m sure plenty of people are sitting on better ideas than mine with no plans to actually act on them.

On Counting and Overcounting Deaths

How many people died in the US from heart diseases in 2019? The answer is harder than it might seem to pin down. Using a broad definition, such as “major cardiovascular diseases,” and including any deaths where this was listed on the death certificate, the number for 2019 is an astonishing 1.56 million deaths, according to the CDC. That number is astonishing because there were 2.85 million deaths in total in the US, so over half of deaths involved the heart or circulatory system, at least in some way that was important enough for a doctor to list it on the death certificate.

However, if you Google “heart disease deaths US 2019,” you get only 659,041 deaths. The source? Once again, the CDC! So, what’s going on here? To get to the smaller number, the CDC narrows the definition in two ways. First, instead of all “major cardiovascular diseases,” they limit it to diseases that are specifically about the heart. For example, cerebrovascular deaths (deaths involving blood flow in the brain) are not including in the lower CDC total. This first limitation gets us down to 1.28 million.

But the bigger reduction is when they limit the count to the underlying cause of death, “the disease or injury that initiated the train of morbid events leading directly to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence which produced the fatal injury,” as opposed to other contributing causes. That’s how we cut the total in half from 1.28 million to 659,041 deaths.

We could further limit this to “Atherosclerotic heart disease,” a subset of heart disease deaths, but the largest single cause of deaths in the coding system that the CDC uses. There were 163,502 deaths of this kind in 2019, if you use the underlying cause of death only. But if we expand it to any listing of this disease on the death certificate, it doubles to 321,812 deaths. And now three categories of death are slightly larger in this “multiple cause of death” query, including a catch-all “Cardiac arrest, unspecified” category with 352,010 deaths in 2019.

So, what’s the right number? What’s the point of all this discussion? Here’s my question to you: did you ever hear of a debate about whether we were “overcounting” heart disease deaths in 2019? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. Probably there were occasional debates among the experts in this area, but never among the general public.

COVID-19 is different. The allegation of “overcounting” COVID deaths began almost right away in 2020, with prominent people claiming that the numbers being reported are basically useless because, for example, a fatal motorcycle death was briefly included in COVID death totals in Florida (people are still using this example!).

A more serious critique of COVID death counting was in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. The argument here is serious and sober, and not trying to push a particular viewpoint as far as I can tell (contrast this with people pushing the motorcycle death story). Yet still the op-ed is almost totally lacking in data, especially on COVID deaths (there is some data on COVID hospitalizations).

But most of the data she is asking for in the op-ed is readily available. While we don’t have death totals for all individuals that tested positive for COVID-19 at some point, we do have the following data available on a weekly basis. First, we have the “surveillance data” on deaths that was released by states and aggregated by the CDC. These were “the numbers” that you probably saw constantly discussed, sometimes daily, in the media during the height of the pandemic waves. The second and third sources of COVID death data are similar to the heart disease data I discussed above, from the CDC WONDER database, separated by whether COVID was the underlying cause or whether it was one among several contributing causes (whether it was underlying or not).

Those three measures of COVID deaths are displayed in this chart:

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“Let whoever needs to die, die”:  China’s Abrupt COVID Reopening To Achieve Rapid Herd Immunity and Resumption of Industrial Production, at the Cost of a Million Deaths

I noted a month ago that President Xi and the CCP have taken credit for relatively low (reported) deaths from COVID, due to strict lockdown protocols. By “strict” we mean locking down whole cities and blockading residents in their apartment buildings for months at a stretch. However, public protests rose to an unprecedented level, and so the Chinese government has done a surprising full 180 policy change, towards almost no restrictions.

According to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel in the Wall Street Journal, the way this policy is being carried out has the makings of a mass human tragedy:

Zero Covid was always untenable and had to be ended. But it could have been done responsibly.

Among other things, that would involve buying Pfizer and Moderna bivalent vaccines and administering them to the elderly and other high-risk people, and purchasing Paxlovid and molnupiravir to treat those who test positive. Supplies of these products are ample. Authorities could continue mask mandates to reduce transmission. And China could institute a rigorous wastewater testing program to identify potential SARS-CoV-2 variants as soon as possible – and commit to sharing the data with the world.

Due to nationalistic pride, China has spurned the purchase of effective mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, pushing instead the less-effective in-house vaccine.

Readers may recall in the early days of COVID spread in the West, masking and social distancing were promoted, not because they would prevent everyone from ultimately becoming infected, but because these measures would “flatten the curve” (i.e. reduce the peak load on hospitals at any one time, but instead spread it out over time). China is headed into a very un-flattened infection curve; some 800 million people (10% of the world’s population) may get COVID in the next 3 months, overwhelming hospitals and leading to over a million deaths. Besides the near-term human costs, this concentration of active COVID cases is likely to lead to a slew of new, even more virulent variants which will affect the rest of the world, along with China. What should help mitigate the situation is that the newer, most virulent variants of COVID may be somewhat less fatal than the original strain.

Why is the Chinese government doing it this way? Well, the sooner the country gets through mass exposure to the virus, the sooner everyone can get back to their factories and start producing stuff again. If in the process a bunch of (mainly older) people die, well, that’s just the price of progress. Let ‘er rip…

From MSN:

[U.S.] Epidemiologist and health economist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding estimate that 60 per cent of China’s population is likely to be infected over the next 90 days. “Deaths likely in the millions—plural,” he added.

According to Eric, bodies were seen piled up in hospitals in Northeast China. “Let whoever needs to be infected infected, let whoever needs to die die. Early infections, early deaths, early peak, early resumption of production,” the epidemiologist said terming it to be summary of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) current goal.

But don’t expect any acknowledgement of mass death from the official Chinese media. Just as the initial COVID outbreak was denied and censored by the Chinese propaganda machine, so the current surge is being minimized. From Barrons:

On Friday, a party-run newspaper cited an official estimate of half a million daily new cases in the eastern city of Qingdao. By Saturday, the story had been amended to remove the figure, an AFP review of the article showed….

Several posts on the popular Weibo platform purporting to describe Covid-related deaths appeared to have been censored by Friday afternoon, according to a review by AFP journalists.

They included several blanked-out photos ostensibly taken at crematoriums, and a post from an account claiming to belong to the mother of a two-year-old girl who died after contracting the virus.

Posts about medicine shortages and instances of price gouging were also taken down, according to censorship monitor

And social media users have posted angry or sardonic comments in response to the perceived taboo around Covid deaths.

Many rounded on a state-linked local news outlet after it reported Wu Guanying — designer of the mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics — had died of a “severe cold” at the age of 67.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention just reported zero COVID deaths for December 25 and 26.

Farewell to the First Normal Semester in 3 Years

Today as I gave my last final and took my kids to a huge school party, it struck me that things are finally back to something like 2019 levels of normality.

2020 was a lost cause, of course. I had high hopes for 2021 that vaccines would immediately get us back to normal. They did get my school back to fully in-person by Fall 2021, but not really back to normal, partly thanks to the variants. My students were out sick more than normal, and I was out watching my sick kids more than normal, as every cold meant they would be home until the school was sure it wasn’t Covid. Toward the end of the Spring 2022 semester worries were subsiding, and my state was pretty much fully re-opened, but things still weren’t really back to normal. Student attendance and effort were still way below normal, partly from the lingering effects of Covid, and partly from celebrating its end- partying to make up for lost time (and cheering on a great basketball team).

Fall 2022 finally felt like a basically normal semester. I still see the occasional mask, still hear from the occasional student out with Covid, and still have one kid missing 2 school days with every cough (policies stricter than 2019, but much relaxed from the days when both kids were at schools that could have them miss 5+ days with every non-Covid cough). Overall though student attendance and effort are back to what seem like normal levels. Up to Spring 22 I’d have students just disappear for a few weeks, not in class, not answering e-mails about why they weren’t showing up or completing work, needing lots of help to get on track once they finally reappeared. This Fall that didn’t happen; in my Senior Capstone everyone turned in a quality paper basically on-time and without me having to chase anyone down for it. Also, everyone just seemed happier now that their stress levels are back down to the baseline for college students.

This semester was nothing special- and that was beautiful.

Ban, Subsidize, Mandate: Ethics and US Healthcare Policy

Tomorrow (Friday 12/2) I’ll be speaking at the Fall Ethics Forum at Sacramento State. The Center for Practical and Professional Ethics there does a forum every year on a different field of practical ethics, and this year they chose healthcare (some previous iterations look quite interesting, like Bryan Caplan on education and Lyman Stone on population). The event is open to the public if you happen to live near Sacramento, and I hope to be able to post a recording later. But for now, here’s a short preview of what I plan to say:

In many key respects, US health policy is about restricting the choices available to patients and health care providers: banning things the government doesn’t want, while mandating or subsidizing things they want. These restrictions on autonomy are typically justified by the idea that they lead to superior health or economic outcomes. In some cases this tradeoff between freedom and efficient utilitarian outcomes is real, but I highlight some policies such as Certificate of Need laws that appear to harm both freedom and efficiency. I argue that the overarching US approach to health policy is to subsidize demand while restricting supply, which together lead to exceptionally high prices but mediocre health outcomes.

I’ll also take on some classic questions like: when are free lunches truly free? And when is moral hazard really immoral?

Protests Erupt Across China Over COVID Policy But Lockdowns Continue: Why?

Headlines in today’s financial news include items like “Clashes in Shanghai as COVID protests flare across China“ from Yahoo Finance. There have been widespread protests this week, which are normally a rarity under the authoritarian regime, and are being suppressed by any means necessary. Apple stock is down about 4% in the past two trading days on fears that iPhone shortages will get worse due to worker unrest in the giant Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. Wall Street keeps hoping the China will loosen up, since the lockdowns on the world’s second-largest economy are a drag on global markets.

China has pursued a “zero-COVID” policy, of strict mass lockdowns to halt any spread of the virus. Residents have been confined to their apartments for over 3 months in some cases. Whole cities with tens of millions of people have been locked down for months at a time whenever a number of cases are spotted. China’s economic growth has stagnated, and unemployment among young people has risen to 20%, which has helped fuel unrest.  Chinese people are aware that the rest of the world has moved on from mass lockdowns, and may be realizing the futility of thinking that lockdowns can stave off the virus indefinitely.

Given its discomfort with widespread discontent and protests, why does the Chinese government persist in this policy? An article in the Atlantic by Michael Shuman answers that question: “Zero COVID Has Outlived Its Usefulness. Here’s Why China Is Still Enforcing It. “  Back in 2020 when COVID first swept through the world, the strict lockdowns (readily enforced in an authoritarian regime) seemed like a big win for the Chinese leadership:

When the outbreak began in Wuhan in early 2020, the virus was unknown, vaccines were unavailable, and China’s poorly equipped health system could have quickly become overwhelmed by a sweeping pandemic. Yet the policy had a political element from the very beginning as well. The Communist Party is adept at sniffing out threats to its rule, and it quickly identified COVID as one of them. A major public-health crisis, with millions dying, would have raised serious doubts about the regime’s competence, which is, in effect, its sole claim to legitimacy.

Worse, the party could have faced a populace that directly blamed it for the outbreak—with good reason. The Chinese authorities at both the national and local levels botched their initial response to the novel coronavirus, suppressing information about its discovery by a Wuhan doctor and acting far too slowly to contain the initial spread. Sensing its potential vulnerability, the party shifted into anti-COVID overdrive, shutting down large swaths of the country, with the result that it did succeed in snuffing out an epidemic in a matter of weeks, even as it spread to the rest of the world.

That success allowed the Communist Party to transform a potential tragedy into a public-relations triumph. Within weeks of the Wuhan outbreak, China’s propaganda machine was touting the wonders of its virus-busting methods. And as the U.S. and other Western countries struggled to contain the disease, Beijing’s big win became even more valuable as evidence that its authoritarian system was more capable and caring than any democratic one. Beijing and its advocates pointed to rising case and death counts in the U.S. as proof of China’s superiority and American decline.

A number of other countries including Australia and New Zealand also implemented strict (stricter than in the U.S.) lockdown measures in 2020, and, like China, experienced far less impact from the virus in that timeframe than seen in the U.S. However, most of these measures were lifted in 2021. The widespread application of mRNA vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna in the West has served to mitigate the severity of the viral infection. Also, some measure of herd immunity has been achieved by the widespread exposure to COVID in the population; antibodies persist for at least eight months after contracting the disease. So, what’s up with China?

China has resisted using Western vaccines, relying instead on homegrown vaccines which are less effective, though they do give some measure of protection.  Also, “The additional layers of high-tech surveillance adopted in the name of pandemic prevention can be used to enhance the tracking and monitoring of the populace more generally,” which is another win for the government. However, the major factor is that the Party, and especially President Xi, cannot afford to loosen up now and risk an embarrassing explosion of cases that would overburden the healthcare system and probably lead to millions of deaths:

The victory of zero COVID was claimed not just as the party’s but as Xi Jinping’s in particular. The State Council, China’s highest governing body, declared in a 2020 white paper that Xi had “taken personal command, planned the response, overseen the general situation and acted decisively, pointing the way forward in the fight against the epidemic.”

This narrative became entrenched. If Beijing loosened up and allowed COVID to run amok, the Chinese system would appear no better than those of loser democracies, and Xi would seem like another failing politician, a mere mortal, not the virus-fighting superhero he was painted as. Zero COVID’s failure would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s veneer of infallibility.

So the leadership insists on zero COVID and damn the consequences.

What’s Killing Men Ages 18-39?

The all-cause mortality rate in 2021 for men in the US ages 18-39 was about 40% higher than the average of 2018 and 2019. That’s a huge increase, especially for a group that is not in the high-risk category for COVID-19. What’s causing it?

Some have suggested that heart disease deaths, perhaps induced by the COVID vaccines, is the cause. This is not just a fringe internet theory by anonymous Twitter accounts. The Surgeon General of Florida has said this is true.

What do the data say? The first thing we can look at is heart disease deaths for men ages 18-39.

The data I’m using is from the CDC WONDER database. This database aggregates data from US states, using a standardized system of reporting deaths. The most important thing to know is that in this database, each death can one have one underlying cause, and this is indicated on the death certificate. Deaths can also have multiple contributing causes (and most deaths do), and the database allows you to search for those too. But for this analysis, I’m only looking at the underlying cause.

Here’s the heart disease death data for men ages 18-39, presented two different ways. First the trailing 12-month average. Don’t focus too much on that dip at the end, since the most recent data is incomplete. Instead, notice three things. First, there was a clear increase in heart disease deaths. Second, that rise began in mid-2020, well before the introduction of vaccines. Third, once vaccines started being administered to this age group in Spring 2021, the number of deaths leveled off (though it didn’t return to pre-pandemic levels).

Here’s another way of looking at the data: 12-month time periods, rather than a trailing average. I created 12-month time periods starting in March and ending in February of the following year. I’ve also truncated the y-axis to show more detail, not to trick you. But don’t be tricked! The deaths are up 2-3%, not a more than doubling as the chart appears to show.

We can see in the chart above that the rise in heart disease deaths for young males completely preceded the vaccination period. Something changed, for sure, but the change wasn’t the introduction of vaccines. Heart disease deaths (by underlying cause) are only up 2-3%, while overall deaths are up around 40%.

So, to repeat the title question, what is killing these young men?

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Can You Use an Expired Home COVID Test?

Using a COVID test is a fairly serious matter – the results of such tests drive decisions on staying home and isolating or not, which in turn affect the spread of the virus in the population. I am known to use medicines that maybe expired six months earlier, figuring that the med will still be say 80% effective, but for a COVID test I want it to be as accurate as possible.

We all have on our shelves boxes of rapid COVID tests which were send out by the government in the first half of 2022. Most of these tests had nominal six-month lives, so according to what is stamped on the box, they are expiring right about now.

But wait – – that six-month life was just a (conservative) estimate from back when the tests were manufactured. For about a dozen out of the original 22 approved tests, subsequent data has shown that the tests remain accurate for longer than six months. Typically, the approved life is extended an additional six months or more. So before using or throwing out a box whose stamped expiration date has passed, go to this FDA link. You can quickly find your brand of test. The instructions for using this site are:

To see if the expiration date for your at-home OTC COVID-19 test has been extended, first find the row in the below table that matches the manufacturer and test name shown on the box label of your test.   

  • If the Expiration Date column says that the shelf-life is “extended,” there is a link to “updated expiration dates” where you can find a list of the original expiration dates and the new expiration dates.  Find the original expiration date on the box label of your test and then look for the new expiration date in the “updated expiration dates” table for your test.   
  • If the Expiration Date column does not say the shelf-life is extended, that means the expiration date on the box label of your test is still correct.  The table will say “See box label” instead of having a link to updated expiration dates.  

A couple more notes re COVID Tests:

( 1 ) The tests do detect the omicron BA.5 subvariant, which has driven much of the infections lately. However, if you have been exposed to COVID, the new recommendation is to take three (instead of just two) tests, at least 48 hours apart. (If you take the test too early, not enough antigen has built up to detect, so you might get a false negative).

( 2 ) Although the initial federal program for free tests has expired, there are several ways to still get free tests. Any health insurer will pay for them, as will Medicare. And there are other venues for uninsured or low-income people. See this article.

Should Virologists Regulate Themselves?

Last Friday a group of researchers mostly from Boston University posted a paper which revealed they had created a new chimeric coronavirus and used it to infect mice.

We generated chimeric recombinant SARS-CoV-2 encoding the S gene of Omicron in the backbone of an ancestral SARS-CoV-2 isolate and compared this virus with the naturally circulating Omicron variant. The Omicron S-bearing virus robustly escapes vaccine-induced humoral immunity, mainly due to mutations in the receptor-binding motif (RBM), yet unlike naturally occurring Omicron, efficiently replicates in cell lines and primary-like distal lung cells. In K18-hACE2 mice, while Omicron causes mild, non-fatal infection, the Omicron S-carrying virus inflicts severe disease with a mortality rate of 80%. 

Many people who heard about this expressed concern that the risk of creating more contagious and/or deadly versions of Covid that could escape from a lab outweigh any potential benefits of what we could learn from this research.

Several researchers have responded to these concerns with variants of “trust virologists to weigh the risks here, they know more than you.”

Don’t tell us virologists how to do our jobs; tell farmers, hunters, and veterinarians how to do theirs

Here’s the thing: the virologists do know the risks better than the public or potential regulators- but they also have different incentives. What I want to point out today is that virology isn’t special; this is true of just about every field. A nuclear engineer knows much more about what’s happening at their plant than voters do, or distant bureaucrats at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Should we leave it to the engineers on site to decide how much risk to take? Should federal regulators leave it to the financial experts at Bear Sterns and AIG to decide how much risk they can take?

To some extent I actually sympathize with these critiques; industry practitioners really do tend to have the best information, and voters often push regulatory agencies to be insanely risk-averse. With any profession this information problem is a reason to regulate less than you otherwise would, and/or pay to hire expert regulators.

But externalities are real- the practitioners who have the best information use it to promote their own interests, which tend to differ from the interests of the public. In finance this means moral hazard at best and fraud at worst (who are you to say Bernie Madoff is a fraud? You know more about finance than him?). In medicine it means doctors who get paid more for doing more; they gave the guy who invented lobotomies a Nobel Prize in Medicine. In research that involves creating new viruses, researchers get the private benefits of prestige publications for themselves, but the increased pandemic risk is shared with the whole world. In this case its not just outsiders who are concerned, some subject-matter experts are too (and not just “usual suspects” Alina Chan and Richard Ebright; see also Marc Lipsitch).

The main current check on research like this is supposed to be Institutional Review Boards. The chimeric Covid paper notes “All procedures were performed in a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) facility at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories of the Boston University using biosafety protocols approved by the institutional biosafety committee (IBC)”. But there are many problems with this approach. The IRB is run by employees of the same institution as the researcher, the institution that also claims a disproportionate share of the benefits of the research.

IRBs are also incredibly opaque. The paper claims it was approved by Boston University’s institutional biosafety committee, but these committees don’t maintain public lists of approved projects; I e-mailed them Sunday to ask if they actually approved this project and they have yet to respond. There is also no public list of the members of these committees, although in BU’s case you can get a good idea of who they are by reading the meeting minutes. This chimeric Covid proposal appears to have been reviewed as the second proposal of their January 2022 meeting, reviewed by Robert Davey and Shannon Benjamin and approved by a 16-0 vote of the committee. During the January meeting the committee approved all 6 projects they considered unanimously, after hearing 6 reports of lab workers at BU being exposed to lab pathogens in the previous month, e.g.:

MD/PhD student reported experiencing low grade temperatures and other symptoms after he accidentally injured his thumb percutaneously on 12-6-21 while cleaning forceps that he had used to remove infected lungs from mice injected with NL63 virus

IRBs are supposed to protect research subjects from harm, but in practice largely serve to protect their institutions from lawsuits and PR disasters (part of why they’re often too strict). The fact that this did get institutional approval provides one silver lining here; if this chimeric Covid ever did escape and cause an outbreak, those infected by it could potentially sue for damages not only the individual researchers, but Boston University and its $3.4 billion endowment. Being able to internalize externalities in this way is one of many good reasons to be testing those infected with Covid to see what variant they have.

I think we should at least consider stronger national regulations against research like this, rather than leaving each decision to local institutional review boards (ask any researcher how much they trust IRBs). At the very least we should stop subsidizing it; NIH claims they don’t fund “gain of function” research like this, but the researchers who made a new version of Covid conclude their paper:

This work was supported by Boston University startup funds (to MS and FD), National Institutes of Health, NIAID grants R01 AI159945 (to SB and MS) and R37 AI087846 (to MUG), NIH SIG grants S10- OD026983 and SS10-OD030269 (to NAC)