As Study Sheds Light on Coronavirus Risks, Misinformation Looms

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On Monday, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention released the most comprehensive information to date on the novel coronavirus that has infected thousands around the world — even as unfounded theories about the virus’ origins continue to spread.

The new paper from the Chinese CDC examines 72,314 confirmed or suspected cases of the COVID-19 virus, which appears to have originated in an animal market in Wuhan, China last December. The paper offers “a descriptive, exploratory analysis of all cases found through February 11, 2020,” including 1,023 fatal infections.

Among the report’s more sobering findings: The new coronavirus appears to be more contagious than both SARS and MERS, two related, sometimes-fatal coronaviruses that have triggered recent global epidemics.

In addition, the COVID-19 virus has especially high fatality rates for elderly people — more than 10 percent of people over the age of 80 infected with the virus died — and for people with other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Men have higher fatality rates than women. And the majority of people who have died from the virus have been over the age of 60 and had a complicating condition.

Young people, meanwhile, seem to be largely immune to the most serious effects of the coronavirus. At least in the new Chinese dataset, the mortality rate for children aged 10 and under is zero.

While the new information from the Chinese CDC offered a more complete picture of the coronavirus’ effects, misinformation continued to circulate around the world. One theory, alleging that the virus may have emerged from a Chinese military facility, has spread in right-wing media and been pushed by Steve Bannon, the former Donald Trump adviser and Breitbart News chief with close ties to white nationalists.

On Sunday, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, repeated the conspiracy theory on Fox News. (He later stepped back from the claim.)

Just last week, World Health Organization officials met with Silicon Valley leaders to discuss how to curb the spread of misinformation online. “The spread of misinformation, and false information about the virus itself,” a WHO official said, standing in front of the Google headquarters, “is spread faster than the virus.”

Also in the News:

• Power companies have voiced disapproval of a Trump administration plan to roll back a regulation limiting mercury emissions. The 2011 rule, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), set stricter standards for mercury emissions from power plants. Faced with implementing expensive pollution control measures or switching to cleaner natural gas or renewable energy sources once the rule took effect in 2016, many utilities chose to abandon coal. The proposed change would alter how the government calculates the health benefits of cleaner air, helping coal companies and constraining future efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on toxic air pollutants. The same utility companies that fought against MATS in court a decade ago expressed confusion this week at Trump’s plans to roll back the rule, now that they have adapted to the new pollution standards. “We’ve already made these investments,” Scott Weaver, American Electric Power’s director of air quality, told The Washington Post. “We’re happy to comply with this rule. Let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.” (The Washington Post)

• On Monday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced the launch of the Bezos Earth Fund, which he says will provide $10 billion to “fund scientists, activists, [and] NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” While the cash constitutes just 8 percent of the net worth of Bezos, the world’s richest person, it is an order of magnitude larger than what foundations normally spend on climate efforts each year. For many scientists and environmental organizations, the announcement came as a welcome development. “No matter what organization receives this funding, what’s important is that the money be put to work,” Frank Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Verge. But some activists say Bezos should be focused on his own company’s environmental footprint. “Instead of applauding Amazon hypocritically throwing money at a crisis the corporation is exacerbating in the first place,” said Dania Rajedra, director of Athena, a coalition of organizations pushing back against Amazon, “our communities will hold them accountable.” (The Verge)

• On Wednesday, the European Commission revealed plans to regulate the use of artificial intelligence in the European Union. The proposal, which identifies AI applications for health care, transport, and criminal justice as “high risk,” calls for safeguards that ensure transparency, human oversight, and the use of unbiased training data. The proposal also encourages transparency in lower risk systems. The proposal’s descriptions go beyond regulation though, also describing the E.U.’s broader vision for investing in AI technology and using it for public benefit. The proposal will be discussed by experts, lobby groups, and the public for several months before the E.U. begins drafting legislation. (Science)

• According to a study published in Nature this week, the amount of methane emitted by the fossil fuel industry has been underestimated by 25 to 40 percent, suggesting that a higher proportion of the potent greenhouse gas is coming from human sources than previously thought. Until now, experts believed that around 10 percent of annual methane production came from geological sources like mud volcanoes and ocean seeps. The new study’s analysis of methane bubbles trapped in an ice core from Greenland, however, indicates that most of the atmospheric methane attributed to these sources is actually coming from fossil fuels. The researchers used the 250-year-old ice to determine that geological sources have been consistently emitting 5 teragrams of methane into the atmosphere each year, as opposed to the 50 teragrams attributed to this source in annual estimates. Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 20-year period, so pinpointing its source is an important part of the effort to tackle climate change. Methane is also the principal component of natural gas, which has been touted as a cleaner “bridge fuel,” and which currently fulfills almost 40 percent of the U.S.’s energy needs. (National Geographic)

• The Amazon-owned home security company Ring has come under fire in recent months for security flaws that allowed hackers to access footage from its motion-sensing doorbell cameras, as well as its contribution to what some privacy advocates have called a surveillance state through its data-sharing partnerships with nearly 900 law enforcement agencies across 44 states. Now, the company has caught the attention of federal lawmakers. On Wednesday, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, sent a letter on behalf of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy to Amazon requesting a trove of documents on Ring’s involvement with law enforcement agencies, as well as specifics on how these partners handle consumer data. The committee also wants to know if any partners are making use of Amazon’s facial recognition software to identify people in footage from doorbell cams. While Ring announces new law enforcement partnerships on its website, details on the specific nature of these relationships are scarce, and leaked records show the company has asked police departments to hide certain details from the public. Ring told CNET it has seen the Congressional letter and intends to respond. (CNET)

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week reposted thousands of animal inspection reports that it had removed from its website in 2017 in response to lobbying from breeders and other animal industry groups. The move was forced on the agency by Congress, which required the database to be restored as part of a spending bill passed in December. Legislators were responding to pressure from animal welfare groups, as well as from some groups that are inspected by the USDA, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, that say a transparent process increases public confidence in their institutions. The newly reopened database provides information about unannounced inspections of more than 10,000 zoos, pet stores, breeders, laboratories, circuses, and shows. Animal welfare groups welcomed the database’s return but noted that the USDA also continues to withhold some information. The agency plans to take another two months to post enforcement records, animal inventories, and a new class of action called “teachable moments,” in which inspectors note a problem, such as dirty cages, but define it as a lesson rather than a violation. The agency is now preferentially using that approach, which critics believe is also meant to protect industry. (The Washington Post)

• On Thursday, Science reported that four women have accused researcher Jeff Leach, known for his work on the microbiomes of hunter-gatherers, of sexual assault. A former employee of a Terlingua, Texas tourist lodge run by Leach filed a police report last July saying that he had sexually assaulted her. Leach responded by filing a defamation lawsuit against her, prompting three more women to come forward with accusations of sexual assault. Earlier this month, the judge presiding over the case ruled to dismiss Leach’s lawsuit, although his lawyer is currently appealing. Leach told Science that the charges against him are unfounded, saying that his accusers are motivated by jealousy and disagreements over money. Past research collaborators have made moves to distance themselves from Leach. Microbiome researcher Rob Knight, who founded the American Gut Project with Leach and fellow researcher Jack Gilbert, told Science he doesn’t collaborate with Leach anymore, and that Leach’s name has been removed from the project’s website. Justin Sonnenburg at Stanford, who co-authored several papers with Leach, said he never met him in person, and declined to comment further. (Science)

• And finally: To the consternation of environmentalists and California state officials, President Trump formalized an order this week that could divert more of northern California’s water to the southern and central parts of the state, including to farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. Speaking in Bakersfield on Wednesday, Trump said the new regulatory rollback would deliver “a magnificent amount, a massive amount of water for the use of California farmers and ranchers.” But environmentalists say the order overrules federal scientists and will threaten the region’s already endangered chinook salmon and delta smelt populations. Critics have also cried foul over Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s involvement in the rule change; Bernhardt previously worked as a lobbyist for an agribusiness group pushing to expand water access for California farmers. “Trump’s shady water deal … seizes more Northern California water and gravely threatens the jobs of tens of thousands of Californians who work in the salmon industry,” John McManus of the Golden State Salmon Association told the Sacramento Bee. California Governor Gavin Newsom said he plans to sue the President over the plan. (The Sacramento Bee, Politico)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.

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Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Wired, Salon, Slate, Pacific Standard, the Daily Beast, and The Washington Post, among other publications.