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Archive for July 2019

Science Policy Around the Web July 30th, 2019

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By Mary Weston, PhD

Source: Wikimedia

Sea of Galilee earthquakes triggered by excessive water pumping

A new study suggests that excessive water pumping near the Sea of Galilee is responsible for triggering earthquakes.  

Two swarms of small earthquakes have occurred in the same spot beneath the Sea of Galilee in the last 7 years. Earthquakes in this region are not uncommon since the sea lies on a fault line, a crack in the earth where sections of plates slide to cause quakes. However, these low magnitude quakes, 5 in 5 days in 2013 and 12 in July 2018, are mysterious because they lack the typical mainshock/aftershock pattern.

The Sea of Galilee supplies up to a third of Israel’s domestic water but, due to a growing population and poor rainfall to refill the lake, people have been pumping groundwater from wells near the lake since the 1990s. Previously, researchers have found that injecting fluid into the ground can cause earthquakes, a technique used in hydraulic fracturing/fracking. Similarly, injecting water into geothermal vents can also cause quakes. Thus, the study’s coauthors wondered if rapid removal of groundwater from an area may also trigger earthquakes.

 The research group compared the dates, locations, magnitudes, and depths of earthquakes to groundwater levels in the area’s aquifer. They observed that quakes occurred after large groundwater decreases during 2007-2013 and again from 2016-2018. The reason for the quakes is not clear, but the researchers propose a model where extracting groundwater decreases the forces that push the rocks on both sides of the fault together, locking them in place. As one of the study’s co-author’s Dr. Emily Brodsky explains, “Pulling the water out allows the rocks to kind of relax away from one another, and therefore unclamps the fault.” 

This research has important implications. The Dead Sea Transform fault, which runs underneath the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, has historically been responsible for much larger quakes. While these swarms along the fault are minor, sometimes small quakes can trigger much larger ones. Additionally, there is substantial groundwater pumping occurring in California near the San Andreas fault, which is similar to the Dead Sea fault. These findings may explain why California has slightly more earthquakes during hot months, when groundwater pumping is at its max. Finally, the study recommends that those living above major faults use caution when removing excessive groundwater or risk ultimately causing a major quake.

(Michael Price, Science Magazine)



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July 30, 2019 at 3:06 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web July 26th 2019

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By Mary Weston PhD

Source: Wikimedia

World’s most invasive mosquito nearly eradicated from two islands in China

Using a two-prong approach involving sterilization and a bacterium, researchers have drastically reduced the populationof the highly invasive Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) on two islands within the Chinese city of Goungzhou. 


Over the last 40 years, A. albopictus has rapidly spread throughout the world and is responsible for transmitting viral diseases such as dengue and Zika to humans. In this study, researchers leveraged the properties of Wolbachia pipientis, bacteria that live in host insects, to suppress the mosquito population. When males with certain Wolbachia strains mate with females containing a different strain, the offspring are not viable. Thus, researchers can infect lab mosquitos with an artificial strain of Wolbachia and release the laboratory males to mate with the wild population females, effectively sterilizing them. 


Because male and female A. albopictus mosquitos infected with the same Wolbachia strain can produce healthy offspring, alllaboratory infected females must be removed or else they would mate with the newly released males and eventually create an even more resistant population. Therefore, researchers typicallyperform a very time-consuming manual sort of the mosquito eggs. In their study, Zheng and co-workers discovered that a lowdose of radiation sterilized the infected females and only slightly impaired the males. Using this radiation technique, they were able to eliminate manual sorting and scaled up mosquito production to release 10 times more insects without risking resistance. They observed a 94% reduction in A. albopictusmosquito populations after two years.


The long-term effectiveness of this approach has yet to be seen. Mosquitos migrate and preventing them from repopulating the islands will be a challenge. Further, it may be costly to scale-up mosquito production for larger areas. Regardless, this approach is a substantial and exciting advance to fighting mosquito-transmitted infectious diseases.


 Giorgia Guglielmi, Nature

Ocean snail is first animal to be officially endangered by deep-sea mining


The scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallon squamiferum), an animal that lives near hydrothermal vents east of Madagascar, and has been the first deep-sea animal declared endangered due to the threat of mining. The snail has only been found on the ocean floor near 3 hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean, an area that totals approximately 2 football fields. 


For years, companies have wanted to collect the valuable minerals and metals that accumulate near hydrothermal vents, but until recently it was too challenging due to technological limitations. Now, just as many companies are applying for exploratory mining licenses, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has added the snail to their Red List of Threatened Species. The group is also considering an additional 14 more hydrothermal vent species for inclusion on the list.  


Lisa Levin, a biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, believes this classification will alert policy makers to “the potential impacts deep-sea mining may have on biodiversity.” Chong Chen, a deep-sea biologist, adds that even exploratory mining could devastate the population of snails by either damaging the vents or suffocating the animals with plumes of sediment. 


Full-scale sea-bed mining in international waters cannot begin until the United Nation’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) releases their regulations and code of conduct (their aim is release in 2020). Unfortunately, it is likely too soon to know the true impact of deep-sea mining on the fragile and unique ecosystems located near the vents as these areas are still relatively under-characterized.

Jonathan Lambert, Nature

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July 26, 2019 at 8:59 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 18th, 2019

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By Silvia Preite

New therapeutic nutrition strategy corrects malnutrition by fostering a healthy gut

Malnutrition represents a major global health problem world-wide, causing nearly half of all deaths among children under 5 years of age. According to an estimate by UNICEF/WHO/World Bank, the number of children under 5, in March 2019, with wasting was more than 49 million. Moreover, impaired nutrition in the first 3 years of a child`s life can lead to failure to thrive, neurodevelopmental delay, and other long term health complications.

Commensal microbiota colonizing the gut is composed of a high number of bacteria, fungi and viruses, influences many normal body functions and is implicated in several health conditions, including obesity, autoimmunity and responses to cancer therapies. Two recent articles published in the journal Science report that specific food combinations promote the development of a mature gut microbiota that fights malnutrition and supports growth. As healthy children age from infants to toddlers, their gut microbiota composition progressively matures as well. In contrast, analysis of fecal samples from children in Bangladesh revealed that commensal bacteria remain immature in profoundly malnourished subjects. Animals reconstituted with immature microbiota showed impaired metabolism, less muscle formation, and weaker bones highlighting the importance of mature bacteria in the growth and development of children. 

Additionally, the authors found that a specific combination of food promotes healthy commensal bacterial that boosts body growth. Specifically, Microbiota-Directed Complementary Food (MDCF), containing chickpea, peanut and soy flour and raw banana, fostered microbiota maturation in mice and piglets transplanted with immature microbiota to a greater extent than a standard milk powder and rice-based Ready-to Use Supplementary Food (RUSF). The improved efficacy of MDCF compared to RUSF was further supported by a 1 month clinical trial conducted in 63 undernourished Bangladeshi children (12-18 months of age). Specifically, MDCF was more effective in promoting the engraftment of mature bacteria, resembling the ones in healthy children, and improved blood biomarkers associated with healthy development and immune function.

            Although the long-term consequences of these nutritional regimens remain to be assessed, these studies open opportunities for the use of new food supplements to help children recovering from malnutrition. Moreover, these discoveries can be used to improve the nutrition of well-fed children to support the development of healthy microbiota.

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July 18, 2019 at 9:59 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 16th, 2019

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By Allison Cross, PhD

Source: MaxPixel

Are dinosaur fossils ‘minerals’? The Montana Supreme Court will decide high stakes case

A property rights dispute over fossils found on a Montana ranch is now in the hands of the Montana Supreme court and the decision could have wide-spanning implications, affecting how fossil hunters operate and putting into question the ownership of fossils currently in private and public collections around the world. 

The dispute began over a piece of land in Garfield County, Montana previously owned by George Severson.  The property is located inside the Hill Creek Formation, a famous and extensively studied dinosaur fossil site spanning through Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming.  In 2005, Severson’s sons sold the surface rights of their property to another family, the Murrays, while retaining the mineral rights.  Since this sale, the Murrays and an amateur fossil hunter, Clayton Phipps, began excavating the land.  They unearthed multiple rare fossils including the complete fossils of two dinosaurs that appear to have been fighting when they died, a triceratops foot and skull, and a complete T. rex.    

The discovery of these rare and valuable fossils sparked an ownership dispute among the Severson (who have the minerals rights to the land) and the Murrays (who hold the surface rights).  Historically, fossils have been considered part of the surface property and when the Murrays filed a lawsuit seeking ownership of the fossils the district court sided on their behalf.  The Seversons then appealed to the 9th circuit, who in a surprising decision, sided on their behalf. This decision concerned many, including the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and the Museum of the Rockies. The 9th circuit was asked to reconsider the case and, after granting the rehearing, the court vacated their earlier decision and sent the question up to the Montana Supreme Court. 

The Severson vs. Murray dispute over fossil ownership has left many worried about ownership challenges to important fossils currently in academic, museums, and private collections. In April, Montana enacted a law stating that fossils are not minerals and therefore belong to the surface estate.  This law, however, but does not apply to existing disputes. 

(Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E News, Science)

Potential Causes of Irreproducibility Revealed

Scientists and the public have long been concerned about how experiments performed in the lab will translate to patients.  These concerns are heightened by the recently acknowledged lack of reproducibility within science, particularly in the biological sciences.  If scientists in different labs are unable to reproduce the same in vitro data, we should not be surprised when these findings fail to translate to humans.  

In an attempt to explore some of the factors affecting reproducibility, five research labs in the NIH LINCS Program Consortium performed the same experiment and compared results.Each lab aimed to quantify the responsiveness of mammalian cells in culture to anti-cancer drugs. Drug response assays like those performed by these labs are considered relatively simple and are standard during drug development.  

The results of this multi-lab study, along with analysis of the technical and biological factors affecting reproducibility between the five labs, were recently published in Cell Systems. In the published study, each lab received the same detailed protocol and were provided cells, media, and drugs from the same source.  Despite this, initial experiments performed by the five groups revealed drug potencies that varied as much as 200-fold. 

Researchers were able to identify some technical factors contributing to the inconsistent data, including differences in the method used for cell counting and edge effects and non-uniform cell growth in the culture plates.   The groups were able to improve their replicability by using more standardized protocols and randomizing locations of controls and technical replicates in the cell culture plates to reduce biases introduced by edge effects and uneven cell growth.  Though these changes did result in more consistency, the replicability remained higher within groups than between groups.  

Though this study demonstrated that controlling for variability is helpful in obtaining reproducible data, James Evans, a University of Chicago researcher not involved in the recent study argues “the point isn’t just to get reproducible effects.” In order to improve the translation of preclinical findings, Evans explains “We want reproducible effects that are going to be robust to subtle changes in the experiment.” 

(Abby Olena, The Scientist) 

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July 16, 2019 at 4:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 12th, 2019

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By Mohor Sengupta, Ph.D.

Source: Maxpixel

CDC made a synthetic Ebola virus to test treatments. It worked

During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, West Africa, infectious samples containing the virus were shared by local government with international scientific communities. Using these materials, Dr. Gary Kobinger and his team developed and tested the efficacy of a monoclonal antibody vaccine at the Canadian National Laboratory. The same vaccine, ZMapp, and other therapies are currently being deployed in the most recent Ebola outbreak, which is the second largest outbreak so far. Beginning in ] 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this outbreak is still on the roll. Unfortunately, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not have any viral samples this time, meaning they were unable to test the efficacy of ZMapp and other drugs against the recent viral strain. 

Scientists at the CDC, led by Dr. Laura McMullan, constructed an artificial virus from the sequence of the current strain shared by DRC’s National Biomedical Research Institute (INRB). The group used the sequence data to perform reverse genetics and generate the authentic Ebola virus that’s currently infecting scores of people in Ituri and North Kivu provinces of DRC. 

“It takes a lot of resources and a lot of money and a lot of energy to make a cloned virus by reverse genetics. And it would be so much easier if somebody had just sent the isolate”, Dr. Thomas Geisbert, who is not involved in the work, said. 

The CDC group established the efficacy of current treatments (a drug called Remdesivir and the vaccine ZMapp) on the viral strain by using their artificial virus for all the tests. Their work was published Tuesday in the journal Lancet.

For all four Ebola outbreaks that the DRC has seen, healthcare authorities have not shared viral specimens with foreign Ebola researchers. Instead, the whole genome sequence was provided every time. With the whole genome sequence data, the Lancet paper noted that there are at least two Ebola strains in DRC that have independently crossed into the human population.  

Reasons for not sharing viral samples by DRC are not known but it is a roadblock to rapid and efficient treatments in affected geographical regions. McMullan said that shipping of samples across such large distances is often a logistical issue and requires permission from several authorities and coordination of many people. 

 (Helen Branswell, STAT)

Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn’t The Whole Story

We are all too familiar with ghastly images of dead whales with plastic-filled stomachs. These images are compounded by pictures of how much waste is generated, such as a picture of a twenty-story high mound of plastic trash in a developing country that appeared in a recent news article. While there is worldwide concern about how to eliminate use of plastics, there is very little discussion about the environmental impact of the materials that will replace plastic. 

Plastic has a high carbon footprint. In a recent report the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has broken down the individual steps of greenhouse gas production, from the beginning of plastic production until it ends up incinerated as a waste. Manufactured from oil and natural gas, plastic production adds to carbon footprint right from its cradle when gases and oils leak into the environment. Subsequently, delivery of raw materials to the production sites further add to the burden. Being among the most energy intensive materials to produce, plastic production takes a heavy toll on energy, water and electricity. Finally, when plastics are incinerated, greenhouse gases end up in the environment. 

But what about the materials that commonly substitute for plastic, such as paper, compostable plastic, canvas or glass? What is their carbon footprint in production stages? Research by several independent groups has revealed that these materials leave an even larger carbon footprint during their production. Data have shown that polyethylene plastic bags not only used lesser fuel and energy throughout production, they also emitted fewer global-warming gases and left lesser mass of solid wastes, when compared with paper bags and with compostable plastic bags. Being more durable than other materials, use of polyethylene bags are more energy friendly than use of paper bags. 

Research done on behalf of the American Chemistry Council has shown that replacing plastic would eventually do more harm to the environment than their use. Finally, consumer habits count. If people don’t reuse plastics, then its advantages over paper cease to exist. Of course, the problem of permanent waste and global health consequences are issues that cannot be overlooked. The solution might lie in using plastics more wisely and re-using them as much as possible. 

(Christopher Joyce, NPR

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July 12, 2019 at 3:18 pm

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Homegrown Apocalypse: A Guide to the Holocene Extinction

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By: Andrew Wright BSc

Homegrown Apocalypse: A Guide to the Holocene Extinction

One of the unifying factors of mass extinctions is a rapid change in global average temperature. The end-Ordovician extinction, the second largest, occurred when newly forming mountains made of silicate rock quickly absorbed atmospheric CO2. The global average temperature plunged, leading to the formation of enormous glaciers, drastically lower ocean levels, and much colder waters. Since complex life was still relegated to the oceans, this killed 86% of all species. The most well-known extinction is the end-Cretaceous or K-Pg event caused in part by a massive asteroid impact in Chicxulub, Mexico. The immediate impact, roughly one billion times stronger than the atomic bombings of Japan, was devastating in its own right. However, the subsequent ejection of sulfate-bearing rock into the atmosphere was the real killer, dropping global temperatures by 2-7°C, inhibiting photosynthesis, and acidifying the oceans. Coming right after a period of global warming, this extinction killed about 76% of all species.

            These extinctions pale in comparison to the end-Permian extinction, also known as the Great Dying. When Pangea was the sole continent, an enormous pool of lava called a flood-basalt plain slowly erupted over what is modern-day Siberia. Over 350,000 years, magmatic rock up to a mile thick solidified and covered an area roughly half the size of the United States. This igneous cap forced underground lava to move sideways and spread in paths called sills. As the lava traveled, it vaporized increasing amounts of carbonates and oil and coal deposits, leading to an immense build-up of CO2. Once the sills reached the edge of the cap, these gases were violently expelled, ejecting up to 100,000 gigatons of CO2. The immediate effect was a global average temperature increase of roughly 5°C. Subsequently, oceanic methane hydrate (or methane clathrate) crystals, which become unstable at high temperatures, broke down. Since methane is 20-80 times more potent than CO2as a greenhouse gas, global average temperature increased a further 10°C, bringing the total to 15°C. This left the planet barren, desertified most of Pangea, strongly acidified the oceans, killed 96% of marine life, and 90% of all life on Earth.

            We are currently living through the beginnings of the sixth mass extinction event, known as the Holocene. Species are dying off 10-100 times faster than they should and that rate is accelerating. Insects, including pollinators, are dying off so quickly that 40% of them may disappear within decadesOne in eight birds are threatened with extinction, 40% of amphibians are in steep decline, and marine biodiversity is falling off as well. At current rates, half of all species on Earth could be wiped out by the end of the century. 

What is the commonality between our present circumstances and the past? As with previous mass extinctions, global average temperature has increased. Since 1880, global average temperature has increased by 0.8°C and the rate of warming has doubled since 1975. This June was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, with global average temperature reaching 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Greenland lost two billion tons of ice in one day. This increase in temperature is because we are currently adding 37.1 gigatons of CO2 per year to the atmosphere, and that number is rising

            From the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we know that the best outcome is to keep the increase in global average temperature below 1.5°C. Instead, let us consider what would happen if current trends stay the same and CO2 emissions continue to increase at similar rates until 2100. This is known as the RCP 8.5 model. Under this paradigm, atmospheric CO2 levels will rise from 410 parts per million (ppm) to 936 ppm. The global average temperature will increase by 6°C from pre-industrial levels. That puts the Earth squarely within the temperature range of previous mass extinction periods. 

Given this level of warming the following can be expected to occur: first and foremost, the extreme heat on the planet will massively decrease glaciation, causing a surge in ocean levels. Since water expands as it gets warmer, ocean levels will increase even further to about 12ft higher than current levels. This means most coastal areas will perpetually flood while others will be completely underwater. Unfortunately, non-coastal areas won’t be free from hardship as high air temperature will cause desertification, crop die-off, drought, and widespread wildfires. Secondly, as the ocean absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, it will become increasingly acidic. So far, the pH of the ocean has only changed by 0.1, but under an RCP 8.5 model, that decrease could be as high as a 0.48 reduction in pH. Since this measurement is on a logarithmic scale, this means that the oceans will be acidic enough to break down the calcium carbonate out of which shellfish and corals are built. Warmer water cannot hold oxygen as effectively as cold, meaning many water-breathing species will suffocate. In combination, these two factors will serve to eliminate a huge source of the human food supply. Finally, since weather patterns are based on ocean and air currents and increasing temperatures can destabilize them, massive hurricanes, dangerously cold weather systems, and flood-inducing rainfall will become the norm. 

One parallel to the end-Permian extinction might result as well. Over millions of years, methane clathrate re-stabilized in the permafrost of Siberia and in the deep ocean floor. But in what has been termed the clathrate gun hypothesis, if methane clathrate destabilizes again at high temperatures, then the resultant methane emissions and planetary warming could form a positive-feedback loop, releasing even more crystallized methane until we end up in another “great dying”. While short-term warming probably won’t cause a runaway temperature increase, a 6°C increase in global average temperature might. New research suggests methane release may not even be necessary as the ocean is reaching a critical point in the carbon cycle where it could rapidly expel an amount of CO2on par with flood-basalt events. Moreover, like the end-Permian extinction, anthropogenic climate change is occurring on a near instantaneous geological time scale and species, including our own, will not have the requisite time to adapt.

Of course, none of these effects exists in a vacuum. They will be alongside increasing deforestation for agriculture, plastic and chemical pollution, and resource extraction. The end result would be a planet with less space, little food, mass migration, and devastating weather. So, what can be done to stop this scenario from coming true? The latest IPCC report essentially places humanity at an inflection point. Either CO2output is cut in half by 2030 and humans become carbon neutral by 2050, or the planet is irrevocably thrust past the point of no return. 

This timeframe may seem short, but it takes into account that even if civilization were to completely stop emitting greenhouse gasses today, it would take hundreds of years for global average temperature to  go back down since it takes time for the ocean to absorb CO2from the atmosphere. Like any problem of scale, there is no one solution to reaching carbon neutrality and it will take a multivariate approach. Some solutions include enacting carbon tax measures, subsidizing and implementing renewable energy (while divesting from new coal and oil production), an increased reliance on nuclear power, large-scale reforestation, livestock reduction, and carbon-sequestration technology. Some of these efforts have come a long way and some have gone in the wrong direction.

This is, of course, a global problem to be solved. At a time when the United States has signaled its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord as soon as possible and states are rejecting carbon cap-and-trade measures, other nations are moving ahead with unprecedented boosts in renewable energy and bold commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. India, the third-largest polluter after the United States, is on track to surpass its Paris Accord commitments. Should the United States re-engage with and lead the international effort to tackle what is an existential threat, then it is not improbable that the end of this century could be a pleasant one. So, if the idea of living through a global extinction event is disconcerting, one can be assured that the problem is still just barely a solvable one. 

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July 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 3rd, 2019

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By Neetu Gulati, Ph.D.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay 

The US opioid epidemic is driving a spike in infectious diseases

Opioid use has skyrocketed in the US in the past 20 years, and addiction kills tens of thousands of people each year. Now, opioid use has been linked to an increase in infectious diseases as well, which may pile on to an already extreme public health concern.

One cause for concern is that opioids themselves may be making people more susceptible to infection, though the reason for this is unclear. One study found that people treated at veterans’ health facilities who took medium or high doses of prescribed opioids for pain management were more susceptible to pneumonia, for example. Another cause for concern is that unsafe injection practices may mean that users of illicit opioids could lead to an increase of infections. Bacterial infections, such as those caused by Staphyloccocus aureus, can enter the bloodstream of opioid users through non-sterile needle usage or unclean sites of injection. If these bacteria reach the heart, it can lead to damage and possibly the need for a transplant. For example, a study done in North Carolina found a tenfold increase in heart infections among drug users in the state over a 10-year period.

As if the increase in infections was not bad enough, another major challenge is that the pattern of outbreaks associated with drug use may not be the same as that of non-drug-affiliated outbreaks, meaning it is difficult to predict where and when infections might occur. Furthermore, as Georgiy Bobashev, a data scientist at RTI International, pointed out, drug users “don’t have good practices and they don’t have good connections with people who have been injecting drugs for a long time.” In tackling the problem, it will be important to consider the social component of predicting outbreak patterns among drug users. It will also be important to treat opioid use as a disease without stigmatizing drug users, commented Carlos Del Rio, a global-health researcher at Emory University.

(Sara Reardon, Nature)

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July 3, 2019 at 3:13 pm