Interested in the promises and perils of biotechnology, and especially in pragmatic balancing of the two. Currently in the SF bay area. Sometimes I help out with EA Global.


Are there historical examples of excess panic during pandemics killing a lot of people?

I've seen claims before that the CDC's response to the 1976 H1N1 epidemic had long-term negative public health consequences, but after a few minutes of looking for evidence of this, I'm not sure it's true.

In the fall of 1976, based on fears that a January outbreak of swine flu was going to become a 1918-scale pandemic in the coming season, the CDC vaccinated around 25% of the American populace. However, new cases of H1N1 weren't appearing, people were developing Guillain–Barré syndrome after being vaccinated, Ford lost the election, and the whole program was abandoned. The received wisdom (e.g. this Discover article) seems to be that this was viewed as a disaster and increased distrust of government vaccination campaigns.

From what I can tell from this article on Influenza Pandemics of the 20th Century and the the CDC's 2006 reflections on the vaccination program, though, the public health officials involved in the campaign feel like they reacted reasonably given the information they had? (Most of the world did not mount mass vaccination campaigns, and it was not an unusually bad flu season.)

Anyway, leaving this as a comment rather than an answer, since this was an overreaction to the H1N1 strain that existed, but I don't know if it was an overreaction to the information accessible in February 1976, and it's not clear that it had terrible consequences.

Are there good EA projects for helping with COVID-19?

You might be interested in the Just One Giant Lab OpenCovid19 project. They just had their first conference call and their goal is to "develop an open source methodology to safely test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 using tools as common as possible".

Are there good EA projects for helping with COVID-19?

Could be http://www.coepi.org/? (the two groups are currently talking to each other)

Are there good EA projects for helping with COVID-19?

A "portable, easy-to-use ventilator" was highlighted in the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security report on Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (press release, full PDF). Their write-up of this technology is on page 61-63 of the report.

One of the sources they link describes the OneBreath ventilator. Might be a good place to start looking!

Linch's Shortform

I'd really appreciate ideas for how to try to confer some of what it was like to people who couldn't make it. We recorded some of the talks and intend to edit + upload them, we're writing a "how to organize a conference" postmortem / report, and one attendee is planning to write a magazine article, but I'm not sure what else would be useful. Would another post like this be helpful?

Are there good EA projects for helping with COVID-19?

Other prior work: Would activism to ensure local hospitals and health departments are adequately preparing for COVID-19 be high-leverage?


Are there good EA projects for helping with COVID-19?

This now has a website: https://www.covid19risk.com/.

The (all-volunteer) team could use more help! You can ask for an invite to the Slack, or send tips about other related efforts, using contact@covid19risk.com.

Should effective altruists give money to local beggars?

I like this answer from theunitofcaring on tumblr:

Q: What do you do when (presumably) homeless people ask you for money? This happens fairly regularly where I live and I really don't think "I'm sorry sir, you are not the most efficient from of charity" would be received well. So I tend to ignore them, or say "no" and keep walking. Which feels cruel. It doesn't help that the ask is something like "any spare change?" so if I don't want to give them money I usually have to lie or get into a longer conversation.

A: I used to give homeless people money a lot because of basically this problem! I eventually realized that was unsustainable and stopped carrying cash so I did not have the option, and could truthfully say “I’m sorry but I don’t carry any cash”. This is inconvenient if you want to carry cash for emergencies or that one stupid Berkeley sushi place that doesn’t take cards, but “I don’t have any cash to give you, sorry” is always true. I still occasionally buy someone ice cream but this feels less pressure-y and more “it’s hot out, it will make me happy to buy myself and this person some ice cream”.

It also is totally okay to ignore people on the street. It feels bad to me too, and I try to avoid it, but streets only work because people mostly agree not to make random costly requests of one another except when desperately needed, and it is morally fine to avoid interacting with people while out in public.

How can EA local groups reduce likelihood of our members getting COVID-19 or other infectious diseases?

Yeah, edited to clarify a bit. At this point I'm just a bit confused about the CDC recommendation to favour handwashing:

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
How can EA local groups reduce likelihood of our members getting COVID-19 or other infectious diseases?

I wish I could look up the source for that 90% quote, but it's from a book from the 1990s. Quoting a press release from ASM about that same 2019 result:

The influenza A virus (IAV) remains infectious in wet mucus from infected patients, even after being exposed to an ethanol-based disinfectant (EBD) for two full minutes... Most studies on EBDs test the disinfectants on mucus that has already dried. When he and his colleagues repeated their experiments using fully dried mucus, they found that hand rubbing inactivated the virus within 30 seconds... Washing hands with an antiseptic soap, they found, deactivated the virus within 30 seconds, regardless of whether the mucus remained wet or had dried.

More alcohol isn't necessarily better- this 2002 CDC Review on Handwashing notes that:

Alcohol solutions containing 60%–95% alcohol are most effective, and higher concentrations are less potent because proteins are not denatured easily in the absence of water.

The tests summarized in that report suggest high efficacy at the 70% concentration for a lot of viruses, included some non-enveloped ones:

Other nonenveloped viruses such as hepatitis A and enteroviruses (e.g., poliovirus) may require 70%–80% alcohol to be reliably inactivated. However, both 70% ethanol and a 62% ethanol foam product with emollients reduced hepatitis A virus titers on whole hands or fingertips more than nonmedicated soap.

[edited to clarify] So maybe the reason that the CDC recommends handwashing is that healthcare workers are likely to have soiled [ETA: or damp or mucus-covered] hands?

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