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Is China turning its back on science and progress?

Totalitarian societies such as China require conformity and loyalty, not independence of thought One of the most notable features of Nazi Germany was its anti-intellectualism. While it claimed to be at the forefront of scientific and technical advances,..

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Totalitarian societies such as China require conformity and loyalty, not independence of thought

One of the most notable features of Nazi Germany was its anti-intellectualism. While it claimed to be at the forefront of scientific and technical advances, its ideology and totalitarian rule made free enquiry and interchange between scientists and other technical people untenable.

Researchers became wary of making bold assertions, even when backed by solid evidence and rigorous analysis.

This aspect of the Nazi regime greatly harmed its ability to make significant discoveries, putting it at a competitive disadvantage during the Second World War.

While that greatly helped the Allies, another component of the Axis powers’ anti-intellectualism was its persecution of intellectuals. Anyone who was non-committal, skeptical or critical of the ruling party, its leaders or policies was automatically marginalized, fired or imprisoned. Unfavored minorities were subjected to worse.

All this greatly reduced the pool of available, productive and imaginative scientists, doctors and engineers. The story of Werner Heisenberg illustrates this well.

Nobel laureate Heisenberg was an admired and successful physicist whose Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle became part of modern culture. Yet once he became the dean of physics research in Nazi Germany after he had been purged, he was unable to make progress in developing an atomic bomb.

After the war, it was found that he didn’t willfully slow his or anyone else’s work; he just was unable to crack some problems that the scientists in the United States were able to do by informed debate, collaborative and iterative experimentation and analysis.

Totalitarian societies require conformity and loyalty. These values are central to regime survival. Brilliance, imagination, intellectual curiosity and openness to changing attitudes or destroying existing paradigms are far down the list of valued qualities.

The People’s Republic of China isn’t far from this kind of totalitarianism. The punishment and disappearance of scientists and doctors who discussed unofficial accounts of the origin of COVID-19 is a perfect example.

In recent years, Canada, the United States and other democratically advanced nations have become alarmed by the theft of intellectual property by Chinese nationals, companies, hackers and even its government. This isn’t just technology with commercial applications stolen from vulnerable corporate or government computers. It also includes information from Chinese scientists and students working, studying, researching and collaborating at various universities outside China. Canadian universities have collaborated with Chinese schools and companies, such as the telecom giant Huawei, which has been deemed a threat to Western security by the U.S. and other governments.

There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students at Western universities, most of whom are there to access high-quality education, to learn to approach ideas from different ways and to experience a different culture. All of them must report to Chinese government officials all of their gained knowledge on demand.

The Chinese regime values Western science. It sends thousands of its scientists, graduate students and doctoral candidates to learn as much as they can. Some of them are linked to the military. Quite a few Western scientists and students have also studied or researched in Chinese universities.

China has accumulated much technical knowledge and research skills in this way. Given the size of its complement of scientists, technicians and engineers, and the resources and diversity of its economy, it might now have the critical mass to discover and develop much more, and faster, than its Western rivals.

However, it’s unlikely they will share their most ground-breaking developments with the rest of the world, so they won’t benefit as much as in the past from free exchange and critical analysis from their international peers.

Given the Chinese regime’s focus on loyalty, conformity, and limiting foreign influences, they could yet experience a ‘non-creativity principle’ for themselves. As history points out, not much progress derives from believing one has all the answers.

So the threat from advanced Chinese weaponry, science and technology may recede in the near future – but not soon enough. The fanatical Nazi regime exacted a tremendous toll on the Allied and occupied nations. China could do the same before it comes to its senses – or is brought to them.

By Ian Madsen
Senior policy analyst
Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

 

Courtesy of Troy Media

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Spread & Containment

Addressing the HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Working in partnership will be key, says Alex Kalomparis, vice president, public affairs, international at Gilead Sciences. 2021
The post Addressing the HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia appeared first on .

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Working in partnership will be key, says Alex Kalomparis, vice president, public affairs, international at Gilead Sciences.

2021 marks 40 years since the first cases of HIV were reported. In that time, over 79 million people have been diagnosed with HIV, with more than 36 million dying from AIDS-related illnesses, more than any other infectious disease.

While there has been incredible progress in the HIV response, nearly 38 million people are living with HIV, with more than a million new cases every year, jeopardising the goal to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

HIV places enormous burdens on the communities it affects most, straining health systems and government budgets. In the era of the global COVID-19 pandemic, where health systems are already stretched to breaking, it is tempting to cut costs in other areas, including HIV. If commitment to the HIV response wanes, the progress we have made is at risk, leading to increases in new infections in regions that can least afford to tackle them.

“An epidemic somewhere is an epidemic everywhere”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the temptation to focus on one’s own backyard, isolate oneself from the rest of the world, and believe one is safe and protected. We know now that this protection is an illusion. Regardless of the protections we erect in our own countries, allowing public health crises to persist in other parts of the world threatens our own progress and safety.

The message is clear: an epidemic somewhere is an epidemic everywhere. To find our way out of a pandemic, we must broaden our ideas of how to respond, and address the problems and inequities that allow diseases to thrive in other parts of the world. To be effective, our response must be global.

The same is true for HIV. HIV has persisted for 40 years, and is still here because root problems continue to drive the epidemic: stigma and discrimination, poverty, lack of access to services and treatments, lack of access to education, and the marginalisation of the people and communities most at risk of HIV. These are not issues that can be addressed by any one government, group, or company. They can be addressed only in partnership with one another, and by engaging those key marginalised communities in our effort to end the HIV epidemic.

Whilst the global community has the tools it needs to meaningfully address new HIV infections, HIV is on the rise in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA). Unlike other regions in the world, rates of HIV in EECA have increased, with infections up by 72 per cent, and AIDS-related deaths up by 24 per cent since 2010.

Working with the Elton John AIDS Foundation

However, across EECA, a range of community partners are making significant contributions in the fight against HIV, such as the first wave of the RADIAN ‘Unmet Need’ fund and Model City grantees, previously announced in 2020. In the first nine months of the programme, these partners have already reached more than 12,000 people from vulnerable communities directly with services, initiating life-saving care in over 2,000 people living with HIV.

RADIAN, a ground-breaking partnership between Gilead Sciences and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, works with local experts to target new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in EECA in the communities most vulnerable to HIV.

Focusing on the groups most affected by HIV in EECA (eg men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, and people who use drugs), RADIAN engages with groups led by these communities and are sensitive to the difficulties unique to the region.

“We all have one common goal: ending HIV”

Anne Aslett, CEO of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, is clear that for the partnership to reach its goals, it’s crucial to listen to and amplify the voices of people for whom HIV is a tangible, daily reality.

“They understand better than anyone the challenges associated with the virus, and what works to stop it. No matter where we are in the world, we must partner with them, and follow their leadership. We are proud of our RADIAN partnership with Gilead, to champion the vital work of communities to bring an end to the AIDS epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.”

Companies like Gilead Sciences provide industry leading expertise, while Governments bring an understanding of health systems and funding, developing an infrastructure that enables access.

However, these efforts need community leadership because they know best how to ensure people can access those systems to get tested, and adhere to medication. They understand the fears and sensitivities, the strengths and stigma within those communities, the nuances that make the difference in linking their members to the care they need. No two regions of the world experience the ‘same’ HIV epidemic. People living with HIV are critical to the success of any HIV response.

This autumn, RADIAN will launch a campaign telling the inspirational stories of ordinary, yet remarkable, community members who are taking action to turn the tide of the HIV epidemic in EECA.

We all have one common goal: ending HIV. It is crucial that we all understand the role we can play to achieve this. Our access to global networks of public health expertise, government funding, and innovative HIV treatments are meaningless unless they are used in service of people living with, and at risk of, HIV. They are the core of any successful response, regardless of country or region. Working in partnership with them is the key to ending HIV. By respecting them as leaders and giving them the seat at the head of the table, we make our work more effective and responsive to local needs, bringing us closer to the end of the HIV epidemic globally.

About the author 

Alex Kalomparis is vice president, public affairs, international at Gilead Sciences. He joined the company in January 2017 and is responsible for all communications and patient advocacy activities across Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Prior to that Alex held senior communication roles with a number of consumer and pharmaceutical companies, including Unilever, Rolls Royce, Novartis, Roche, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline.

The post Addressing the HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia appeared first on .

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Science

Your immune system is as unique as your fingerprint – new study

New discovery could help scientists develop more targeted drugs and vaccines.

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Christoph Burgstedt/Shutterstock

Every person appears to have a unique immune system. My colleagues and I discovered this immune diversity after charting antibodies in the blood from healthy and sick people. The discovery could help explain why, for example, COVID vaccines appear to be less effective for some people. At the same time, it points to the possibility of identifying and retrieving particularly effective antibodies from individuals and using them to cure others.

In our daily life, our body is confronted and attacked by many germs that use clever tricks to enter our body, aiming to take control. Luckily, we have a powerful defence: our immune system.

With a well-functioning immune system, we can combat most of the germs that continuously and aggressively approach us. Part of our arsenal of weapons to neutralise invading germs are protein molecules called antibodies. These antibodies are abundant in the blood, streaming throughout our body, forming the first line of defence when a new nasty germ appears.

Each different germ requires a different arsenal of weapons (antibodies) to combat them most efficiently. Luckily, our body has provided us with a means to make millions to even billions of different antibodies, but they cannot all be made at the same time. Often, specific antibodies are only made as a response to a particular germ.

If we are infected by bacteria, we start to make antibodies to attack and kill those bacteria. If we are infected by the coronavirus, we start to make antibodies to neutralise that virus. When infected with the flu virus, we again make other ones.

How antibodies fight coronavirus.

How many different antibodies are made at a given moment and are thus present in our blood, was not known. Many scientists estimated it to be over several billion and hence almost immeasurable. Using a few droplets of blood and a technique called mass spectrometry, my colleagues and I were able to capture and measure the number of different antibodies in the blood and also assess the exact concentration of each of them.

Two surprises

Although theoretically, our body has the capacity to make trillions of different antibodies, a first surprise came when we noted that in the bloodstream of both healthy and diseased people just a few tens to hundreds of distinct antibodies were present at high concentrations.

Monitoring these profiles from just a few droplets of blood, we were surprised for a second time when we noticed that the way the immune system responds to germs varies highly from person to person, with each person’s antibody profile being unique. And the concentrations of these antibodies change in a unique way during illness or after a vaccination. The results may explain why some people are more prone to becoming ill from flu or COVID, or why they recover faster from some illnesses than others do.

Until now, scientists considered it impossible to accurately map the highly complex mixture of antibodies in the blood. But mass spectrometry separates substances based on their molecular composition, and since each specific antibody has a distinct molecular composition, we were able to use a refinement of the technique to measure all antibodies individually.

The method has been used to measure antibody profiles in about 100 people, including COVID patients and people vaccinated with different COVID vaccines. Not once did we encounter the same antibodies in two different people, even if they had received the same vaccine. It’s safe to say that everyone’s antibody profile is as unique as their fingerprint.

Even though the differences in antibodies are small, they greatly influence the course of a disease. If someone makes fewer antibodies against a certain germ, or only antibodies that are less effective at killing the germ, then a disease might strike harder or several times. On the other hand, if people produce antibodies that are excellent at neutralising the germ, that antibody could be produced therapeutically and used to vaccinate or treat patients.

Our research creates opportunities to make optimal vaccinations and drugs tailored to an individual’s immune system. By mapping someone’s antibody profile, you can track how their body responds to a vaccine or infection – or even a drug treatment. This way, you can also check whether the body produces enough of the desired antibodies, for example, those against the coronavirus. If they don’t produce enough, you can consider offering booster shots or antibodies that worked for other people.

The Conversation

Albert Heck receives funding from the Netherlands Organization fro Scientific Research

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Spread & Containment

As inflation fears spike, 1build raises $14M to help construction firms optimize their cost estimates

It’s an extraordinarily exhausting time to estimate costs in the construction industry. Lumber prices skyrocketed during the post-pandemic construction spree, only to come hurtling back down to Earth in recent weeks. Copper, concrete, and steel have…

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It’s an extraordinarily exhausting time to estimate costs in the construction industry. Lumber prices skyrocketed during the post-pandemic construction spree, only to come hurtling back down to Earth in recent weeks. Copper, concrete, and steel have also seen wild price swings as supply chain breakages, workers shortages, border restrictions and more plague price stability.

Construction is among the world’s largest industries, with firms planning and building projects valued at trillions of dollars at pretty much any time. Yet, it’s also one of the most archaic industries, with a heavy reliance on paper even as IT has increasingly filtered into more of the industry’s processes. Paper though can’t match the extreme volatility in materials and labor happening today, and that means construction firms need better and more real-time software tools to handle cost estimates.

1build has a bold vision to own not just cost estimating, but everything that it takes to get a building under construction. “We are going to occupy the whitespace niche of pre-construction — your planing, your estimating, up until you break ground on your building,” CEO and founder Dmitry Alexin said.

Alexin had been scouting around for startup ideas in the real estate sector in 2018 and 2019, having previously worked in finance. He worked briefly at a stealth startup in the space, where he “helped to select real estate with data science.” He discovered a problem when it came to modeling the development of a property though: it wasn’t easy to determine what could be built or how much it would cost. “I just assumed you can just use an API to figure out the cost to build,” he said.

That led him into the rabbit hole that is the math of the construction industry. He discovered “this analog industry … three times as large as ecommerce and still in this offline, non-digitized way to consume,” he said. He wanted to automate more of these processes, but even that ran into challenges. “When I was forming 1build, it was creating a data standard for the construction industry,” he explained. Eventually, he zeroed in on cost estimating.

Alexin is a solo founder, who has since built up a management team around him. He and a few early employees joined the YC Winter 2020 batch, where 1build was identified as one of TechCrunch’s 20 most exciting startups in the batch out of several hundred (the company was my selection).

The startup’s timing, though, was horrific. “COVID happened right as we were graduating,” Alexin said. The company suffered a “50% reduction in usage in the first 30 days.” The company was still small and it hunkered down, but then something surprising happened: the construction industry just zoomed forward as millions of people moved to new homes and offices with the rise of remote work.

The company raised a previously undisclosed $5.5 million seed round from Initialized Capital and kept building. It focused on building a single platform (that’s the “1build”) around all aspects of estimating costs and handling the planning phase of construction. It’s “almost an experience that feels like interacting a spreadsheet, but we pull in the latest materials rate, the latest labor rates,” Alexin said. From there, you can “develop your estimate yourself, line item by line item.” He says that integrating all construction planning in one location can massively save time and money, and is particularly valuable for smaller contractors and construction firms who don’t have the scaled-up planning teams of their larger brethren.

1build’s team, with CEO and founder Dmitry Alexin sitting in center of first row. Image Credits: 1build

Alexin said that subscription revenues have risen 7x in the past 10 months, and 10x since April when we talked a few weeks ago. That excitement led it to a quick, $14.5 million Series A led by Brent Baltimore at Greycroft. Alexin said that Baltimore has been engaged in construction tech for a long time, and said that “we felt that they were the one firm that understood what we are doing.”

The team, as is typical these days, is spread out, with the majority in the U.S. and others in Canada and Europe.

1build wants to be the one stop for the construction industry, and hopes that the industry standardizes on a universal set of data formats. “The more and more builders that adapt that, the more we can build into the product,” he said.

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