“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
Electric-car maker’s market value has risen almost 25% in just over a week, causing fresh pain for bearish investors
The 17-year-old electric-car company’s market value has risen almost 25%—or about $50 billion—to more than $250 billion in little over a week, and now roughly equals the combined values of Toyota Motor Corp., General MotorsCo., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Tesla shares hit a record high $1,429.50 during Tuesday trading.
With Tesla shares more than tripling this year, short sellers—investors who have bet against the stock—have lost $17.89 billion on paper during the period, according to Ihor Dusaniwsky, head of predictive analytics at S3 Partners. In July, the bearish investors are down more than $4 billion, with shares up 2.1% on Thursday.
A gleeful Mr. Musk has celebrated in recent days by taunting the short sellers, announcing over the weekend the launch of a line of Tesla “short shorts,” skimpy red-satin garments that the company said sold out quickly. Tesla’s website said the shorts included the company’s model names spelling out S-3-X-Y, and Mr. Musk noted they were selling for “only $69.420!!”—numerical references to both a sexual position and marijuana—themes Mr. Musk has hit on before on Twitter.
Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The episode is the latest in Mr. Musk’s long-running and vitriolic Twitter battlewith short sellers who, attracted by Tesla’s struggles and Mr. Musk’s showmanship, have questioned the fundamentals of the business and demand for electric vehicles.
The recent stock surge has reduced the short sellers’ ranks to the hardest core, said Mr. Dusaniwsky. “These losses have squeezed out most of the less rabid short sellers, leaving only those most dogmatic short sellers in the trade,” he said Wednesday. Short-seller interest in Tesla has fallen to less than 10% of its stock, compared with more than 20% about a year ago.
Mr. Musk also has mocked the Securities and Exchange Commission, a longtime target of his.
“Will send some to the Shortseller Enrichment Commission to comfort them through these difficult times,” he tweeted last week about the shorts, reviving a term he used in 2018 after settling with the SEC over claims that he had misled investors with tweets saying he had secured funding to take the auto maker private.
The latest surge in Tesla’s stock puts Mr. Musk closer to unlocking a second giant payday tied to the company’s performance, including holding an average market value of $150 billion over six months and 30 days. At Wednesday’s closing price, the past six-month average market value was $139 billion. He qualified in May for the first of a 12-part compensation package that, in aggregate, could potentially be worth more than $50 billion through 2028.
The initial payday had a nominal net value of more than $700 million at the time. This second tranche would be worth $1.76 billion at Thursday’s closing price of $1,394.28 a share.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses a Democratic National Committee event in June 2019 in Atlanta. The mayor is considered a contender for Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick. Dustin Chambers/Getty Images
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of several candidates said to be under consideration as Joe Biden’s presidential running mate, has seen her profile rise fast in recent weeks as the first-term mayor has spoken out against the state of Georgia’s Republican-led pandemic response and spoken forcefully to protesters in her city.
Her early loyalty to the former vice president also stands out.
Bottoms endorsed Biden more than a year ago. “I think that this is not a conventional year,” she said at a Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta in November. “In a conventional year, you wait. And you lick your finger and you stick it up, you see which way the wind is blowing. We don’t have time for that this year.”
She traveled the country stumping for Biden, arguing he is a “statesman” and the one to beat President Trump.
Tharon Johnson, an adviser to her mayoral campaign and the Southern regional director for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, said Bottoms was with Biden “before it was cool to be.”
“And she stayed committed to his campaign, even when it looked like his chance of being the nominee for the Democratic Party was bleak,” Johnson said. “That’s got to count for something.”
Amid the pandemic, Bottoms has criticized Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s coronavirus response as he moved forward with the state’s early reopening and more recently as he declined to issue a statewide mask ordinance. On Wednesday, Bottoms joined a handful of cities flouting that state decision andissued a mask mandate in Atlanta, even though Kemp’s order technically supersedes local emergency action.
Her handling of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death has also put her in the spotlight. At a late-night May press conference after previously peaceful Atlanta protesters had begun destroying buildings, Bottoms pleaded with them to “go home.”
“If you care about this city, then go home,” she said forcefully. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote. … You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country.”
“I’ve been there”
Bottoms, a mother of four children, said she thinks the message resonated because Atlanta has led on social justice issues going back to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and because she speaks from personal experience.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “I have a nephew who was murdered. I know what it feels like to lose someone suddenly to senseless violence. I know what it feels like to experience racism.”
Bottoms grew up as the daughter of a famous singer, Major Lance. But he ended up serving three years in prison for selling and possessing cocaine, and her mother struggled to support the family and keep a small business afloat in Atlanta.
She was a lawyer, then served as a magistrate judge and on the Atlanta City Council for two terms before winning the mayoral race in 2017.
Former adviser Johnson said Bottoms’ relatability, drawn from her range of life experiences, is the key to her success. “I think she’s just a Black woman who understands what it feels like to be middle class but also poor in Atlanta.”
He also pointed to the way she announced her positive coronavirus test this week.
“She could have easily been selfish and not told anyone and tried to cover it up,” Johnson said. “But what did she do? She came out and said, ‘Look, it’s hit home and I want people to know that this pandemic is real.’ ”
Atlanta “is not out of control”
While her messages to protesters have landed well, some have questioned whether she remains in control of the city, particularly after another wave of unrest following the officer-involved killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Nearly 200 police officers called out sick, though city leaders were quick to clarify the department remained able to stay properly staffed.
In an interview, Bottoms asserted Atlanta “is not out of control. And in fact, our crime numbers are even lower than they were this time last year,” she said. “That being said, when people are being killed, and we see the number of people who were shot and killed in our city over a weekend period, that is a problem.”
She said the city will keep two focuses, on the short-term problem of stopping the shootings and the long-term problem of the systemic issues that led to them.
“Violence is a result of a whole bunch of other stuff that comes before that moment in time before someone opens fire on our streets,” she said. “It’s concerning; it should be concerning to all of us who call Atlanta home, and we will continue to focus on it.”
Like Biden, Bottoms has steered clear of the “defund the police” push. Her administration’s new budget dedicates about a third of city funding to the police; it instead reallocates corrections money to social services.
Tammy Greer, who teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University and Atlanta Metropolitan State College, said the mayor’s clear message for protesters has resonated well, particularly as the state and federal governments have sent mixed signals. “That forward-facing side has been one of strength. The forward-facing side has been one of decisiveness,” Greer said. “And I say forward-facing because the policies do not align with the forward-facing side.”
Greer argued Bottoms’ two-plus-year administration has not been able to change the status quo in a city plagued by what by one estimate is the greatest income inequality in the country, and that the administration’s recent criminal justice reforms in the wake of protests have not gone far enough to make real change. The mayor signed a series of executive orders related touse of force reform and transparency, calling it part of a “top-to-bottom review of how we police in Atlanta.”
But police are still not bound by any recommendations of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, Greer pointed out. “There’s a thought process that she’s a progressive mayor, but that doesn’t add up with the policies,” Greer said.
Bottoms asserted there has been progress in the city, particularly on inequality and affordable housing. “We’re already at close to 5,000 affordable housing units in the city that have been created and/or preserved. And we are also nearly $300 million into a $1 billion [affordable housing fund] goal. And so the work continues,” she said.
“But when people don’t feel as if we’re moving the needle, then obviously perception is everything. But it’s happening and it’s getting better. But with so many systemic issues, and challenges that we have, it just can’t happen soon enough.”
Vice presidential material?
To the question of whether Bottoms thinks she’s qualified to be a vice presidential candidate, or to hold another national role, she said yes: “When you are leading a major city, you are dealing with a number of issues all at once; you’re dealing with the same issues that we’re seeing across this country.”
Johnson, the adviser, agrees that Bottoms fits the bill — that the problems she’s dealing with at the local level are relevant nationally.
“This is a woman who is waking up every day, not only dealing with a national pandemic, but she is dealing with one of the core issues that we’ve got to solve,” he said. “And that is, how do we make sure that people understand that Black lives matter? But we also need to figure out, how do we reform our police department so they can actually get the support that they need?”
She’s also proven she’s a “fighter,” Johnson said, like Biden. “She’s definitely proven that she’s not one that will shy away from problems,” he said. “And I think that she’s a person that can develop relationships all across the country.”
Bottoms said while she knows people will keep talking about the vice presidential rumors, “I’m continuing to focus on the job that I have before me, and that’s leading our city during some very unprecedented times.”
Ruling that large chunk of state is Native American reservation, including city of Tulsa, casts doubt on hundreds of convictions
The US supreme court ruled on Thursday that a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation, a decision state and federal officials warn could throw Oklahoma into chaos.
The court’s 5-4 decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, means that Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against Native American defendants in parts of Oklahoma that include most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city.
“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” Gorsuch wrote in a decision joined by the court’s liberal members. “Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the west would be secure forever. … Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian [Native American] reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
The court’s ruling casts doubt on hundreds of convictions won by local prosecutors. But Gorsuch suggested optimism.
“In reaching our conclusion about what the law demands of us today, we do not pretend to foretell the future and we proceed well aware of the potential for cost and conflict around jurisdictional boundaries, especially ones that have gone unappreciated for so long. But it is unclear why pessimism should rule the day. With the passage of time, Oklahoma and its Tribes have proven they can work successfully together as partners,” he wrote.
Oklahoma’s three US attorneys quickly released a joint statement expressing confidence that “tribal, state, local and federal law enforcement will work together to continue providing exceptional public safety” under the ruling.
Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a former chief justice of the tribe’s supreme court, said the state’s argument that such a ruling would cause legal havoc was overblown.
“All the sky-is-falling narratives were dubious at best,” Chaudhuri said. “This would only apply to a small subset of Native Americans committing crimes within the boundaries.
“This case didn’t change ownership of any land. It didn’t impact the prosecutions of non-Indians in any way. All it did was bring clarity to jurisdictional questions regarding the border, and it enhanced the Creek Nation’s ability as a sovereign nation to work with other sovereign interests to protect people and to work in common interests.”
Forrest Tahdooahnippah, a Comanche Nation citizen and attorney who specializes in tribal law, said the ruling’s short-term implications are largely confined to the criminal context and that serious felonies committed by Native Americans in parts of eastern Oklahoma will be subject to federal jurisdiction.
“In the long term, outside of the criminal context, there may be some minor changes in civil law,” he said. “The majority opinion points out assistance with Homeland Security, historical preservation, schools, highways, clinics, housing, and nutrition programmes, as possible changes. The Creek Nation will also have greater jurisdiction over child welfare cases involving tribal members.”
The case, which was argued by telephone in May because of the coronavirus pandemic, revolved around an appeal by a Native American who claimed that state courts had no authority to try him for a crime committed on reservation land that belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The reservation once encompassed 3m acres (12,100 sq km), including most of Tulsa.
The supreme court, with eight justices taking part, failed to reach a decision last term when it reviewed a federal appeals court ruling in a separate case that threw out a state murder conviction and death sentence. In that case, the appeals court said the crime occurred on land assigned to the tribe before Oklahoma became a state and Congress never clearly eliminated the Creek Nation reservation it created in 1866.
The case the justices decided on Thursday involved 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt, who is serving a 500-year prison sentence for molesting a child. Oklahoma state courts rejected his argument that his case does not belong in Oklahoma state courts and that it should be handled by federal prosecutors.
McGirt could potentially be retried in federal court, as could Patrick Murphy, who was convicted of killing a fellow tribe member in 1999 and sentenced to death. But Murphy would not face the death penalty in federal court for a crime in which prosecutors said he mutilated the victim and left him to bleed to death on the side of a country road about 80 miles (130km) southeast of Tulsa.
Neither Murphy nor McGirt is expected to be released from prison, but they will likely have charges brought against them in federal court, said Michael McBride, chair of the Indian Law & Gaming Practice for Oklahoma City-based law firm Crowe & Dunlevy.
“As a practical matter for Mr McGirt, the US attorney will probably put a hold on his release, and there will be an indictment from a federal grand jury very quickly,” McBride said. “Neither will see the light of day, most likely.”
Following the ruling, the state of Oklahoma issued a joint statement with the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations in which they vowed to work together on an agreement to address any unresolved jurisdictional issues raised by the decision.
“The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy, and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused,” the statement read. “We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.”
Ask any parent in the Mother Jones office and it’s clear they are eager to get their kids back to school. But as more schools move to reopen this fall—and as President Trump increasingly pressures and even threatens schools to reopen—experts warn there’s still quite a lot we don’t know about kids and COVID-19. What role do children play, for instance, in spreading this virus? Are they just as likely to get infected as adults? Are they just as infectious? And why have a small number of children developed a potentially deadly inflammatory illness after testing positive for COVID-19?
Reopening schools may very well be a risk worth taking—after all, so much of our economic recovery depends on it—but it’s unlikely that we’ll have clear answers to many of these questions in the near future and know with any certainty just how safe schools would be for kids, teachers, and communities. While it feels like we’ve been living with the coronavirus forever, we’re still in the early phase of understanding it; the research on children and COVID-19 is relativelylimited, and the studies that do exist have shownconflicting results. At this point, “following the science” to safely reopen schools simply doesn’tmeanmuch—and it’s near impossible to try to rely on data to help you decide whether you should send your kids back to school.
As David Abramson, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, explains, getting kids back in classrooms means that students “will serve as potential vectors back into the community.” But at the same time, “it’s almost impossible to imagine not opening schools given all that is at stake. And so it’s like a devil’s bargain.”
It’s probably no surprise then that there’s no clear consensus among health experts about schools reopening. In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation that school administrators aim to have children “physically present in school” for the next school year. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that virtual-only classes are the lowest risk option for schooling. And while some countries, includingDenmark, Austria, and Germany have had success in reopening schools, other countries, including Israel and Japan, and South Korea, have opened and re-closed schools after seeing a surge in new cases.
So, what gives? Why don’t we have a clearer picture of how kids transmit and are impacted by the coronavirus? Part of the reason is that conducting research on a new virus at lightning speeds is difficult enough in adults—for kids, it is significantly harder. Here’s a breakdown of a few key reasons why studying kids and COVID is so difficult—and why reopening schools now would mean doing so with a lot of uncertainty.
Many children with COVID-19 appear to be asymptomatic. That makes it hard to understand the full scope of the problem.
When it comes to kids and the coronavirus, one of the few things that is clear is that children can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, at all ages. “There are a number of papers that show that children can become infected,” explains Dr. Steven Zeichner, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia. “Some of them are symptomatic, there’ve been a few deaths”—but, he adds, “a large number are asymptomatic.” And for children who do show symptoms, he says, research shows their “disease course” tends to be milder than in adults.
A study of 2,135 pediatric COVID patients in China, initially published in mid-March in Pediatrics, for instance, found that more than 90 percent had asymptomatic, mild, or moderate cases. And in the US, a recent report from the CDC shows that about 5 percent of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases between January 22 and May 30 were in people 19 years old or younger, or nearly 70,000 individuals; less than 50 people in that group died from COVID, according to the CDC’s analysis.
But because so many children are likely to show mild symptoms or be asymptomatic, the true number of cases is likely to be much higher than we know. “At this point, primarily, we’re testing people who are symptomatic, except in the case of health workers and others where we need to know if there’s been a lot of exposure,” says Dr. Cynthia Haq, a clinical professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, “and because children are less likely to be symptomatic, you’re less likely to be tested.”
All this begs the question that’s crucial for schools in particular: If children show milder symptoms, does that mean they aren’t spreading the virus as much? That’s not totally understood, Zeichner says. “The likelihood of transmission depends on the amount of virus that somebody is producing, and the interaction of the person with the virus with the person who isn’t infected,” he says. “It is likely that children and adults with fewer symptoms may be producing less virus, which probably makes them less likely to transmit the infection.” But researchers are still investigating whether that’s the case.
To study children, researchers have to jump through lots of hoops.
“When we conduct research on children, there are special levels of protection because children are more vulnerable,” Haq says. “We don’t want them to be exploited for research purposes.” As a protected group, children can’t formally consent to testing. In general, she adds, “we don’t like to conduct studies on children unless there’s clearly no evidence of harm from the study or definite evidence of benefit.”
On top of that, “you have to be really mindful of what you’re saying to a child,” says Abramson, who also directs a health disaster research center. “You can’t be saying things that are going to upset them. You can’t ask them questions in ways that will be potentially harmful to them. If you’re going to talk directly to children, that’s going to be a very difficult and challenging event.”
For these reasons, random testing of children on a large scale is not always feasible. And if you’re going to rely on parents to report on their children’s health or behavior, research shows that’s not always reliable. For example, in a 2017 study, Abramson and colleagues asked a group of children and their mothers about the child’s mental health following the BP oil spill; they had a difference of opinion about a third of the time.
A lot of studies coming out right now aren’t always the “gold standard” of research.
If you wanted to answer the question of how much children spread the coronavirus, there are a number of scientific avenues you could take—hypothetically speaking. Randomized controlled trials are considered the most rigorous way to conduct research, but in this case, that might not be possible: an experiment in which you expose a group of children to the coronavirus and see how many become infected is, for obvious reasons, unethical.
Aside from that, you could:
Observe transmission dynamics in a single household or group of households.
Analyze data from a large population.
Build a model to estimate how an action (e.g., opening schools) will affect the public.
But each of the above methods of research can be biased. As Dr. Sheila Nolan, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Boston Children’s Health Physicians, puts it, in general, “there’s lots of things being published and lots of stuff coming out, but most of it is either retrospective or somewhat anecdotal. And it’s not that gold standard of how to really do a research study, which is exceedingly difficult to do while you’re in the middle of a crisis.”
Take, for example, a recent survey in New York. Researchers went around the city testing thousands of people at grocery stores and other shopping locations for coronavirus antibodies. From the results, they estimated in April that nearly 14 percent of New Yorkers have likely had COVID-19. But if you only look at grocery store shoppers, Abramson says, you aren’t getting a representative sample of the population. You’d miss, for example, people in prison or nursing homes. In effect, the design biases the study.
The fact that so many childhood cases are asymptomatic can further complicate study design and introduce bias in research, says Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a co-author of an early contact tracing study in China. To measure how this virus spread within households, for instance, researchers in early contact tracing investigations typically identified homes with at least one infected individual, tested everyone else in the household, and observed who picked up the virus. The problem is, “primary cases” tended to be adults with symptoms, so “if children are asymptomatic more frequently,” Lessler says, “it’d be harder to find them as a primary case because usually, the first person you find is sick.” As a result, you might only see how adults spread the coronavirus to kids—missing how kids spread it to adults—and could fail altogether to capture homes with infected children. (There are other times, Lessler explains, where you may see the opposite effect, like when school is in session during a seasonal flu epidemic.)
One researcher I spoke with, Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases and of health research and policy at the Stanford School of Medicine, told me her “ideal study” would be to follow children in school settings and their households. She’d track their infection rates and antibody development over time to see how COVID-19 spread among children. She and her colleagues had actually planned to do a study along these lines—until schools shut down. Now, she’s limited to only doing that study in households. “Because children aren’t actually interacting with other kids, etcetera, the whole interaction is gone now, it’s not there,” Maldonado says. “So we might have limited data here, but it’s still worthwhile to consider.”
Finally, researchers are trying to understand the virus in kids through modeling, which is “essentially generating data,” Abramson says. Models are built on a series of assumptions, so one model on its own might be an outlier. Therefore, Abramson says, it makes little sense to rely on just one model; when models are done well, he says, “they really give you a great understanding of how dynamics can shift an outcome.” But because models are not observations of real events, he says, “no model will accurately reflect reality.”
The research on kids and COVID that has been done hasn’t shown coherent results.
If anything, the coronavirus has reminded us that science is messy, it’s slow, and it doesn’t always make sense. For example, consider Lessler’s contact tracing study, which included 391 people in China with coronavirus infections and 1,286 of their close contacts. One of the key findings was that children under 10 years old were just as likely to be infected with COVID-19 as adults, but less likely to show symptoms. When it first published as a preprint in early March—that is, as a preliminary finding and before undergoing peer-review—it “really scared everybody,” Alasdair Munro, a pediatric infectious diseases researcher at University Hospital Southampton in the UK, toldNature in May.
But in the months since, other studieshave shown that kids are less likely to get infected with the coronavirus. It’s still unclear if these differences in results were due to bias in the study designs, real differences in the population, or something else. “It’s possible that our study is an outlier,” Lessler told me early last month. “The numbers are small, so it’s perfectly possible that our result is not going to be borne out over time. And that’s the nature of science.”
Modeling studies have also produced head-scratching results. One study, which initially published in Science in late April, estimated that school closures could delay the pandemic and essentially flatten the curve by 40 to 60 percent. “My simulation shows that yes, if you reopen the schools, you’ll see a big increase in the reproduction number, which is exactly what you don’t want,” Marco Ajelli, a mathematical epidemiologist then at the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy, told the New York Times in May. But other modelingstudies have since suggested that school closures don’t have much effect at all on slowing viral transmission.
Though frustrating, it’s not particularly surprising that we’re seeing conflicting results in research on a virus that nobody’s ever seen before, that’s being conducted at rapid speeds, and in the middle of a pandemic. And, of course, no single finding is definitive. As time goes on, we’ll almost certainly gain a better understanding of the transmission dynamics among children. Until then, administrators will be left to “safely reopen schools” without knowing what that really means. As Haq puts it, “We need to get children back to school to support their psychosocial development, but this will inevitably increase the risk of transmission. There are no easy answers. We’re in the land of tradeoffs.”
Negotiations to end the long-running war between Afghanistan’s central government and the Taliban slowly inch along, punctuated by spasms of violence. The Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) often lash out with attacks on the Afghan security forces and civilians, with the ISKP frequently targeting Shiite communities. Any settlement will likely require the United States to withdraw most combat troops from the country. U.S. President Donald Trump is eager to leave Afghanistan after nearly two decades and plans to review several options for drawing down troop levels, something that could easily happen by the end of the year.
A reduced American presence could provide Iran with an opening to expand its influence in Afghanistan. Tehran has long been wary of instability in its eastern neighbor—decades of conflict have driven hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees into Iran—and so far has refrained from taking the kinds of intrusive actions there that it has in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen where its proxies operate. But Iran will now have more room for maneuver and might be tempted to intervene in Afghan affairs more forcefully, both to protect its own domestic interests and to undermine those of the United States.
IN SEARCH OF STABILITY
Tehran and Washington have butted heads in many parts of the Middle East, but they share common objectives in Afghanistan. Iran supported U.S. efforts following the invasion in late 2001, helping build the coalition that would replace the Taliban in Kabul. In early negotiations after the invasion, Iranian officials insisted on the importance of holding democratic elections in the post-Taliban era. Today, neither Iran nor the United States has any desire to see ISKP grow stronger in the country.
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Iran requires stability in Afghanistan. The two countries share a porous border, and the consequences of turmoil in Afghanistan often spill over into Iranian territory. Iran is home to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees; it is also a key avenue for the smuggling of opioids to Europe. The two countries came to the brink of war at the height of the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s when, in September 1998, the Taliban killed several Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. Iran’s leaders vowed revenge and deployed thousands of troops to the border region.
Lingering distrust of the Taliban informs Iranian thinking about the outcome of the intra-Afghan discussions at this stage. Tehran fears the most hardcore elements of the Taliban and wants these factions, which are often close to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to remain far from power in a new central government. The most hard-line elements of the predominantly Sunni Taliban, while perhaps not as zealous as the ISKP, are poorly disposed to Iran, the region’s Shiite heavyweight—and the feeling is mutual. Nonetheless, if working with a central government in Kabul that contains elements of the Taliban will help Tehran safeguard its essential interests, Tehran is willing to do so. Indeed, in recent years Iran has tried to repair and strengthen its relationship with some factions of the Taliban through economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives.
Lingering distrust of the Taliban informs Iran’s thinking about intra-Afghan negotiations.
Iran’s main political and economic interests in Afghanistan include maintaining access to the Afghan market for Iranian goods and guarding against instability along its border. The Iranian economy is still suffering from the effects of U.S. sanctions and from the disruptions of the COVID-19 crisis. Officials worry that chaos in Afghanistan might push another wave of refugees across the border and that Iran will not be able to afford the disruption. COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing hardship and poverty among refugees in Iran who already struggled for access to employment and health care. Iran has deported thousands of Afghans, but more violence could lead to a new influx. Therefore, Iran largely favors the status quo, which at least provides a modicum of stability that allows Tehran to focus on other priorities deemed more urgent, especially as the country grapples with another strong wave of novel coronavirus infections and record-high daily death tolls.
There are, however, circumstances under which Iran may feel compelled to intervene in Afghan affairs. Tehran might do so if it finds unacceptable the central government that comes into place in Kabul after a negotiated settlement, one in which, for example, hard-line factions of the Taliban play a leading role and seek to challenge Iranian interests in Afghanistan.
In that case, Iran could deploy troops in western Afghanistan to serve as a buffer against any wider turmoil. Iran may also want to act if the Afghan government proves unable to effectively suppress the ISKP and the Islamist militant group continues to pose a direct threat to Iranian interests as well as to Shiite communities. In that case, Iranian leaders may come to the conclusion that its militias can better secure important sites and roll back the ISKP than Afghan security forces can.
Gina Prince-Bythewood talks about her new superhero film, Netflix’s The Old Guard, and how women are changing the genre.
Gina Prince-Bythewood has never been afraid of tackling new genres. The writer and director has made three excellent films set in very different spheres: the coming-of-age masterpiece Love & Basketball, the 1960s-set drama The Secret Life of Bees, and the glittery superstar romance Beyond the Lights. But for years she’s craved the scope of a blockbuster action film, the type that studios and audiences gravitate toward in this franchise-stuffed era. She was attached to a Sony/Marvel project calledSilver & Black that took place in the Spider-Man universe, but after that fell apart, she moved on to another comic-book property, a grittier series created by Greg Rucka called The Old Guard.The resulting film, which hits Netflix tomorrow, is the best action movie of the year so far—a crisply made, globe-trotting adventure about a group of immortals who recruit a new member to their team while doing battle with someone trying to steal their powers. The Old Guard focuses on Andy (played by Charlize Theron), a 6,000-year-old warrior, but it’s an ensemble piece that digs into the strange family dynamics of a team that’s been fighting together for centuries. The new recruit, Nile (KiKi Layne), is a U.S. marine who’s wounded in battle and discovers that she has fantastical healing abilities—in addition to being functionally unkillable (though there are a few exceptions to that rule).
Prince-Bythewood is known for her exceptional attention to detail, but her prior films were smaller-scale and focused on just a few characters in great depth. The Old Guard loses nothing by painting on a wider canvas. The director’s deep affection for every member of the ensemble helps the film stand out, as does the impressively intense and gory action, which delights in the magical healing powers of the group. I spoke with Prince-Bythewood about seeking out action projects, the dearth of female and Black filmmakers in the blockbuster space, and doing post-production at home. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
David Sims: How’s it going?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Oh, you know, the combination of a global pandemic and a national reckoning takes an emotional toll! But I think important things are finally happening, both in the country and in Hollywood. I know a lot of artists are struggling with what to do in this moment. I had the benefit of having to finish this film, so that gave me something to focus on, creatively.
Sims: Have you been doing a lot of the post-production remotely?
Prince-Bythewood: We were ready to lock the film when [COVID-19] hit. We ended up having everyone put their equipment in their homes literally on a Monday, and by the end of the week we were in full shutdown. So it was figuring out looping, color-timing, and mixing; all of that is such an intimate process! Our score was going to have to be electronic, which was horrifying to me. But then [the composers] Dustin [O’Halloran] and Hauschka created a beautiful score—it just so happened [that team was] was in Iceland, [one of the only countries] in the world that had an orchestra that was allowed to play. So we were up at three in the morning to listen to it live.
Sims: Usually you write your films, but this is the first you aren’t a credited screenwriter on. Did you come to Greg Rucka’s comic book first, or the script?
Prince-Bythewood: I love action films. And I love the direction they’ve taken in the last few years—Black Panther, Logan, where they were more action-dramas, with all the elements you love in an action film, yet I cried at the end of both. They said something to the world, and I loved that we could do that with the genre. I thought [my next movie would be] Silver & Black with Marvel and Sony, but that didn’t work out. And as that wasn’t working out, I got sent this script by [the production company] Skydance.
I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make [action movies], given the way that Hollywood is. But all praise to Patty Jenkins, who killed Wonder Womanand opened the door a crack for some of us to squeak through. Skydance was intentional on wanting to find a female director. They loved Beyond the Lights and Love & Basketball. They wanted the feel of those, what I do with characters, so that The Old Guard could feel like an action-drama.
Sims: Did you read the book then?
Prince-Bythewood: I hadn’t been familiar with the graphic novel, so I was reading it completely fresh. I was moved by the characters’ search for purpose. And then it was two women at the head of it, one of them a young Black female hero, something that has been desperately needed.
Sims: Does it really feel like there’s been a sea change post–Wonder Woman? Some kind of atmospheric shift, producers realizing there’s an audience for more than just the same story?
Prince-Bythewood: It’s funny, I use the word sea change often and then I catch myself, because the bar was at zero. But I was so excited about this year because there were five other female-directed blockbusters. Obviously Patty [with Wonder Woman 1984], there’s Cate Shortland doing Black Widow, Mulanwith Niki Caro, The Eternals with Chloé Zhao, and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. So in one year, all of us were getting this opportunity. And that is a sea change—that has never happened in the history of Hollywood. Now we have to wait on a number of those movies, but I hope we can destroy this narrative that women don’t love action, because we do. And also that women don’t want to shoot action, because some of us do.
Sims: The narrative was that female filmmakers don’t want to make these kinds of movies.
Prince-Bythewood: I think it’s absolutely time for new blood and new perspectives to disrupt the genre. Because there are so many of [these movies], and there’s been a bit of a sameness.
Sims: In terms of that sameness, coming to The Old Guard, what do you want to do to put your stamp on it?
Prince-Bythewood: There were a couple of things I wanted to bring to the script; I wanted to expand Nile [the character played by Layne], give her more agency in terms of the plot, give her more heroic moments and a backstory so she felt as full as the other characters, and Greg was all on board with that.
The other big thing I wanted to add came from a great book I read in my research for this, called On Killing. It’s a definitive book for soldiers that talks about how the act of taking a life is as emotionally and psychologically damaging as your fear of losing your life on the battlefield. It felt like we hadn’t seen that in an action film before, and it was so perfect for these characters, especially Andy [played by Theron], who has to take a life to save many. What would that toll be after 6,000 years? It is a violent film, and I’m unapologetic about that, but I never wanted it to feel like a celebration.
Sims: The characters are immortal, so they’re mostly invincible, but the violence is still painful, and you feel the toll it’s taking on them.
Prince-Bythewood: When I read the script, I knew immediately that I wanted the film to feel grounded and real despite the fantastical elements. That’s the most important thing for a film, regardless of size or budget: You’ve got to connect with the characters.
Sims: Was Charlize Theron already on board when you came to the project?Prince-Bythewood: No. Skydance had developed it with Greg for about a year, then I came on and continued to develop. Thinking of who could embody Andy, Charlize is such a good actress, but also she’s done it before. Knowing what I wanted to do with the action, to see the actors doing it rather than their stunt doubles, she’s proven that she can do it.
Sims: She has that action-movie gravitas from films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde. That kind of informs this character, who’s supposed to have so much experience.
Prince-Bythewood: Doing action is really hard! I love watching the training videos that every actor puts out, and they’re always cool and set to music and they look sexy, but the reality is, it is months of hard training. KiKi had never done a film like this before, and when I cast her, I trusted her because she had this desire to do it and be great. She did two-a-day training sessions, five days a week, for a couple months. I told her, “This training process is your rehearsal,” because she’s building the character, a marine, she’s getting that swagger, that posture. When you walk down the street and know you can kick someone’s ass, can protect yourself, that changes your gait, the way you stand. It’s a great tool.
Sims: Did everyone do that kind of training? Because the action feels very authentic.
Prince-Bythewood: Every actor I talked to, I made it clear: You are going to be doing your action. They were all in. KiKi and Charlize trained in L.A. before we got to the U.K.; the guys, who were in all different countries, came about two months prior to shooting and trained together. That was a great bonding experience. It was fun for them, and competitive, because nobody wanted to be the weak link.
Sims: Are there action films you’re looking at where you’re thinking, This is how I want my action to look? Or is it more, This is how I don’t want my action to look.
Prince-Bythewood: [Laughs] I knew I wanted each action sequence to feel different. I’m not going to name names, but there were a couple things where I was like, “I do not want it to be this. I hate the way the action is in this.” On the flip side, our templates were The Raid, Logan, Zero Dark Thirty, Man on Fire. I watched at least 20 Asian action films—there are so many great directors working in that genre. And the last thing was the bathroom fight in the last Mission: Impossible. That fight is perfect. I remember telling [the action choreographer Danny Hernandez] that I wanted that for the plane fight. I wanted that feeling. And he was like, “You know, they had about three weeks to shoot that and we have three days.” And I said, “I don’t care, let’s just go for it.”
Sims: In Mission: Impossible—Fallout, both Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill feel indestructible, which is the same sort of vibe here.Prince-Bythewood: But I loved that in The Old Guard—that the characters could be hurt. That they’re immortal mostly. That allows you some jeopardy in the fights. In talking with Danny, it was, “How can we make it believable that the Old Guard can defeat 16 people with automatic weaponry?” We decided, since they’ve been around for centuries, they started fighting hand to hand, doing up-close killing, whereas modern soldiers are learning to kill from miles away sometimes. We realized that hesitation was what the Old Guard could use to their advantage.
When one of Elissa Slotkin’s staffers passed along a New York Times report alleging that Russia had put bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan—and that President Donald Trump either did not consume the relevant intelligence or did not act upon it—“my stomach,” the Michigan congresswoman says, “dropped to my knees.”
Slotkin spent the next 72 hours in an incredulous haze. A veteran CIA analyst before coming to Congress in the Democratic wave of 2018, she thought she had seen it all. She had served at length in the Middle East, lost friends and gained Top Secret clearance. She had personally briefed both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in the White House situation room and in the Oval Office, on grave national security threats. And yet Slotkin’s imagination could not stretch far enough to accommodate either of the two scenarios now confronting her. How could something so sensitive not reach the president? Or, if it had, how could he have ignored it?
The congresswoman inhaled every bit of news coverage, watching carefully for conflicting details or any confirmation of the original Times story. She called former colleagues in the intel community in search of explanations. Finally, she took to social media, writing a series of uncharacteristically pointed tweets about Trump and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. “Something has been off about that relationship since the beginning,” she wrote, “and Americans are quite literally paying in blood for his pandering to Putin.”
The irony was not lost on Slotkin. Here she was, four months out from Election Day, one of the most endangered Democrats in the country, representing a district Trump carried by 7 points, spending her Sunday morning doing precisely what she had vowed to avoid: picking a Twitter fight with the president of the United States.
There will be consequences—of this, Slotkin is certain. She cannot hope to win reelection this fall without persuading a significant number of voters in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District to split their tickets—four more years for Trump, two more years for her—and every feud with the White House is equivalent to a few more straight-party ballots being punched. Whether Slotkin can have it both ways, speaking her mind about the president and winning over some of his supporters, may well determine not only her fate but the fate of Democrats in swing districts and battleground states across the country.
Slotkin didn’t want it to be this way. She envisioned another hyperlocal campaign, like the one she ran in 2018, building consensus around kitchen-table issues and eluding perceptions of partisanship. But if her first two years in Congress taught her anything, it’s that sooner or later, everyone has to pick a side. There is no middle ground when it comes to Donald Trump.
“He’s forcing my hand,” Slotkin tells me a day after the tweetstorm, resignation dripping from her voice. “He’s doing things and saying things that call upon me to think about my fundamental oath of office.”
In 2018, even as the national water cooler was dominated by talk of Trump, some Democratic congressional challengers ran campaigns predicated on a strategic belief that only by ignoring the elephant in the Oval Office could they flip red districts nationwide. The idea was not so much to wish Trump out of existence as avoid the inevitable sting associated with siding with or against the most polarizing man in America. Rather than alienate progressives or offend conservatives, Slotkin and company ran a collective do-no-harm campaign, focusing insistently on job creation, on expanding health insurance and lowering costs, on working in a bipartisan way to lower the volume in Washington. They anchored their candidacies with sterling résumés that drew from experiences in business and national security, forcing Republicans to play defense in parts of the country they had controlled for generations.
It worked. Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives, flipping dozens of seats, like hers in southeast Michigan, that were ripe for political realignment. Stitching together a coalition that centered around suburban women—disaffected Republicans and mortified independents both—Slotkin, once viewed as a sacrificial lamb against Mike Bishop, the GOP incumbent, pulled away for a nearly 4 percentage point victory in a district Republicans had controlled for all of the 21st century.
Emboldened, Slotkin and her fellow freshmen felt certain they had fashioned a blueprint. They would come to Washington but not succumb to its one-character drama. It would be their responsibility to serve as a check on the executive, of course, but these incoming legislators believed they would do their jobs, and keep their jobs, with a relentless focus on the real issues affecting their constituents back home. They would not allow Trump to dictate how they went about their work—in Congress or on the campaign trail.
Two years later, it all sounds so naive.
The rookie members of Congress were sworn in during a government shutdown of the president’s design and they realized very quickly they were merely the newest cast members on The Trump Show, forced into roles as the disloyal opposition that he defined for them. They would not be broadly evaluated by their efforts to regulate prescription drug costs or by their contributions to campaign finance reform. In normal times, individual efforts might have gained more traction in D.C., might have broken through the noise back home, might have influenced the perceptions of a legislator among her constituents. But these were not normal times.
After months of denying the importance of aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the World Health Organization is reconsidering its stance
In Lidia Morawska’s home city of Brisbane on Australia’s east coast, roadside signs broadcast a simple message: ‘Wash hands, save lives.’ She has no problem with that: “Hand washing is always a good measure,” says the aerosol scientist, who works at the Queensland University of Technology. But the sign might be outdated.
Converging lines of evidence indicate that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, can pass from person to person in tiny droplets called aerosols that waft through the air and accumulate over time. After months of debate about whether people can transmit the virus through exhaled air, there is growing concern among scientists about this transmission route.
This week, Morawska and aerosol scientist Donald Milton at the University of Maryland, College Park, supported by an international group of 237 other clinicians, infectious-disease physicians, epidemiologists, engineers and aerosol scientists, published a commentary in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that urges the medical community and public-health authorities to acknowledge the potential for airborne transmission. They also call for preventive measures to reduce this type of risk.
The researchers are frustrated that key agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), haven’t been heeding their advice in their public messages.
In response to the commentary, the WHO has softened its position, saying in a press conference on July 7 that it will issue new guidelines about transmission in settings with close contact and poor ventilation. “We have to be open to this evidence and understand its implications regarding the modes of transmission, and also regarding the precautions that need to be taken,” said Benedetta Allegranzi, technical leader of the WHO task force on infection control.
Morawska is “really pleased, relieved, and amazed”, by the WHO’s statement.
For months, the WHO has steadfastly pushed back against the idea that there is a significant threat of the coronavirus being transmitted by aerosols that can accumulate in poorly ventilated venues and be carried on air currents. The agency has maintained that the virus is spread mainly by contaminated surfaces and by droplets bigger than aerosols that are generated by coughing, sneezing and talking. These are thought to travel relatively short distances and drop quickly from the air.
This type of guidance has hampered efforts that could prevent airborne transmission, such as measures that improve ventilation of indoor spaces and limits on indoor gatherings, say the researchers in the commentary: “We are concerned that the lack of recognition of the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19 and the lack of clear recommendations on the control measures against the airborne virus will have significant consequences: people may think that they are fully protected by adhering to the current recommendations, but in fact, additional airborne interventions are needed for further reduction of infection risk.”
This is particularly important now, as government-mandated lockdowns ease and businesses reopen. “To control [the pandemic], we need to control all the means of infection,” says Morawska, who first contacted the WHO with her concerns and published a summary of the evidence in early April.
But this conclusion is not popular with some experts because it goes against decades of thinking about respiratory infections. Since the 1930s, public-health researchers and officials have generally discounted the importance of aerosols — droplets less than 5 micrometres in diameter — in respiratory diseases such as influenza. Instead, the dominant view is that respiratory viruses are transmitted by the larger droplets or through contact with droplets that fall on surfaces or are transferred by people’s hands. When SARS-CoV-2 emerged at the end of 2019, the assumption was that it spread in the same way as other respiratory viruses and that airborne transmission was not important.
The WHO is following the available evidence, and has moderated its earlier opposition to the idea that the virus might spread through aerosols, according to Allegranzi. She says that although the WHO acknowledges that airborne transmission is plausible, current evidence falls short of proving the case. She adds that recommendations for physical distancing, quarantine and wearing masks in the community are likely go some way towards controlling aerosol transmission if it is occurring.
The debate over transmission routes has big implications for efforts to stop the virus from spreading. Smaller, lighter aerosols can linger and accumulate in the air and travel long distances on air currents. But studies going back to those of engineer William Wells in the 1930s have suggested that large droplets fall out of the air within about 2 metres.
When SARS-CoV-2 emerged, health officials recommended frequent hand washing and maintaining a physical distance to break droplet and contact transmission routes. And some researchers and clinicians say these approaches are enough. Contact-tracing data support those measures, says Kate Grabowski, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “The highest-risk contacts are those that are individuals you share a home with or that you’ve been in a confined space with for a substantial period of time, which would lead me to believe it’s probably driven mostly by droplet transmission,” she says, although she says that aerosol transmission might occur on rare occasions.
But other researchers say that case studies of large-scale clusters have shown the importance of airborne transmission. When the news media reported large numbers of people falling ill following indoor gatherings, that caused Kim Prather, an aerosol scientist at the University of California, San Diego, to begin questioning the adequacy of the social-distancing recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which call for people to stay 6 feet (1.8 metres) apart. The indoor spread suggested the virus was being transmitted in a different way from how health authorities had assumed. “For an atmospheric chemist, which I am, the only way you get there is you put it in the air and everybody breathes that air,” says Prather, who joined the commentary. “That is the smoking gun.”
Many researchers concerned about airborne transmission point to the example of a fateful choir rehearsal that took place an hour’s drive from Seattle, Washington, on 10 March. Sixty-one members of the Skagit Valley Chorale gathered for a practice that lasted two-and-a-half hours. Despite there being hand sanitizer at the door, and choir members refraining from hugs and handshakes, at least 33 choristers contracted SARS-CoV-2, and two eventually died. Investigators concluded that the virus could have spread in aerosols produced by singing, and a ‘super-emitter’ who produced more aerosol particles than is typical, although they couldn’t rule out transmission through objects or large droplets.
But Morawska has modelled the conditions in the rehearsal hall and says there is no need to invoke the idea of a superspreader. Inadequate ventilation, the long exposure time and the singing were sufficient to explain the number of people who became infected. And no amount of ventilation could have reduced the risk to an acceptable level for the two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal, she says.
In another case, researchers used a tracer gas to show that aerosols carried on currents from an air-conditioning unit in a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, were to blame for an outbreak affecting ten diners from three separate families. None of the staff or patrons seated near other air-conditioning units were infected.
Meanwhile, a tour-bus passenger in Hunan province in China infected 8 of the 49 people on the bus. One of those sat 4.5 metres away from the infected person and entered and exited the bus through a different door. “That excludes the possibility of contacting each other or [being] in very close contact,” says Yang Yang, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida in Gainsville who is co-authoring a report on the case. “I think there is enough evidence for us to be very concerned in indoor environments, especially in confined spaces,” he says.
Case studies can provide circumstantial evidence that aerosols are carrying the virus, but researchers want to nail down how and when that happens. The problem is catching aerosols in the act.
Laboratory studies going back to the 1930s and 1940s concluded that droplets expelled through talking or coughing are larger than aerosols. These bigger droplets, more than 5 micrometres in diameter, drop out of the air quickly because they are too heavy to ride on light air currents.
But more-sensitive experiments are now painting a more complex picture that points to the importance of aerosols as a transmission route. A study published in May used laser-light scattering to detect droplets emitted by healthy volunteers when speaking. The authors calculated that for SARS-CoV-2, one minute of loud speaking generates upwards of 1,000 small, virus-laden aerosols 4 micrometres in diameter that remain airborne for at least 8 minutes. They conclude that “there is a substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments”.
Another study published by Morawska and her colleagues as a preprint, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 exhaled 1,000–100,000 copies per minute of viral RNA, a marker of the pathogen’s presence. Because the volunteers simply breathed out, the viral RNA was likely to be carried in aerosols rather than in the large droplets produced during coughing, sneezing or speaking.
Other laboratory studies suggest that aerosols of SARS-CoV-2 remain infectious for longer than do aerosols of some related respiratory viruses. When researchers created aerosols of the new coronavirus, they remained infectious for at least 16 hours, and had greater infectivity than aerosols of the coronaviruses SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, which cause severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, respectively.
Outside the lab, it is much more of a challenge to detect aerosols and show that they can transmit the virus. In one study, researchers in Wuhan, China, detected SARS-CoV-2 RNA in aerosol samples collected in a hospital. But the WHO and others have criticized studies such as this because they detect only viral RNA, not infectious virus. “All these researchers are struggling to find the viable virus” in clinical settings, says Allegranzi. “Whenever this is found, it will be really very relevant.”
One of the problems researchers face in studying virus viability in aerosols is the way that samples are collected. Typical devices that suck in air samples damage a virus’s delicate lipid envelope, says Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, UK. “The lipid envelope will shear, and then we try and culture those viruses and get very, very low recovery,” he says.
A few studies, however, have successfully measured the viability of aerosol-borne virus particles. A team at the US Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate in Washington DC found that environmental conditions play a big part in how long virus particles in aerosols remain viable. SARS-CoV-2 in mock saliva aerosols lost 90% of its viability in 6 minutes of exposure to summer sunlight, compared with 125 minutes in darkness. This study suggests that indoor environments might be especially risky, because they lack ultraviolet light and because the virus can become more concentrated than it would in outdoor spaces.
Researchers say that one big unknown remains: how many virus particles are needed to trigger an infection? That’s one reason that Allegranzi would like to see randomized trials that demonstrate that interventions aimed at controlling aerosols actually work. One example, she says, would be atrial showing that tight-fitting respirator masks offer better protection than looser-fitting medical masks in a health-care setting.
Tang, who contributed to the commentary, says the bar of proof is too high regarding airborne transmission. “[The WHO] ask for proof to show it’s airborne, knowing that it’s very hard to get proof that it’s airborne,” he says. “In fact, the airborne-transmission evidence is so good now, it’s much better than contact or droplet evidence for which they’re saying wash [your] hands to everybody.”
Ultimately, says Morawska, strong action from the top is crucial. “Once the WHO says it’s airborne, then all the national bodies will follow,” she says.
In the commentary in Clinical Infectious Diseases, she and the other researchers argue that studies on SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses strongly suggest that airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is an important pathway. The commentary urges public-health organizations, including the WHO, and the medical community to take into account the possibility of the airborne route.
The WHO says it is paying attention to such concerns. It will “continue to examine everything that is emerging”, says Allegranzi. But last week, she questioned the qualifications of those driving the debate. “There is this movement, which made their voice very loud by publishing various position papers or opinion papers,” she says. “Why don’t we ask ourselves … why are these theories coming mainly from engineers, aerobiologists, and so on, whereas the majority of the clinical, infectious-diseases, epidemiology, public health, and infection-prevention and control people do not think exactly the same? Or they appreciate this evidence, but they don’t think that the role is so prominent?”
Morawska disputes this characterization. And the list of people who joined the commentary reveals 40 physicians, virologists and infectious-disease epidemiologists, along with at least 20 aerosol scientists who work directly on transmission of infectious agents.
During the 7 July press conference, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said about the commentary; “Many of the signatories are engineers, which is a wonderful area of expertise, which adds to growing knowledge about the importance of ventilation.”
Governments have started to move on their own to combat airborne transmission. In May, the guidance from the German department of health changed to state explicitly that “Studies indicate that the novel coronavirus can also be transmitted through aerosols … These droplet nuclei can remain suspended in the air over longer periods of time and may potentially transmit viruses. Rooms containing several people should therefore be ventilated regularly.” The CDC doesn’t mention aerosols or airborne transmission, but it updated its website on 16 June to say that the closeness of contact and the duration of exposure is important.
A spokesperson for the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies says there is weak evidence for aerosol transmission in some situations, but the group nonetheless recommends “that measures to control transmission include those that target aerosol routes”. When the United Kingdom reviewed its social-distancing guidelines, it advised people to take extra precautions in situations where it isn’t possible to stay 2 metres apart. The advice includes recommendations to wear a face mask and to avoid face-to-face interactions, poor ventilation and loud talking or singing.
Allegranzi says that the WHO’s panel of 35 experts that vets emerging evidence has discussed airborne transmission on at least four occasions, and that the WHO is working with aerobiologists and engineers to discuss emerging evidence and develop better ventilation guidelines.
This is not the first time during the pandemic that clinicians and researchers have criticized the WHO for being slow to update guidelines. Many had called on the agency early on to acknowledge that face masks can help to protect the general public. But the WHO did not make an announcement on this until 5 June, when it changed its stance and recommended the wearing of cloth masks when social distancing wasn’t possible, such as on public transport and in shops. Many countries were already recommending or mandating their use. On 3 April, the CDC issued recommendations to use masks in areas where transmission rates are high. And evidence backs up those actions: a systematic review found ten studies of COVID-19 and related coronaviruses — predominantly in health-care settings — that together show that face masks do reduce the risk of infection.
Allegranzi acknowledges that regarding the WHO’s position on masks, “the previous [advice] maybe was less clear or more cautious”. She says that emerging evidence that a person with SARS-CoV-2 is able to pass it on before symptoms have started (pre-symptomatic) or without ever showing symptoms (asymptomatic), factored into the decision to change the guidance. Additional research — commissioned by the WHO — showing that cloth face masks are an effective barrier, was also an important factor.
Researchers who argue for the importance of aerosols say that governments and businesses should take specific steps to reduce this potential route of transmission. Morawska would like to see recommendations against air recirculation in buildings and against overcrowding; and she calls for standards that stipulate effective levels of ventilation, and possibly ones that require air systems to filter out particles or use ultraviolet light to kill airborne viruses.
Allegranzi maintains that current WHO recommendations are sound. “It’s a bundle of precautions, including hand hygiene, including masks, including the distancing, which are all important,” she says. “Some of these measures will have an impact also on aerosol transmission, if it’s a reality.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on July 8 2020.
This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests have brought renewed attention to the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who passed away at Rikers Island last June. She died from complications related to epilepsy while in solitary confinement, unable to pay a $501 cash bail, after her arrest on several misdemeanor charges and an outstanding bench warrant. While her family is suing New York City in a wrongful death lawsuit, Polanco’s sister has stepped to the front of the movement.
The word “slur” has a number of meanings in English, but the one that has concerned Scrabble aficionados and Hasbro, which owns the U.S. and Canadian trademark for the popular board game, means “a derogatory or insulting term applied to particular group of people.”
On Wednesday, the North American Scrabble Players Association announced that derogatory language would be removed from the game’s official word list.
The decision follows an online poll conducted by NASPA that elicited impassioned responses, the organization’s CEO, John Chew, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Some members threatened to leave the association if a single word were removed; others threatened to leave the association if any offensive words remained,” he said. “There were a lot of good and bad arguments on both sides.”
NASPA’s word list is used in competitive tournaments, which is different than the Merriam-Webster Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. Hasbro says it has worked to eliminate offensive words from the dictionary with every new printing of it.
While Hasbro has no say over NASPA’s list, and the organization’s members do not use Scrabble’s dictionary in competition, the company said Wednesday that it was amending the rules that appear in every Scrabble box “to make clear that slurs are not permissible in any form of the game.”
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“Hasbro Gaming is rooted in community and bringing people together, and we are committed to providing an experience that is inclusive and enjoyable for all,” the company said.
Speaking to NPR, Chew said NASPA represents about 10,000 players in the U.S. and Canada and that there was “about a 50-50 split” over whether to remove the slurs from its official word list.
He said the reevaluation of the list started a few weeks ago with a post on NASPA’s Facebook page.
“One of our members asked what we were doing to reduce racial tensions in the U.S. and Canada,” he said. “And then someone else asked ‘what if we take the “N” word out of the lexicon, would that at least be a good start?’ ”
A discussion and the online poll ensued and NASPA’s advisory board ultimately voted to remove 236 words from the list, Chew said. Words that are potentially offensive but are not considered slurs — such as those for parts of the body — remain, he said.