Amazon’s Weird Body Fat Scanner Is Still a Problem

The Amazon Halo band and app showing the slider tool

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Amazon would like you to believe that knowing your body fat percentage via its Halo Band fitness tracker’s body scan feature will make you a healthier person. So much so that it’s released a validation study in partnership with Pennington Biomedical Research Center that asserts the feature is comparable to dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA)—the gold standard for evaluating body composition. And perhaps it is. But the feature’s accuracy doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be scrapped entirely.

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The study looked at the body composition of 134 participants using Amazon Halo’s Body feature and was funded by Amazon (though reputable experts were also recruited to help). The study claims that the Body feature is just as good as DXA, and more accurate than five body composition scales and air displacement plethysmography, which is another method of measuring body fat based on how much air a person displaces within a special pod.

Validation studies funded by the company that makes the product should always be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’d be a different story if we had a completely independent study done by third-party testing firms that verified Amazon’s findings. (To be fair, this feature hasn’t really been around long enough for that.) The study’s participants were ethnically diverse and of varying body types. By diverse, the study means it was 60.4% Caucasian, 23.9% Black, 6.7% Asian, 3% Hispanic, 0.7% American Indian and 5.2% multiracial. That’s technically “diverse,” but still with a notable bias toward white bodies. A sample size of 134 people is also small—even if the study concludes this was sufficient to determine accuracy across age, ethnicity, and body type.

This is a lot of effort on Amazon’s part to say, “Hey, this feature is accurate.” In Gizmodo’s review of the Halo Band, Editor Caitlin McGarry found the body scan to be lacking. The way it works is you take four pictures using your smartphone, and the Body feature then gives you your body fat percentage, a 3D model of your body, and a slider that lets you see how your body shape may change based on fat percentages. Not only did Caitlin’s 3D model not resemble her actual body shape, but it also said she had a body fat percentage of nearly 40%. By Amazon Halo’s standards, this is “too high” and indicates an increased risk for heart disease. Listen, this doesn’t track for someone who’s incredibly active and loves Peloton this much. And even if it was accurate, it’s not the whole story.

Amazon is putting all its emphasis on accuracy when it should be focusing on context. With the body scan results in the app, you see a blanket statement about how lower body fat percentages are associated “with longer lifespans and a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.” This is true, but there are a lot of nuances Amazon is leaving out. The other main tool is a slider that lets you see what you’d supposedly look like at 13% body fat (you’d have a six-pack) and 50% body fat (no six-pack).

There are several reasons why this is problematic. The obvious one is that the slider tool could trigger body dysmorphia and disordered eating, which affects 5-10 million people in the U.S. alone. Yet another is the app doesn’t explain the different kinds of fat you have in your body. When Halo was first announced, Amazon told Gizmodo that the body scan feature does not differentiate between subcutaneous fat (the jiggly kind) and visceral fat (the kind surrounding your organs). The former is relatively harmless and can actually be protective. The latter is what’s associated with a higher risk of heart attack.

Knowing this, it’s still easy to imagine someone developing an unhealthy obsession with the slider tool when increased body fat is presented as “bad” and having a six-pack is presented as “good.” Amazon told Gizmodo that the slider tool will not “go below the healthy body fat percentage for the customer’s sex and age.” However, 13% body fat is on the more extreme end for fitness and closer to the 6-12% range for elite athletes. It’s not hard to see what impact this would have on people, particularly women, constantly fed unrealistic beauty standards in a fatphobic world. Eating disorders, poor body image issues, and depression—these can arguably be just as dangerous to your health as a higher body fat percentage. Where is this nuance in the Amazon Halo app?

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Body fat percentage can be a helpful metric, but it’s only one measure of your overall health. It doesn’t take into consideration your cholesterol levels, your blood sugar, or your blood pressure—and there are studies that say it is possible to be obese and metabolically healthy. You can be fat and fit; the two are not mutually exclusive. Spanish researchers have also found that physically active obese people had roughly the same risk for high blood pressure as inactive thin people.

The biggest problem, however, is by conflating body fat percentage and health without context, Amazon Halo is unconsciously reinforcing weight bias. It is well-documented that obese people often receive subpar medical care because their legitimate health concerns are dismissed due to their weight and body fat. According to JAMA, an overweight woman felt unwell for years but was brushed off and told to lose weight. It wasn’t until a few days before her death that she was diagnosed with advanced late-stage cancer. It’s not just anecdotal evidence, either. Another study found physicians spent less time and reported negative associations with fat patients suffering from the same migraines as their thinner counterparts.

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The danger of wearables is that the companies who make them and the people who wear them often boil down “health” to a set of disparate benchmarks. They tout accuracy as a sign that the feature is trustworthy and therefore good for you. You can walk 10,000 steps a day, get 150 minutes of moderate exercise, and have a healthy body fat percentage, and still be someone with a serious medical condition like endometriosis, bulimia, major depressive disorder, or irritable bowel syndrome. Sometimes, heart disease is simply genetic. So it doesn’t matter how accurate Amazon’s body scan feature is for consumers. Even the most accurate data is nothing without sufficient context. And no, a few sentences generalizing the relationship between body fat percentage and health does not count. Until Amazon realizes that, Halo’s Body feature won’t be the health tool it imagines it to be.

Coffee Is Good for You, Coffee Is Bad for You

A customer carries a cup of coffee to her table at Colson Patisserie on February 22, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York City.

A customer carries a cup of coffee to her table at Colson Patisserie on February 22, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York City.
Photo: Bryan Thomas (Getty Images)

If you’re the sort of person who regularly scans the latest science-related headlines, you’ve probably come across the coffee shuffle at some point: Articles reporting on the latest study to show coffee may do something good for you, followed by articles reporting on studies showing that coffee is actually the devil’s brew. So what should you take away from this mish-mash of research and should any of it affect your own coffee habits?

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The main problem here is that science is rarely as definitive as headlines can make it out to be. The world is a complicated place, and the interactions between our body and the foods or drinks we put into it are often hard to tease out. Nutrition research is especially tricky to conduct since it usually takes years for a specific item in our diet to have any real effect on our long-term health. Most of the time, it’s not so much one kind of food that matters, but the shape of our diet. Eating too many highly processed foods regularly for too long might increase our risk of heart disease in our older years, for instance, but a single twinkie won’t.

Coffee is chock full of ingredients, though, including some known to acutely affect the body like the stimulant caffeine. And because coffee’s been one of the most popular foods in the world for centuries, it’s no surprise that hundreds, if not thousands, of studies have been devoted to finding out what it can do to us, usually through observational studies of a population or certain group of people.

In the past few years alone, studies claim to have found that coffee consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart failure; that it can stave off early death among the general public and in people with type 2 diabetes; and that it may even help undo the liver damage that can be caused by chronic alcohol use. Conversely, studies have suggested that excessive coffee drinking (over six cups a day) is linked to poorer health; that drinking it before, but not after, breakfast can muck with your metabolism; and that it may increase the risk of glaucoma in people genetically predisposed to the eye condition. The state of California also recently almost mandated that coffee products would need a label warning of potential cancer risk.

This sort of whiplash might be enough to cause any reasonable person to simply not bother paying attention to any new coffee-related headlines. But while science isn’t perfect, it’s a process that builds on repetition. When you’re trying to figure out the harms or benefits of any drug or substance, it’s best to look at the big picture, not just a single study, especially since most food studies can only show a correlation between two things, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

These reviews of the evidence aren’t foolproof either, but they give a good sense of the scientific consensus. And in truth, there’s a lot more evidence that coffee is generally good for us (or at least not harmful) than the opposite. Really, these days, it’s actually harder to come across negative coffee studies, as scientists have started to agree on its overall positives. California’s coffee cancer warning, by the way, was very dumb, but for reasons that weren’t really related to coffee in the first place.

Sure, like almost anything, coffee is best taken in moderation and too much of it may very well be bad for us. Children and people with certain conditions that could be worsened by stimulants like an anxiety disorder should probably also avoid or be more cautious about their habit (or switch to decaf, since the benefits of coffee seem to still be there). And if you do feel like your coffee consumption is more trouble than it’s worth, it’s of course fine to cut down or to talk to your doctor about it if possible. But yes, for the average joe, there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a cup of joe once in a while—it just might be a small health boost, if anything.

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New Vaccine Failure Reminds Us How Much Worse Things Could Be Right Now

This picture taken on April 22, 2021, in Poce-sur-Cisse, France, shows bottles of diluent on the production line inside the pharmaceutical plant Fareva, which were planned to be used for the CureVac vaccine.

This picture taken on April 22, 2021, in Poce-sur-Cisse, France, shows bottles of diluent on the production line inside the pharmaceutical plant Fareva, which were planned to be used for the CureVac vaccine.
Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP (Getty Images)

Late Wednesday, German pharmaceutical CureVac announced what it called “sobering” news about its experimental covid-19 vaccine candidate: In the interim results from a large clinical trial, the vaccine appeared to be only 47% effective. This latest disappointment is a reminder of how lucky the U.S. has been to have access to highly effective vaccines created in a relatively short time with few stumbles.

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CureVac’s Phase III trial of its candidate, an mRNA vaccine in the vein of those already developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, involved 40,000 participants in 10 countries across Latin America and Europe. CureVac’s candidate faced harsher headwinds than earlier vaccines, though, as it was tested during a time when several concerning variants of the coronavirus have widely spread, at least some of which appear to partly evade the immunity that would be provided by vaccines created against the original strain of the virus.

According to the company’s reporting of the data (which has yet to be seen by the scientific community at large), there were at least 13 distinct variants found among the 134 people who contracted covid-19 during the trial; more than half of these infections involved variants of concern. All told, the vaccine was found to be 47% effective at preventing any level of illness from covid-19—below the bare minimum of 50% effectiveness needed for approval in many countries, including the U.S.

“While we were hoping for a stronger interim outcome, we recognize that demonstrating high efficacy in this unprecedented broad diversity of variants is challenging,” said Franz-Werner Haas, CEO of CureVac, in a statement from the company.

Though there’s still a chance the results could look better by the time of the full analysis (meant to include 80 more confirmed cases of covid-19 across the control and treatment groups), it’s more likely that the vaccine will sputter out. If so, it would join four other vaccine candidates that were abandoned during development, including two others that had reached clinical trials.

There have also been challenges for covid-19 vaccines that managed to pass clinical trials and reach the public. China’s widely distributed Sinopharm vaccine seems to have been substantially less effective in the real world than the clinical trial data suggested, with countries that relied on it like Chile and Seychelles still having faced large outbreaks after successful vaccination campaigns. Other vaccines, like AstraZeneca’s and Johnson & Johnson’s, have experienced their own troubles, from safety concerns to disastrous production delays.

Through it all, though, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine rollouts have largely gone smoothly in the U.S., where the majority of Americans have been vaccinated with either one. They remain highly effective against all the variants so far identified, and no wide-reaching serious side effects have been identified (there may be a very rare risk of heart inflammation among younger people, but it’s still being studied).

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It will take time to find out why CureVac’s mRNA vaccine isn’t as effective as its cousins, though some outside scientists have already speculated that small differences in the mRNA design used across these vaccines may be to blame. If that’s the case, it further emphasizes the luck we’ve had. One tiny structural tweak here, one production misstep there, and the U.S. may have had a much harder time combatting the pandemic these past few months. Other not-so-lucky countries have experienced renewed peaks during this same time period, fueled by the arrival of more potent variants and the shortage of effective vaccines (a shortage, it should be said, that countries like the U.S. have played a part in causing).

Until everyone worldwide has access to these vaccines, the pandemic will continue to jump from peak to peak, killing and sickening more people. CureVac’s pending failure may not matter for the U.S., but it’s yet another stumble that the rest of the world can hardly afford.

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Apple Testing Secret Health Care Program with Doctors at Apple-Owned Clinics: Report

Dr. Sumbul Desai, Apple’s vice president of Health, on Sept. 10, 2019, in Cupertino, Calif.

Dr. Sumbul Desai, Apple’s vice president of Health, on Sept. 10, 2019, in Cupertino, Calif.
Photo: Tony Avelar (AP)

Apple has been quietly testing a program that would allow the tech company to provide primary health care service to patients with doctors employed by Apple at clinics also owned by Apple, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. The ambitious project, code-named Casper, was reportedly conceived in 2016, shortly after the Apple Watch was released in 2015.

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Apple CEO Jeff Williams envisioned the health care project as something that would allow doctors and patients to be in more constant contact, according to the Journal, something he dubbed the “363″—apparently a reference to the fact that a typical person only seeing their doctor two times a year. Which is to say, people often only go to the doctor when something is wrong.

The Journal is quick to note that the new Apple clinic project is now “largely stalled” but that doesn’t mean it’s altogether dead.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The team decided one of the best ways to realize that vision was to provide a medical service of its own, said people familiar with the plan, linking data generated by Apple devices with virtual and in-person care provided by Apple doctors. Apple would offer primary care, but also continuous health monitoring as part of a subscription-based personalized health program, according to these people and the documents.

If Apple could prove that its combination of device sensors, software and services could improve people’s health and lower costs, the company could franchise the model to health systems and even other countries, according to the documents.

Apple went to work testing the program with its own employees in California, according to the Journal, buying up clinics near its campus in Cupertino and hiring Dr. Sumbul Desai of Stanford University to head the project. But unnamed Apple employees who spoke with the Journal have complained that Dr. Desai doesn’t receive feedback very well. Those claims couldn’t be independently verified by Gizmodo.

Interestingly, it appears that many of the Apple employees who have signed up for the secret employee-only program haven’t been very engaged, according to the new report. One app produced by Dr. Desai’s team, called HealthHabit, which encourages people to set health goals with their doctor, has reportedly been used very little by people who download it.

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As the Journal notes, Apple has put most of its energy into other health-based initiatives involving the Apple Watch. But this is far from the first time that people have imagined automated medicine could deliver better health outcomes. There were similar dreams in the 1960s and 1980s.

Apple did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s inquiries about Casper early Wednesday. We’ll update this post if we hear back. You can read the new report in its entirety at the Wall Street Journal’s website.

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A Deadly Super-Fungus Has Emerged in Brazil, Aided by Covid-19

A medical illustration of Candida auris fungi

A medical illustration of Candida auris fungi
Illustration: Stephanie Rossow/CDC

Late last year, a deadly yeast known as Candida auris was found in Brazil for the first time. In a new paper this week, the scientists who treated and investigated these initial cases say the covid-19 pandemic helped create a breeding ground for the fungus to emerge and spread inside a hospital’s intensive care unit.

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C. auris was first discovered by doctors from Japan in 2009, though it’s likely been infecting people since at least the 1990s. Its origins are still a mystery, but the leading theory is that it only recently began to cause trouble for humans. What makes the yeast so dangerous is that strains are often (or quickly become) resistant to multiple antifungal drugs. Its milder symptoms can include fever and chills, but in serious cases, it can invade the bloodstream and multiple organs, leading to organ damage and/or life-threatening sepsis. While not all infections make people sick, the yeast’s hardy resistance can make serious infections incredibly hard to treat and often fatal, especially for people already weakened in hospitals or otherwise immunocompromised. It’s also difficult to decontaminate the environments where the fungus colonizes outside the body, such as catheters or other medical equipment that provide an easy route for infection.

Since 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have labeled C. auris an urgent superbug threat, while countries and hospitals around the world have been on high alert for it. In December 2020, Brazil became the latest country to report finding it. And on Monday, a new study detailed two of these first cases, both patients who were hospitalized for covid-19 in the same intensive care unit at a hospital in the city of Salvador.

According to the report, published in the Journal of Fungi, the cases involved a 59-year-old man and 72-year-old woman, both of whom were hospitalized with severe acute respiratory syndrome from covid-19 in October 2020 and November 2020, respectively. The two patients endured multiple other infections, including C. auris. Unlike past outbreaks, though, this strain seemed susceptible to many common antifungals. Both infections were treated, and the man eventually recovered enough to be discharged after 49 days; unfortunately, the woman wasn’t so lucky, succumbing to her many ailments in late January 2021.

Since these first cases, public health officials documented nine other people with C. auris colonizing their body as of December 2020, all of whom had visited that same intensive care unit. The cases seem to trace back to a local source, with none of the patients having traveled recently and their respective fungi being closely related to one another. Right now, the authors speculate that the fungus may have arrived or emerged locally months before the first case. And though this strain still appears to be treatable with conventional drugs, the samples isolated from these patients have started to become more resistant to at least some anti-fungals over time.

Other countries have recently reported their own outbreaks of C. auris among covid-19 patients. And in this outbreak, the severe illness brought on by covid-19 and resulting hospitalization likely enabled the colonizing fungus to become life-threatening and infect other sick people—a series of events that could be repeating elsewhere.

“Thus, the covid-19 pandemic may be accelerating the introduction and/or spread of C. auris in previous C. auris-free hospital environments,” the authors wrote.

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C. auris isn’t the only fungal infection linked to covid-19 that’s had doctors spooked as of late. During the latest and most deadly peak of the pandemic in India, cases of a normally very rare infection caused by mucormycetes, called black fungus, began to surge, with around 12,000 cases documented in the country over the past few months. Like C. auris, this infection can prove incredibly fatal once it starts to sicken hospitalized patients, killing up to half of its victims. It’s not merely covid-19 that’s contributing to these outbreaks, but also its primary treatment: steroids that blunt the overaggressive immune response but also leave us more vulnerable to co-infections from fungi and other microbes.

All these cases provide an apt reminder of the direct and indirect toll covid-19 has had, one that’s likely to continue for the foreseeable future in countries without an ample supply of covid-19 vaccines or other precautionary measures. India’s peak has finally come down, but Brazil continues to experience a high level of new cases and deaths. And with the spread of more transmissible variants such as Delta, first found in India, the world at large remains vulnerable to new peaks of illness that will bring along other nightmares like C. auris. To date, only around 15% of the world’s population is even partially vaccinated.

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Public health officials are continuing to investigate the specific strain of C. auris found in these Brazilian cases, which seems to be the first local appearance of a particular subtype of the fungus (Clade I, first found in South Asia) documented in South America. The hope is that finding out how it first emerged and why it’s a bit different from previous strains may give scientists clues on how to better stop its spread moving forward.

Taco Bell Giving Free Tacos to California Customers Who Get Vaccinated Against Covid-19

Illustration for article titled Taco Bell Giving Free Tacos to California Customers Who Get Vaccinated Against Covid-19

Image: Taco Bell/state of California

Taco Bell is giving away one free taco, specifically a Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco, to anyone who brings proof of vaccination against covid-19 to their restaurants in California. But if you’re looking to score a free taco, you better act fast. The offer is only good today, June 15.

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The initiative is part of California’s Vax for the Win program that’s encouraging people to get vaccinated through all kinds of freebies, including free spas, trips to Disneyland, and a lottery for $1.5 million. And while it’s unlikely that you’ll win the $1.5 million, anyone who can show proof of vaccination can get the free taco.

The taco giveaway is for dine-in and drive-thru only at participating Taco Bell locations, which means that delivery options don’t count. Just make sure to bring in your vaccination card that shows you’ve gotten at least one dose.

The free taco regularly costs $1.89, and this promo specifically excludes the Doritos Locos Tacos Supreme. But if that’s your fave, nothing’s stopping you from dropping some cold hard cash along with your freebie. It’s not like you were only going to get just one taco anyway, right?

“It’s been a tough year, and we are all ready to put COVID-19 behind us,’’ Mark King, the CEO of Taco Bell, said in a press release. “We are thrilled to do our part and give back to our home state with something everyone knows and loves to celebrate those who have made the decision to get vaccinated.’’

California has done exceedingly well with vaccinations against covid-19, given the latest figures. Over 18.4 million Californians, or roughly 46.6% of the adult population, is fully vaccinated. And over 70% have gotten at least one dose.

Chipotle is doing a similar promotion today, giving away one free queso blanco to anyone at California locations who can show proof of vaccination. But unlike Taco Bell, customers need to buy a full-priced menu item at Chipotle to be eligible. Taco Bell is obviously the better deal if you ask us, but go where your heart leads. As long as you get vaccinated, everyone wins.

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Disney’s U.S. Parks Abandon Mask Mandates for the Pinky Swear System

Guests take a selfie in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland on its reopening day, April 30.

Guests at Disneyland on its reopening day, April 30. Masks will no longer be required starting June 15.
Photo: Disney Parks

Starting Tuesday, June 15, if you’re fully vaccinated and going to either Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, or Disneyland in Anaheim, California, you will no longer be required to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of covid-19. Will you be asked to prove you’re vaccinated? No. No, you will not.

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Disney World has been planning this change for a few days while Disneyland announced the news Monday. “While guests will not be required to show proof of vaccination, vaccinated guests will self-attest that they are in compliance prior to entry,” reads Disneyland’s site. “In addition, all guests will need to attest that they are aware of the state of California’s strong recommendation that guests be fully vaccinated or receive a negative covid-19 test prior to entering the theme parks.” The Disneyland page also reads: “Guests (ages 2 and up) who are not fully vaccinated must continue wearing face coverings indoors, except when dining.” The Disney World wording is slightly different: “While we will not require proof of vaccination, we expect guests who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing face coverings in all indoor locations, and upon entering and throughout all attractions and transportation. Guests must observe current policies on face coverings until June 15.”

Both parks add that specific spots, mostly enclosed transportation, will still require masks for everyone, and Disney “encourage[s] people to get vaccinated.” But that’s not all. Physical distancing will also be “relaxed” or “self-determined” at both parks, and temperature checks will no longer take place at Disneyland where out-of-state guests will officially be allowed back as well. One thing that’s not changing is the reservations—guests still can’t just show up to the parks unannounced, they must have previous reservations to get in.

This isn’t some random choice, of course. June 15 is the date that’s been given by the state of California to remove all restrictions put in place over the past year. It’s also, obviously, something that was going to happen eventually since the parks reopened over the past few months. Plus, having personally been to Disneyland this past weekend, while masks seemed to be monitored well, distancing was only partially enforced, simply because there aren’t enough Disney employees to check every place in the park. Also, no one checked to make sure I was a California resident. So half of this was already “self-determined” by the guests anyway which is probably not the safest way to operate. For instance, in Miami, Florida last week, a bitcoin conference had no face mask or proof of vaccine requirements for attendees and several have already contracted the coronavirus.

It’s a little scary to jump from a fully compliant theme park to almost back to normal literally overnight. There’s also the danger of non-vaccinated people lying, carrying the disease, and spreading it not just to other non-vaccinated guests, but to vaccinated guests—it’s important to remember even if you are vaccinated, you can still carry and spread covid-19. You’re just less likely to get sick or die from it yourself. Would you feel safe going to Disneyland or Disney World without a mask? Let us know below.


For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.

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A ‘Breakthrough’ Trial Used Bacteria-Infected Mosquitoes to Stamp Out Dengue

A photo of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with the Wolbachia bacterium, taken at the Oswaldo Cruz foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 2, 2014.

A photo of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with the Wolbachia bacterium, taken at the Oswaldo Cruz foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 2, 2014.
Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP (Getty Images)

An unconventional ploy to combat dengue in Indonesia seems to have gone incredibly well.

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In a new study published this week, scientists report that cases of dengue, a deadly mosquitoborne illness, dramatically shrunk in areas where they introduced mosquitoes intentionally infected with a bacteria called Wolbachia. The bacteria are thought to prevent the mosquitoes from catching dengue in the first place. These results are the strongest evidence yet that Wolbachia can help eradicate dengue and other nasty infections spread by mosquitoes.

Over the past few decades, dengue has become one of the most common infections in the world. Also known as breakbone fever for the debilitating pain it can cause, the viral illness is estimated to infect up to 400 million people worldwide and sicken 100 million people annually. It can also rarely turn into a life-threatening infection that causes severe internal bleeding, known as hemorrhagic fever.

The toll of dengue has long made it an appealing target for research. In 2016, the first-ever dengue vaccine was approved, called Dengvaxia. But the vaccine is only moderately effective and is not recommended for people who have never had dengue before, since it can raise the risk of severe illness if the person encounters dengue for the first time post-vaccine (for people who’ve already had dengue, the vaccine helps prevent subsequent infections from becoming serious). So there’s still a need for better anti-dengue measures.

In recent years, some scientists have been working on another strategy, cribbed from nature itself. Many insects often carry Wolbachia, bacteria that need to live inside cells to survive. Wolbachia’s interactions with its hosts can be incredibly complex and often symbiotic, to the point where the insects rely on them for survival. Some mosquitoes, particularly Aedes aegypti, the main vector of dengue, don’t usually carry Wolbachia. But when they do, the bacteria makes infected male mosquitoes incapable of successfully reproducing with uninfected female mosquitoes; at the same time, the infection gets passed down to offspring. This knowledge has led to scientists creating a technique where infected male mosquito eggs are dropped into an area, mature into adults, and then try, unsuccessfully, to breed with the local females, eventually leading to the population’s decline.

Other groups have been testing out a slightly different approach. Their research has shown that when you infect Ae. aegypti mosquitoes with a specific Wolbachia strain, one lifted from fruit flies, they become much less capable of catching and transmitting dengue. These mosquitoes also spread Wolbachia to the next generation, ensuring that the bacteria keeps working as a dengue deterrent, without needing to go through the long process of trying to wipe out the local mosquito population.

Studies of this method have been ongoing since 2011, including in parts of the U.S., led by the World Mosquito Program (WMP). These studies have suggested that the strategy could be successful without causing any negative impacts to people or wildlife. But the group’s latest study, a three-year randomized controlled trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday, is their largest test of it yet, and it looks to have passed with flying colors.

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The study involved around 8,000 residents living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where dengue is endemic. Their neighborhoods were divided into 24 clusters, and the team’s infected mosquito eggs were deployed in half of these areas, while the native skeeter population was left alone in the other half. In areas where the infected mosquitoes were planted, cases of confirmed dengue infection dropped by 77% over the study period, compared to control neighborhoods. Dengue-related hospitalization also dropped by 86% in the experimental areas.

“This trial result shows the significant impact the Wolbachia method can have in reducing dengue in urban populations. This result demonstrates what an exciting breakthrough Wolbachia can be—a safe, durable and efficacious new product class for dengue control is just what the global community needs,” said co-lead author Cameron Simmons from Monash University in a statement from the WMP.

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The results from this kind of clinical trial, often seen as the gold standard in proving a treatment works, are likely to lead to much greater acceptance of its use. The WMP has already pledged to treat the rest of Yogyakarta, and they hope to expand their project to reach areas covering as many as half a billion people at risk for dengue within the next decade, with approval from governments and residents, Nature News reported last year. In the best-case scenario, this technique coupled with others could someday lead to the eradication of dengue altogether, as well as other mosquitoborne viruses like Zika and chikungunya.

Previously Common Diseases Are Bouncing Back After a Covid Hiatus

A digitally-colorized, transmission electron microscopic (TEM) image of individual norovirus particles

A digitally-colorized, transmission electron microscopic (TEM) image of individual norovirus particles
Image: CDC/ Charles D. Humphrey

With covid-19 waning in the U.S. and people returning to their old habits, once-routine contagious diseases are predictably popping back up after a year of being suppressed by pandemic precautions.

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On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory to doctors and caregivers in the Southern U.S., warning them of a recent uptick in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). As a result, they called for “broader testing for RSV among patients presenting with acute respiratory illness who test negative” for covid-19.

RSV isn’t the only previously common infection that seems to be on the rise. On Tuesday, health officials in Minnesota warned of a “significant” increase in norovirus, the highly contagious foodborne germ. In a span of a week, Seattle health officials have reported not one but two norovirus outbreaks in King County. Connecticut experienced its own norovirus cluster last month. And according to national surveillance data, both RSV and norovirus have seen a recent spike in detection by testing labs, at least in some regions.

These diseases aren’t entirely harmless, particularly for more vulnerable groups. RSV is the leading cause of pneumonia in children under the age of 1, and efforts have been ongoing in trying to find an effective vaccine. And as anyone unlucky enough to have gotten norovirus well knows, it’s not the sort of disease that usually kills you, but its symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps might make you wish it did. Still, for the large majority of the population, RSV is little more than a common cold, and neither disease’s typical impact compares to the destruction wreaked by covid-19, which has killed at least over 600,000 Americans in the past year and a half. (According to the CDC, RSV kills an average of 14,000 Americans per year—though that’s likely an undercount—and norovirus kills an average of 900.)

The pandemic has had a small silver lining in that it lowered the incidence of more garden-variety infections, including the seasonal flu, largely by changing our behavior. Distancing and other interventions like mask-wearing, though not foolproof in stopping the spread of covid-19, cut down on the amount of other germs we spew in each other’s faces or onto food.

Of course, all this added caution hasn’t come without its burdens, and many people, especially vaccinated folks, are happy to return to their old habits. Despite some valid concerns about the emergence of new coronavirus variants like Delta, first found in India, and the lagging rate of daily vaccinations in the U.S., the pandemic here continues to be on the downswing. (Globally, unfortunately, it will remain a menace until vaccination rates are high everywhere.)

Getting back to normal socializing won’t be entirely risk-free, as these recent outbreaks of non-covid infections should remind us. But in a funny way, they are the latest sign that nature is healing.

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Miami’s Bitcoin Conference May Be the Latest Covid-19 Super Spreader Event

Illustration for article titled Miami's Bitcoin Conference May Be the Latest Covid-19 Super Spreader Event

Photo: Marco Bello (Getty Images)

Several crypto fans that descended on Miami, Florida, last weekend for the largest bitcoin conference in history are now saying they’ve tested positive for covid-19.

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Larry Cermak, research director at the cryptocurrency news outlet the Block, said on Twitter Thursday that while he hadn’t personally tested positive, “everyone” whom he hung out with in Miami during the three-day Bitcoin 2021 conference. Several purported screenshots circulating on the platform showed other attendees announcing that they had since tested positive for the virus. “Looks like I’m joining the BTC Miami covid list,” said cryptocurrency podcaster Luke Martin in a now-deleted tweet, according to a screenshot shared by Cryptowhale, the pseudonym of a leading cryptocurrency financial analyst.

It’s little wonder the conference is starting to look more and more like a possible super spreader event given that 1) there was no mask mandate or proof of vaccination requirement to attend; 2) some 12,000 people packed into the convention center; and 3) Florida is one of five states that never implemented a statewide face mask requirement throughout the pandemic and was among the first to throw covid-19 restrictions out the window. While part of the event was held outside, attendees still crowded into auditoriums, private house parties, and other networking events with nary a mask in sight, Bloomberg reports.

“Vaccines have been freely available for months in the US, to the extent that anyone who wanted to be vaccinated could do so by the time of the event,” Bitcoin 2021 organizer BTC Media said in a statement to the outlet. “We provided all attendees with the current recommendations of the CDC and State of Florida and expressed to our audience that those who were high risk or hadn’t been vaccinated should consider waiting until next year.”

BTC Media did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s questions about what health precautions, if any, were in place last weekend.

The jury’s still out on how many people may have contracted the virus or if Bitcoin 2021 will ultimately be labeled as a super spreader event. As of Tuesday, Florida now reports its tally of covid-19 cases and fatalities on a weekly basis rather than daily. The state pointed to rising vaccination rates to justify the move, adding that Florida “is transitioning into the next phase” of its pandemic response. This past week’s report has yet to be released. Nationwide, the current seven-day average of daily news cases is 14,349, a roughly 35% decrease compared to the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

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