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Covid-19 immunity likely lasts for years

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Covid-19 patients who recovered from the disease still have a robust immunity from the coronavirus eight months after infection, according to a new study. The result is an encouraging sign that the authors interpret to mean immunity to the virus probably lasts for many years, and should alleviate fears that the covid-19 vaccine would require repeated booster shots to protect individuals and finally get the pandemic under control.

“There was a lot of concern originally that this virus might not induce much memory,” says Shane Crotty, a researcher at La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California and a coauthor of the new paper. “Instead, the immune memory looks quite good.”

The study, published January 6 in Science, contrasts earlier findings that suggested covid-19 immunity could be short-lived, putting millions who’ve already recovered at risk of reinfection. That predicament wouldn’t have been a total surprise, since infection by other coronaviruses generates antibodies that fade fairly quickly. But the new study suggests reinfection should only be a problem for a very small percentage of people who’ve developed immunity—whether through an initial infection or by vaccination. 

In fact, the new study does show a small number of recovered people do not have long-lasting immunity. But vaccination ought to offset that problem by ensuring herd immunity in the larger population. 

The new paper studied blood samples from 185 men and women who had recovered from covid-19—most from a mild infection, although 7% were hospitalized. Each person provided at least one blood sample between six days and eight months after their initial symptoms, and 43 of the samples were taken after six months. The team that ran the investigation measured the levels of several immunological agents that work together to prevent reinfection: antibodies (which tag a pathogen for destruction by the immune system or neutralize its activity); B cells (which make antibodies), and T cells (which kill infected cells). 

The researchers found that antibodies in the body declined moderately after eight months, although levels varied wildly between individuals. But T-cell numbers declined only modestly, and B-cell numbers held steady and sometimes inexplicably grew. That means that despite decreases in free-flowing antibodies, the components that can restart antibody production as well as coordinate an attack against the coronavirus stick around at pretty high levels. Crotty adds that the same mechanisms that lead to immune memory after infection also form the basis for immunity after vaccination, so the same trends ought to hold for vaccinated people as well. 

And while immunity to other coronaviruses has been less than stellar, it’s worth looking at what happens in people who recovered from SARS, the close cousin of the virus that causes covid-19. A study published in August showed that T cells specific to SARS can remain in the blood for at least 17 years, bolstering hopes that covid-19 immunity could last for decades.

The new study isn’t perfect. It would have been better to collect multiple blood samples from every participant. “Immunity varies from person to person and uncommon individuals with weak immune memory still may be susceptible to reinfection,” Crotty cautions. And we can’t make any firm conclusions about covid-19 immunity until years have passed—it’s simply too early. Nonetheless, this latest result is a good indication that if the vaccination rollout goes well (a big if), we might soon be able to put the pandemic behind us.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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