A New Covid Origin Inquiry is Bipartisan

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sparred with top public health officials in heated hearings about Covid-19 and the government’s response to the pandemic, has found a Democrat to join him in investigating the virus’ origins.

And it’s not just any Democrat. It’s Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on which Paul is the ranking Republican.

The duo announced yesterday they are investigating where Covid came from, the high-risk research that Paul believes caused the pandemic, as well as broader “national security threats posed by high-risk biological research and technology.”

Why it matters: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are concerned about risky research.

President Joe Biden, in his October executive order on artificial intelligence, tasked government agencies with laying the groundwork for new rules and requirements for how AI will be used in synthetic biology, the creation or modification of organisms.

The collaboration between Paul and Peters also means more scrutiny for government scientists. Earlier this month, the Homeland Security panel unanimously approved Paul’s bill to require government scientists to disclose royalties they receive from companies and make public the financial disclosure forms filed by members of federal scientific advisory committees.

Paul has butted heads with officials at the National Institutes of Health, the world’s biggest funder of biomedical research — particularly Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — over how the agency handled the pandemic and its research on Covid’s origins.

While Peters and Paul might seem like an unlikely investigative pairing, the Homeland Security committee advanced Peters’ bill earlier this month that aims to keep Americans’ genetic data safe from foreign adversaries. In 2022, Peters released a report into the initial Covid-19 reponse, which found that the federal response by the Trump administration didn’t “reflect the severity of the crisis and ultimately failed to effectively mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

What’s next? Peters and Paul said they plan to:

— Hold hearings on high-risk life science research, biodefense, synthetic biology, biosafety and biosecurity lapses, early warnings for emerging disease outbreaks and the origins of Covid-19

— Assess and measure risk from deliberate, accidental and natural biological incidents

— Increase transparency and strengthen oversight of taxpayer-funded life science research.

This is where we explore the ideas and innovators shaping health care.

Relax, you don’t need to don the lead vest at the dental office anymore. The American Dental Association says current X-ray technology is safe enough to dispense with it.

Advanced artificial intelligence models built with large datasets could bring “unprecedented advancements” to medicine, researchers at Mass General Brigham believe.

They built two of the so-called foundation models, focused on applications in pathology, and published some of their findings this week in Nature Medicine.

How so? They trained one of the models, UNI, on more than 100 million tissue patches and over 100,000 whole-slide images.

The researchers gave UNI 34 tasks — including cancer diagnosis and organ transplant assessments — and it outperformed current pathology models.

They trained the second model, CONCH, on more than 1 million images with captions. Its text training enables pathologists to search for examples of diseases of interest. It outperformed traditional models in 14 tasks, the researchers said.

Future impacts: UNI and CONCH show promise where other models have struggled, the researchers said, including analyzing diseases that are rare or traditionally difficult to identify.

And their success could be good news for even more applications.

“Foundation models represent a new paradigm in medical artificial intelligence,” Faisal Mahmood, one of the researchers, said in a statement. “These models are AI systems that can be adapted to many downstream, clinically relevant tasks. We hope that the proof-of-concept presented in these studies will set the stage for such self-supervised and multimodal large language models to be trained on larger and more diverse datasets.”

Many people still call 911 for help when someone is having a mental health crisis, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation think tank.

That’s not ideal, since the Biden administration wants them to call 988, the national suicide and crisis lifeline it launched in 2022.

Since many people aren’t aware of 988, the researchers say, authorities should seek to ensure the two services coordinate.

More than half of people in the U.S. are unfamiliar with 988, according to a separate 2023 study. When 988 launched, fewer than half of state and county behavioral health directors had a plan prepared and only two-thirds included some coordination between 911 and 988, according to RAND data.

While 95 percent of 988 calls are resolved on the phone, a small percentage still require an in-person response. RAND reports that it’s important for emergency services and the crisis line to work from the same playbook and be able to transfer callers.

What does that look like?

— Coordination between 988 and 911 units: RAND looked at three jurisdictions that designed models for when to divert callers to 988 or decide whether a 911 responder should send a social worker, law enforcement or both in person. The jurisdictions were Minnehaha County, S.D.; Orange County, N.Y.; and Fairfax County, Va.

— Co-location: The report found that in some cases, collaboration between teams was easier when they worked from the same office.

— Peer support: In addition to training law enforcement to handle behavioral health issues or having a team of mental health professionals on standby to help a person in crisis, communities should consider enlisting individuals who have considered suicide themselves to respond to callers experiencing suicidal ideation.

What’s next? RAND says states should consider rules that require the two services work together.

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