California is likely to become a destination for those seeking abortions

People travel to California for lots of reasons: to visit Hollywood and Fisherman's Wharf, to hike Yosemite and Muir Woods. In the event Roe v. Wade is overturned, it is likely to become a top destination for abortions, too.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Indeed, if Justice Samuel Alito's leaked majority opinion becomes the final say of the Court as expected, once-guaranteed abortion rights codified by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 will cease to exist. It will be up to each individual state to decide whether to ban or allow abortions, and experts forecast about half of U.S. states would implement bans. This means abortion clinics for an estimated 41 percent of women of reproductive age would close, forcing women who have the resources to travel elsewhere.

"We know we can't trust the Supreme Court to protect reproductive rights, so California will build a firewall around this right in our state constitution," Governor Newsom said.

Just as many states are doubling-down on efforts to secure bans and then some in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned, many states — like California — are taking action to ensure anyone can access abortion in the state, and secure abortion rights. The Golden State's governor Gavin Newsom has long pledged that the state would become a "sanctuary" for people seeking abortion care. But news of the leaked opinion has resurfaced efforts and pledges to do so. For example, Newsom recently proposed an amendment that would "enshrine the right to choose" in California's constitution.

RELATED: How to access abortion in a post-Roe world

"We know we can't trust the Supreme Court to protect reproductive rights, so California will build a firewall around this right in our state constitution," Newsom said in a statement. "Women will remain protected here."

Come November, California voters will be asked if they support a constitutional amendment to ensure permanent abortion access in the state. But that's not all California legislators are doing to widen abortion care for all. In March, Newsom signed a law to make abortions less expensive for people on private insurance plans. California state Sen. Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) introduced a bill this year that would allow nurse practitioners to perform abortions without the oversight of a doctor. These collective efforts are taking place to support an anticipated surge in out-of-state patients seeking abortion care.

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Lisa Matsubara, Vice President of Policy and General Counsel of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told Salon that California has been in the process of preparing for Roe v. Wade to be overturned for quite some time, since the passage of a draconian anti-abortion law in Texas in 2021. Matsubara agreed it is a little difficult to know what the impact on California would be depending on what the final Supreme Court opinion is regarding the constitutionality of a Mississippi state law that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

"It could mean that overnight, we're going to see 26 states pretty much go dark," Matsubara said, "or it could potentially mean if the Supreme Court ends up not completely overturning Roe, which might be more of a piecemeal approach over the course of several months."

According to a Guttmacher Institute report, California could see a 2,923% increase in number of women whose nearest abortion provider would be in California.

Matsubara was circumspect about making any predictions, but said the state would be ready for an influx. "I think it's a little bit hard to tell what exactly the the number of folks that might be traveling to California or really any of the states where abortion will remain legal will look like, but a lot of the efforts that we're currently doing right now is to make sure that we can build capacity and that also have the ability to increase capacity as needed," she said.

According to a Guttmacher Institute report, California could see a 2,923% increase in number of women whose nearest abortion provider would be in California. Many who would come from Arizona, which is almost certain to ban abortion outright. While this would certainly put pressure on California's abortion-care providers — as more than 40 percent of California counties do not have clinics that provide abortions — it would be a welcome trend.

But can California clinics and providers handle it?

"I think that's the question of the hour," Flor Hunt, the executive director of Training in Early Abortion for Comprehensive Healthcare (TEACH), which provides training inn reproductive healthcare and networking for a number of Northern California Family Medicine residencies, told Salon. "I think everybody in California is trying to prepare, and there's certainly a lot that we're doing to try to increase capacity to be able to mobilize capacity in the event that Roe is overturned, but I don't think anybody really knows what that is going to mean, and how many patients we're going to be seeing."

As reported by CBS News, Southern California Planned Parenthood clinics reported that they saw an increase in patients after the Texas post-six-week abortion ban. Many advocates say that was a preview of what's to come.

"SB 8 of Texas gave us a sense of what the impact was on neighboring states," Hunt said. "There's a statistic around wait times increasing 25-fold in the neighboring states, but I think that as California is trying to mobilize and prepare, we're all a little bit in the dark about the degree to which we need to increase capacity and what that's really going to look like."

Hunt added that medication abortions and telehealth appointments have made in-person procedures a little less necessary. As part of the recommendations from the California Future of Abortion Council, which includes a list of possible legislations the state should adopt in order to prepare, one recommendation is to offer medication abortions in other states via telehealth.

Hunt said TEACH is working closely with their clinical partners to staff clinics in the event that a large increase in patients occurs.

"So we've been having conversations with the training partners that we work with about their staffing needs, and talking about how we can increase capacity, staffing their clinics with our preceptors," Hunt said. "Also that provides more training opportunities, which means that more residents are getting trained in abortion and then will be ready to graduate with the ability to provide care once they're done with residency as well."

Hunt added that they also have a training program for teaching how to prescribe medication abortions open to all clinicians, such as family practitioners, who may not be trained. Indeed, if abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood see an increase in out-of-town patients, it would be best to deal with the increase in number abortions by enabling other types of clinicians to treat such patients.

"Family planning clinics play a hugely important role in providing access to abortion care, but Californians should also be able to find access to abortion care when they go to their primary care provider," Hunt said. "We believe really strongly that abortion is essential healthcare, it should be included in primary care and we want to help clinicians who want to be able to provide that care to do so."

'Beyond our wildest dreams': Scientists find fossil from dinosaur that died the day the asteroid hit

Scientists believe they have discovered a fossilized time capsule from the exact day when Earth transformed from being a verdant, dinosaur-ridden world to a soot-covered apocalyptic hellscape. Within that time capsule was a very well-preserved dinosaur leg from a dinosaur that scientists believe died that spring day, some 66 million years ago.

The discovery, which was made at the Tanis dig site in North Dakota, will be discussed in more detail in a BBC documentary narrated by David Attenborough titled "Dinosaurs: The Final Day." A version of the documentary will be broadcast on PBS in the United States next month. While the findings have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, scientists are very excited about the discovery and the prospect of what information it might hold.

"The time resolution we can achieve at this site is beyond our wildest dreams … this really should not exist and it's absolutely gobsmackingly beautiful," Phillip Manning, a professor of natural history at the University of Manchester, told BBC Radio 4's Today according to The Guardian. "I never dreamt in all my career that I would get to look at something a) so time-constrained; and b) so beautiful, and also tells such a wonderful story."

Manning called the leg the "ultimate dinosaur drumstick."

"When Sir David looked at '[the leg], he smiled and said 'that is an impossible fossil'. And I agreed," Manning said.

Manning added that the scientists also discovered the remains of fish that had breathed in debris from the Chicxulub crater, a heavily eroded 90-mile wide impact site located on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, which is widely believed to be the origin point for whatever triggered the mass extinction event. While there is scientific consensus that something hit the Earth that fateful day, there are different theories about exactly what — most believe it was either an asteroid or a comet.

Scientists were able to date the finding due to the presence of the debris that rained down for a period of time right after the impact happened.

"We've got so many details with this site that tell us what happened moment by moment, it's almost like watching it play out in the movies," said Robert DePalma, the University of Manchester graduate student who led the Tanis dig. "You look at the rock column, you look at the fossils there, and it brings you back to that day."

Additional fossilized remains that the scientists found were the remains of a turtle, skin from a triceratops, a pterosaur embryo inside its egg, and perhaps a fragment on the impactor itself. According to the New York Times, the fragments within two of the spherules were "wildly different," DePalma said.

"They were not enriched with calcium and strontium as we would have expected," DePalma said, which could suggest that the impactor was an asteroid. However, scientists won't jump to conclusions until the samples are thoroughly analyzed and published in peer-reviewed journals.

"This is like a dinosaur C.S.I.," DePalma said. "Now, as a scientist, I'm not going to say, 'Yes, 100 percent, we do have an animal that died in the impact surge,' [but] 'Is it compatible?' Yes."

The mass extinction event caused by the Chixclub impact led to the end of the Cretaceous era — and the end of the dinosaurs — paving the way for mammals, which were then mostly small, rat-like creatures, to become one of the dominant large life forms on Earth. The extinction event killed approximately 75 percent of life on Earth, though some sea creatures and burrowing animals, including early mammals, were better-suited to wait out the brief wave of superheated air caused by the impact which fanned out across the planet.

Though the precise date is not known, it is remarkable how much scientists have been able to glean from evidence as to what happened on the day of the great extinction. At the same dig site, DePalma's team previously found fish specimens who appear to have died on the day of the impact and whose bone structure indicates that it was spring or early summer when the impact occurred.

What will COVID-19 look like in 2100? Scientists predict three possible scenarios

Imagine it's March 2100. What cars remain are electric, or flying, or both; subways and high-speed rail are the dominant forms of transit. Contemporary architecture is designed around climate change, the main crisis humanity is facing. And as public health leaders around the world gather for an annual summit, they reflect on the 80th anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as 2008 marked the 80th anniversary of the 1918 influenza virus pandemic, March 2100 will mark the 80th anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where will COVID-19 be then?

Of course, nobody can predict with perfect accuracy what COVID-19 will look like eighty years hence. Yet infectious disease experts know a remarkable amount about the SARS-CoV-2 virus two years since its discovery — and they have predictions as to how COVID-19 will play out over the next century.

Those predictions are based on what we've observed about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus has behaved in the past two years. For example, experts know that the virus can mutate to become more contagious, and (to some extent) can evade vaccine-induced immunity; yet we also know that vaccines have proven to be very effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization, even if they cannot stop breakthrough infections of certain variants. Scientists also know that COVID-19 has a long tail: among those infected with COVID-19, about 10 percent will experience symptoms that can possibly persist as long as two years after an infection.

Knowing these caveats, Salon spoke to experts and scientists about how COVID-19 might look in 10, 20, and 80 years from now. Though their responses had some variation, the main lines of future prediction were remarkably similar.

The best-case scenario

Some theorize that the lesser phase of COVID-19 is already upon us. Indeed, last week, the World Health Organization reported that new coronavirus cases around the world are declining. While deaths by COVID-19 were up slightly, the new numbers did follow a 23% drop in fatalities the week before.

"SARS-CoV-2 will likely be one of the endemic respiratory viruses that humans deal with just like the other four coronaviruses that cause common colds," Adalja said.

Thus, as COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted around the world, many have wondered if the world is finally entering an "endemic phase" — which, in epidemiology, means that the disease is present in a society, but at a baseline level rather than a widespread infection.

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Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease and critical care medicine doctor, told Salon he believes by 2100 — or "actually much sooner" — SARS-CoV-2 will be endemic.

"SARS-CoV-2 will likely be one of the endemic respiratory viruses that humans deal with just like the other four coronaviruses that cause common colds," Adalja said.

The coronaviruses belong to a class of viruses known as RNA viruses, which also includes influenza, hepatitis C and SARS. RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 have relatively malleable genetic codes, prone to mutation; every time they enter a host's cell and replicate, there is a chance that mutations will occur.

As Salon has reported before, this is not always a bad thing, as natural selection tends to favor viruses that are highly transmissible and not those that are necessarily deadliest. Hence, some experts hope is that SARS-CoV-2 has reached peak transmissibility — and, through immunity gained by previous infections and vaccines, the virus will stop mutating or its mutations won't cause more severe disease than we've already seen.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Salon she agrees that in the year 2100, COVID-19 will be similar to the common cold. More optimistically, she believes it might not even be as bad.

"The thing to remember about the common cold coronaviruses, rhinovirus and adenovirus and other viruses that cause common colds, is that they can cause severe illness in older people," Gandhi said. "Because even a rhinovirus in a 90-year-old who is otherwise doing well can actually be a cause of death."

"We will have medications that will bring down the viral load of COVID," Gandhi said. "So, actually, I think the outcomes for older people will be better than a common cold."

Gandhi said the difference with COVID-19 is that the world has a vaccine for it. Previously, creating a vaccine for the coronaviruses has been hard to make, partly because of how the virus infects the upper respiratory tract.

"But in this case [of COVID-19], we will have medications that will bring down the viral load of COVID," Gandhi said. "So, actually, I think the outcomes for older people will be better than a common cold."

Adalja said there may soon be a "universal coronavirus vaccine" that "covers SARS-CoV-2 plus other human coronaviruses." He speculated that might arrive by 2025.

Likewise, it is probable that all citizens will be immunized via vaccine by then, as part of a series of childhood vaccinations.

"It's unclear whether vaccination will be at birth or at age 6 months so as not to be blunted because of maternal antibodies," Adalja said, noting that only the hepatitis B vaccine is given at birth.

Medium-case Scenario

Not all infectious disease experts agree that in 80 years, COVID-19 will peter off to the point that it is more benign than a common cold. Among them is William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. When asked if COVID-19 will then be akin to the common cold today, Schaffner told Salon: "I don't think that there's enough information out there for us to be secure in any way."

"There are people who haven't received that first booster yet, and how is it that we haven't been able to communicate, motivate, persuade, comfort and reassure them that this is really the best thing for them in their families to do?" Schaffner lamented, speaking to the difficulties of gaining public trust around the vaccines. "We have major challenges ahead of us in that regard, and if it's necessary for us to do what we do with influenza, more or less to get an annual booster — you can see what a challenge that is."

"It's not as though the virus says 'well, I'd like to get from A to B' and then it designs its genetics to get there — they're random events."

Schaffner added that the way SARS-CoV-2 mutates makes it more difficult to predict the future of COVID-19 because they "occur at random."

"It's not as though the virus says 'well, I'd like to get from A to B' and then it designs its genetics to get there — they're random events," Schaffner said. "And, I suppose, having the virus modulate itself to become more like a regular common cold virus, or developing an entirely new variant that could evade the protection of our vaccine and have the whole Fandango start all over again, they're probably comparable statistically — so I don't know which way this is going to go."

A 2008 study suggested that the virus that causes cold-like symptoms today may have jumped from birds to humans as recently as 200 years ago. But not much is known about this jump, and how severe colds were at the time.

This is one reason why scientists struggle to find a proper historical analogy to draw from in terms of predicting COVID-19's future track. Indeed, on that note, Schaffner added that each group of viruses has very distinctive characteristics. For example, measles is known for its durable immunity — meaning if a person is infected with the virus (or vaccinated against it), they are immune to the virus for the rest of their lives. COVID-19 is different, in that vaccination or infection seems to merely confer transient immunity, meaning short-term immunity.

Moreover, some viruses are difficult to vaccinate against not because of issues with transient immunity, but because of their propensity to mutate. HIV is one: it has been difficult for scientists to develop an HIV vaccine over the last 40 years in part because of how rapidly it mutates.

Nonetheless, Schaffner said by the year 2100 — due to a growing human population and increased travel due to technological advances — humanity can expect to face new epidemics or pandemics as well.

"We are going to encounter a lot of the viruses that are out there in the world that circulate in the animal population, and then have the opportunities to jump species on occasion and get into humans," Schaffner said.

He noted that this situation will be somewhat balanced by an increase in scientific knowledge and advances as well.

"We will continually be making better and better vaccines against more and more of these potential viruses that are out there," he said. "If we don't use them all, we will have the potential to have them on the shelf ... and quickly manufacture vaccines."

Schaffner imagines vaccines will look differently, too.

"We will have vaccines that are delivered by patches on the skin by just taking oral capsules and swallowing them," Schaffner said. "So they will be much easier to deploy rapidly and safely."

Worst-case scenario

Schaffner warned there could be a worst-case scenario that humanity could be looking at 80 years from now.

"That would be the development of a new variant that was very contagious and was more inclined to create more severe disease," he said. "And most importantly, the third characteristic would be that it could distinctively evade the protection of our current vaccines."

Such a nightmare scenario would perpetually extend the pandemic, he warned. "If that happened, that would start basically a new pandemic with another coronavirus, and that would cause once again, an economic, social and political calamity," he fretted.

Schaffner added that in this case, the world would be able to respond more quickly with a vaccines — but noted that the world could face, once again, the issue of deployment.

QAnon and Putin: Is it a case of mass delusion or textbook cult dynamics?

While the International Criminal Court in The Hague is being called on to open an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, QAnon followers around the globe are praising him and casting him in a positive light. Though it might sound macabre, adherents of the bizarre and all-encompassing conspiracy movement believe that a major global crisis such as the current one is intrinsic to something they call the "Great Awakening," a prophecy that forms the crux of the massive conspiracy that claims top Democratic leaders will one day be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring.

Hence, QAnon followers have taken to social media in droves to explain that what's really happening in Ukraine and how the invasion by Russian troops is actually everything "going as planned." Case in point: the Conspirituality podcast, which studies the intersection of right-wing conspiracy theories and faux wellness, shared on its Instagram account a screenshot of one user stating that the "harvesting and trafficking of humans and children….it is all being stopped for good" — because of the ongoing fighting in Ukraine. "The old central bank systems are to be switched off, humanity if being liberated from its slave masters, and true freedom, health and abundance is at our doorstep," the QAnon adherent continued, adding "nothing can stop what is coming."

As Newsweek reported, John Sabal, who previously went by the name QAnon John on Telegram, praised Putin in a series of Telegram posts positioning him as some kind of hero. "Putin is straight gangsta," he wrote. "MSM (mainstream media) is totally losing their minds right now,"

This isn't the first time a massive geopolitical event has been co-opted by QAnon's all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Previously, global events ranging from Donald Trump's presidency to the COVID-19 pandemic to Canada's anti-vaccine trucker protests have all been integrated into the QAnon narrative. Indeed, QAnon followers have an indefatigable ability to fit any news item under its umbrella conspiracy that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who just happen to mostly be Democratic leaders. And, as if it needed to be said, none of it ever manifests.

One of QAnon's biggest baseless conspiracy theories, known as #SaveTheChildren — which dates back to 2016 — claims that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, her former campaign manager, operated a child sexual abuse ring. Years later, there is still no evidence that there is any child sex–trafficking ring, or evidence of the other misinformation the conspiracy theory has generated. Still, the false narrative has not lost steam, and is now magically tied to yet another massive global event.

So why does this keep happening with QAnon? Is it a case of mass delusional, or textbook cult dynamics?

Experts tell Salon it's a mix of both.

Matthew Remski, a co-host of the aforementioned Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher, told Salon in an interview that QAnon's attempt to reduce the war in Ukraine to being about saving children isn't necessarily a way for the conspiracy theorists to rationalize what's happening, but instead a strategy to keep QAnon followers engaged and focused.

"Everything that the QAnon imaginarium drives toward is on display at scale, but in real world form — and that's a real problem for a community that imagined something like this needing to happen, but in some sort of different way or for a different purpose," Remski said. "We have a real war that's very complex and yet quite visible, and it's a real challenge for the person who has been building a war-like alternate reality that only they and their comrades can see, and that they've had to convince and recruit everybody else into believing it."

Joe Kelly, a cult intervention specialist, added that all QAnon has to lure its followers is this narrative of the so-called Great Awakening.

"They have some fundamental narratives that they keep pushing forward, and in various forms, depending on which conspiracy theory arises," Kelly said. "In this case, it's a geopolitical consequence dealing with Russia and Ukraine, and somehow they tie in their own justification." Hence, the need to manipulate reality and fold everything back into QAnon.

Remski and his team explained on Instagram this is another example of QAnon's playbook when a massive geopolitical event occurs. Their playbook, which is often propagated by wellness influencers who have become de facto QAnon followers, goes like this: first, communicate to one's followers that such geopolitical events aren't "real" and, rather, are part of some bigger plan, which usually has to do with child trafficking. Followers are then advised to do nothing in the face of said event, which is seen as the "enlightened" option. As part of this, followers are often advised to know which type of media to consume — another sign of "enlightenment"— and the source posting is the only person to be believed.

This strategy might be seen as a form of spiritual bypassing, a term developed by a psychotherapist in the 1980s to describe hiding behind spirituality to avoid emotional issues. Remski said in these wellness communities that are QAnon-adjacent, spiritual bypassing is a "self-soothing tactic that goes too far."

"In some of the yoga-related, Pastel Q posts that we've come across so far, that's kind of the name of the game," Remski said. "They say, 'I see this thing in the world, it appears to be terrifying, but I'm going to tell my followers that the secret truth of the circumstance is that everyone is on the verge of some kind of miraculous transformation, and we can't be sure what that is yet, but that's what we have to keep our focus on.'"

Remski added this strategy "gives people permission for their boredom to be participatory."

Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst who specializes in cult recovery and who wrote a book called "Traumatic Narcissism and Recovery," told Salon that QAnon followers' praise of Putin also aligns with the conspiracy theory group's ideology.

"There's a very strong leadership group here who are interested in undermining democratic institutions, for whatever their ideological reasons might be, and they've aligned with Putin because Putin is representative to them of white nationalism and anti-wokeness," Shaw said. Indeed, some QAnon supporters are conservative leaders in the U.S., like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who famously defended the movement and has made social media posts in the past that indicate that she is an adherent.

"Not all the [QAnon] followers understand what they're following," Shaw opined, noting that more people have become engaged with such frivolous conspiracy theories amid the pandemic. "Followers have been have been mainly recruited more than ever during COVID, especially during lockdown, where people are isolated, where they're dependent on what they see on their screens for interaction and they believe that they are involved in a very important movement that fights evil," he added.

Shaw said that with cults in general, which QAnon is often called, there's a strong focus on "purification."

"Purification is always at the heart of a cult," Shaw said. "The leaders believe in a certain kind of purity and they profess to know how to restore this purity."

Shaw added that in general, from a mental health perspective, people grasping on to QAnon conspiracy theories speaks to a "time of increased paranoia in this country."

"There are fears that are generated at almost every turn of the century, and that has to do with some kind of paranoid fear," Shaw said. "Psychologically, my view is that people seek out these kinds of movements, because they give meaning to their lives when they feel uncertain about what's going on in the world."

Can any animal learn to speak with buttons like Bunny the 'talking' dog does?

It's no secret that the internet has been captivated by Bunny the Talking Dog.

In case you've been on a digital detox over the last couple of years, Bunny is TikTok's beloved "talking" Sheepadoodle who uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate with her human parent. As Salon has reported, Bunny has stunned her followers by seemingly asking existential questions, recalling her dreams, and wondering about Uni, the cat she lived with who went missing. Indeed, it's not just Bunny anymore. There's also Billi, a 13-year-old domestic cat in Florida, who's captured the internet's attention by pressing buttons to communicate.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Both animals are enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk, which is seeking to better understand if animals can use AAC systems to communicate with humans. The project consists of dogs, cats, a small cohort of horses, and one peahen. In the study, participants receive instructions on how to set up their AAC buttons. They usually start with easy words like "outside" and "play" linked to their buttons. Pet parents set up cameras to constantly monitor the animals when they're in front of their boards, data which is sent to the lab where researchers examine what they say.

As popularity continues to rise by way of social media and these talking animals, some might be wondering: can any animal species learn how to talk using an AAC device?

"Certainly when we got started on this, my expectation was that we would see that dogs would do surprisingly well, but I didn't expect we would see that much in the way of a great performance from non-dogs," said Leo Trottier, cognitive scientist and founder of How.TheyCanTalk Research and developer of the FluentPet's system that Bunny and Billi use. "Dogs have famously evolved with us for thousands of years. We've engaged in aggressive selective breeding with them. Their behaviors are obvious; they are very interested in us, they look into our eyes routinely when we're talking to them, they can famously recognize pointing gestures that's been shown last, so I was surprised to see how cats ended up performing."

Indeed, as Salon has previously reported, Billi speaks up to 50 words. And while there are some anecdotal differences between how cats and dogs use the buttons, the fact that a non-dog species is succeeding with them gives Trottier confidence that perhaps any animal can use them.

"We have birds which are using them. The evidence for the birds is pretty limited, but I'm not gonna write them off, but I think the evidence for cats using the buttons inherently or in a way that's contextually appropriate is stronger than for birds," Trottier said. "But it does seem like it's surprisingly the case that many non-dog species seem to be able to do this better than expected."

While Trottier admits he's not very "optimistic about reptiles," the surprising fact that a non-dog species appears to be doing better with the buttons than expected raises new questions around animals, language and communication. The reason why animals don't speak like humans is in part an issue of vocal anatomy: they might lack the tongue flexibility to speak, vocal cords or mouth musculature. According to a 2018 study published Frontiers in Neuroscience brain power puts humans at an advantage to being able to speak, too. But that doesn't mean animals don't communicate in their own ways, or have the ability to mimic human speech. A study published in 2018 found that orca whales can mimic the words such as"hello" and "bye." A 2016 showed an orangutan was able to copy the pitch and tone of sounds made by researchers.

AAC devices were created to help people who faced difficulties in expressing natural speech. If animals face difficulties, could it be possible that animals could use an AAC to express themselves, too? Indeed, this is precisely what inspired Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, who famously taught her dog Stella how to use an AAC device. There have been some clues that non-canines and felines would succeed at using an AAC — like a bottleneck nose dolphin pressing a paddle to singal "yes."

Trottier said seeing cats succeed using an AAC device has "refined" the questions: "What has the impact been of co-evolution? And what are the things that get in the way of language use by non-human animals?"

The buttons, Trottier said, being similar to each other yet slightly different could be a means of being something that is "language friendly."

"Because that's kind of the way words are, words are these things that we share with each other that are both very similar, they're all just sounds, made by our lips, at each other, but they're also slightly different, right?" Trottier said. "And so it might be the case that the major impediment to language use in non-human animals is – well, obviously, there's going to be general intelligence – but it could be the case that the language ability is somewhat independent, and depends on some kind of unique set of kind of cognitive capabilities that maybe buttons enable."

A 'talking' cat is giving scientists insight into how felines think

Billi, a 13-year-old domestic cat in Florida, presses a button that voices the word "dog" — twice.

She proceeds to sit as if she's waiting for her human parent, Kendra Baker, to respond.

"Dog outside, hmm?" Baker asks Billi, via the buttons. A few minutes later, Billi presses another button for "tummy," twice.

"Accident or premeditated murder? You decide," Baker writes on the caption of the video on Instagram.

Those who follow the travails of internet-famous "talking" animals may be familiar with Bunny the Talking Dog, a TikTok- and Instagram-famous pet. Just like Bunny, Billi the cat uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device — essentially, a sound board made up of buttons with a different word vocally recorded on each — to "talk" to her human, Baker. Baker, like Bunny's human parent, was inspired to attempt this means of animal-human communication after she observed Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, who taught her dog Stella to use an AAC device.

Of course, unlike Bunny and Stella, Billi is a cat. And while dogs, as social animals, are renowned for being able to understand human speech, cats are a different matter.

That didn't stop Baker. At the start of the pandemic, when she found herself with extra time on her hands, Baker decided to order an AAC device to see if Billi could "talk," too.

"At that point Billi was the first cat that I knew of to try it," Baker tells Salon. "I hadn't seen any cats do it."

Considering Billi's feline status, Baker was naturally a bit skeptical at first.

"I was concerned because they [the buttons] were quite large for a little tiny kitty, and I was not sure that she was actually going to be heavy enough to press them," Baker said. "So I started with a word that I'd really not recommend that you start with, which is 'food,' because it becomes very motivating for them. And Billi loves food."

Baker's concerns quickly washed away once it became clear that Billi was able to press the button "food" — which she appeared to enjoy doing perhaps a little too much.

"She was definitely heavy enough for it," Baker said. "And then I later regretted starting with food because it kind of backfired on me, but it definitely got the ball rolling."

Today, Billi has 50 words on her board, and — like Bunny — is part of the ongoing research project called TheyCanTalk, whose goal is to understand if animals can communicate with humans through AAC devices. While the study is mostly made up of dogs, about 5 percent of the animals using AAC devices are now felines. It turns out that many cats have been successful at using the device.

Leo Trottier, cognitive scientist and founder of How.They CanTalk.org and developer of the FluentPet system Billi uses, admitted to Salon he was "pessimistic" about cats using the buttons, but was pleasantly surprised when they started to see felines catch on. Now, he's intrigued by the ways in which cats appear to use the buttons differently from dogs.

"What's interesting is that they [cats] tend to not do that much in the way of multi-button presses, but there's like a lot of single-button presses," Trottier tells Salon. "With cats, you kind of have to find things they really want, and there are just fewer of those than with dogs."

Baker agreed that Billi appears to string words together less frequently than dogs. For example, Bunny is often putting together what appears to be sentences like "night talk sleep," which Bunny's human interpreted as the dog's attempt to communicate that she was having a dream. But Baker has a theory on why cats, like Billi, might be more prone to pressing one button to communicate.

"She does string words together, but it is much less frequent than what I see some of the dogs doing, and I don't know exactly why that is but I will say she's more deliberate in her button presses," Baker said. "Billi is very, very deliberate when she presses a button and knows exactly which one she's looking for, she takes her time . . . and if she is going to string a sentence together, she'll take a thinking loop and then she'll come back — very rarely does she go from one directly to another."

Could it be that in observing cats use the AAC device, humans are finding out that the stereotypical differences between cats and dogs are actually true? Perhaps, but researchers have been very cautious to jump to any conclusions about these "talking" animals yet. In fact, it's up for debate if these animals are, scientifically speaking, speaking — or if they've simply been trained to use specific buttons to conjure specific things. Whether or not their communications are spontaneous has yet to be concluded.

Still, the spectacle of an animal talking through speakers is fascinating to observe, and researchers are excited by the prospect that cats are part of the project now.

"I'm very intrigued by the cats that are using the boards, because there's really a dearth in cat cognition studies, particularly those that happen in the home," Gabriella Smith, a cognitive science researcher at CleverPet. "Cats are really kind of overlooked in the companion animal cognition world. I've been a big fan of Billi, and my animal cognition scientist brain just lights up because I see these behaviors that I know from my own cat — but now I'm able to look at it from a cognition lens."

Smith added that having cats as part of the TheyCanTalk study is a great way to study their cognition — and also, perhaps, dispel myths about cats.

"They have this reputation of just doing what they want and not really caring what the humans are doing, and I think this is a great opportunity to see that they actually are paying attention," Smith said. "Seeing that they can be engaged, that they're not just cat automatons, that aren't driven by instinct 24/7 can function a great deal positively for their role in other studies."

In some ways, including cats in the study has opened the door for other species too — like birds. Indeed, some birds are notorious for their ability to mimic and learn humans words, so their addition makes sense.

Regardless of what these studies ultimately tell us about cat cognition, Billi's owner has observed a noticeable shift in Billi's happiness since introducing the buttons to the talkative kitty.

"I really believe that the majority of house cats are bored and depressed," Baker said. "We don't give them any stimulation . . . and if this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that staying inside your house all day is terrible. So you know, anything that we can do for them that gives them a better life, I'm for it."

How deadly is the omicron variant? Here's what we know

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the omicron variant now accounts for nearly 73 percent of new coronavirus infections in the United States. That rise is astonishing given that, in the beginning of December, the new variant only made up less than 1 percent of new infections. This means that the variant has successfully outcompeted the delta variant, ushering in a new stage of the pandemic scientists long feared would arise.

Currently, much of the country is seeing a dramatic increase in the number of COVID-19 cases thanks to omicron. In New York state, new coronavirus cases have increased more than 80 percent over the last two weeks.

"It is a predictor of what the rest of the country will see soon, and the minimum — since NYC is highly vaccinated — of what other parts of the country will experience in under-vaccinated cities and states," Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Reuters.

While the country now has to brace for a surge in cases due to a more transmissible variant, it is likely not only unvaccinated people who will be affected. As reported by the New York Times, the country should also prepare for a rise in breakthrough infections, or infections despite vaccination. That is because, as Salon has previously reported, omicron is unique in the sense that compared to previous variants, it has the highest number of mutations reported — mutations that can partially evade vaccine-based immunity.

Indeed, out of nearly 50 mutations observed in the omicron variant compared to the original virus, 32 are in the spike protein, which implicates the virus' ability to attach and gain entry into human cells.

But that doesn't mean the vaccines don't provide some protection; rather, they are still overwhelmingly effective at preventing severe cases and death. Still, omicron's rapid rise leaves one big, open-ended question: How severe is the disease caused by omicron? And can we expect a rise in hospitalizations and deaths, or can we just expect many (albeit mild) infections?

The answer to these questions will affect how cities and states across the country respond to omicron. And the short, unsatisfying answer is scientists just don't have one. Yet new data on the horizon continues to suggest that omicron is indeed less severe — which, if continually proven true, is the best possible outcome.

"There are definitely signals that the severity level of omicron may be different than delta and other variants," Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center, tells Salon. As a caveat, Adalja noted that "much of this data is derived from South Africa," which has different herd immunity levels than the United States.

Omicron was first reported by scientists in South Africa who noticed an increase in cases in the Gauteng province. In a large study presented by the South African Medical Research Council in collaboration with Discovery Health, a large health insurance company, researchers analyzed more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases in South Africa during a delta-driven surge in September and October and the beginning of the omicron surge in November. Nearly 25 percent of cases analyzed were made up of people who had a chronic illness, which put them at a higher risk of COVID-19.

Notably, researchers in this study found that the risk of hospitalization dropped nearly 30 percent during the early days of the omicron surge compared to what they saw during the delta-driven surge.

"The hospital admissions during omicron, standing at 58 per 1,000 infections, are the lowest of the four COVID waves, and one-third of what we experienced during the delta surge," Discovery Health CEO Ryan Noach said.

According to the analysis, those who did go to the hospital were not as sick as those who were hospitalized during the delta surge. Not as many people needed oxygen or ventilation.

However, not all experts believe this data to be an accurate indicator regarding the severity of the variant in other countries. In part, that is because people in South Africa have built up strong immunity against COVID-19.

"Omicron enters a South African population with considerably more immunity than any prior SARS-CoV-2 variant," said Dr. Roby Bhattacharyya, an infectious disease specialist, and epidemiologist William Hanage in a paper published online.

However, Dr. Adalja said there is data coming from Denmark that suggests omicron is less severe when compared to delta. While COVID-19 cases are on the rise there, hospitalizations and deaths are low.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon she believes there is enough evidence that omicron is less severe than previous variants. Gandhi pointed to data published from the University of Hong Kong last week that stated omicron is less likely to be able to infect lung cells compared to previous variants.

"In the United Kingdom, out of the first 25,000 cases of omicron, about 85 patients had been hospitalized and in Denmark, out of the first 785 cases, 1.15% have been hospitalized, both lower rates than during the delta surges," Gandhi said. "But we do not know yet if this is because of increasing cellular immunity in the population in December 2021 versus an inherent property of the strain that makes it less virulent or both."

Indeed, time will tell — and more research needs to be done to figure out why, at the moment, hospitalizations and deaths are happening at lower rates with omicron.

On Tuesday, the U.S. confirmed the first omicron-related death in Texas. The man between the ages of 50 to 60, according to a press release from Harris County Public Health, was unvaccinated, had previously been infected with the coronavirus and had an underlying health condition. It is probable that there have been many other deaths from the omicron variant in the United States, as only a handful of patients have the virus' genome sequenced.

Dr. Adalja cautioned that while omicron is appearing to be less severe, high-risk unvaccinated people are still at risk."

"For those who are high risk and unvaccinated, it still is severe enough to cause hospitalization and death," Adalja said.

Psychologists say that America is going through what Carl Jung warned us would eventually happen -- a mass delusion

In 2020, 34 percent of Republicans and independents who lean to the right surveyed by Pew Research Center agreed that it was "probably" or "definitely true" that powerful people intentionally planned the COVID-19 outbreak. Eighteen percent of Democrats and left-leaners agreed, too. That same year, results from a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that approximately three-quarters of Republicans did not trust the 2020 presidential election results.

It should go without saying that these kinds of beliefs are fantasy, not rooted in any rational fact or evidence. Hence, someone observing from afar the rise in conspiratorial beliefs and pseudoscience might characterize a vast swath of the American public as delusional. From the COVID-truther movement to people believing the 2020 presidential election was rigged, it appears that the body politic is — to put it mildly — no longer on the same page.

Given the perturbed psychological state of so many Americans, it is worth asking if something is happening — psychologically speaking — that is causing many Americans to live in very different realities.

Psychologists say yes; and, moreover, that what is happening was actually predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Indeed, Jung once wrote that the demise of society wouldn't be a physical threat, but instead mass delusion — a collective psychosis of sorts.

"Carl Jung noted that 'the wolf inside' man was far more a threat to human existence than external forces," Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told Salon. "When mental forces become so toxic as to harm our overall well-being on an individual and collective level a 'psychic epidemic' can result."

Indeed, Jung himself warned that modern society was prone to collapse due to a pandemic of "delusional ideas."

"Greater than all physical dangers are the tremendous effects of delusional ideas, which are yet denied all reality by our world-blinded consciousness," Jung wrote. "Our much vaunted reason and our boundlessly overestimated will are sometimes utterly powerless in the face of 'unreal' thoughts."

Notably, Jung believed that the United States was particularly prone to society-breaking delusions.

"Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease; that is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment," Jung wrote. "The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties."

Some psychologists believe that this is what the country is experiencing right now — more or less.

"Something's definitely happening, and I think COVID amplified it to a painful point, you could say," Katharine Bainbridge, a Jungian analyst, tells Salon.

But there are caveats. "It's complicated," Bainbridge said. "From the left's point of view, people that aren't being vaccinated or think the election was rigged are psychotic, right? If you're on the right, you think the left is psychotic and has lost its mind in identity politics. Both sides look at each other and say, 'you've lost your mind.'"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept of a "mass psychosis" has been seized upon by conspiracy theorists as a rationale for their conspiracies. For instance, anti-vaccination influencers like Joseph Mercola employ the term to suggest that those who are getting vaccinated are the real "delusional" ones.

Bainbridge said in order to contextualize what's actually happening in America through a Jungian lens, one must consider the role of a central guiding myth.

"Jung said man cannot live without religion — so you make it up," Bainbridge said. "You can't not have a central myth to live by. He would say maybe in this time that we've lost that — we don't have a collective unifying principle."

Cultural theorists often describe the history of human civilization as one of a transition between different central guiding myths. In the Western world, Christianity undergirded everyday existence and society for over a thousand years. After the Renaissance, the central guiding myth became a belief in rationalism; then, in modernity, a belief that technology might improve the lot of all humans.

Though the phrase is often reviled, the postmodern era — which, roughly, began in the 1960s or 1970s depending on who you ask — merely means the cultural transition into an epoch into which there were no longer any fundamental guiding myths that unified human societies and drove progress. Such an era is, by its nature, more fractured socially; two humans plucked at random from a postmodern epoch might find themselves believing wildly different things about human society, progress and morality, with little in common.

Jung believed, Bainbridge explained, that people needed myths to live by — hence the importance of religion. Yet interestingly, there has been an ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion. In return, many people — perhaps those who were never religious in the first place — have turned to New Age spiritual beliefs, which in some circles have curiously syncretized with the tenets of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

Bainbridge noted the contrast between New Age circles and QAnon in Jungian terms.

"One is super dark and apocalyptic and the other is utopian," Bainbridge said. "The problem with New Age thinking that is it leaves out the shadow — and then QAnon is obsessed with the shadow."

"Unfortunately, many people were gravitating toward conspiracy theories prior to the pandemic," Manly observed, "yet this trend has intensified during the pandemic due to surges in online time, anxiety, and feelings of helpless."

Manly connected this to Jung's "wolf within" idea. "Individuals and groups who perpetuate conspiracy theories are often intentionally 'feeding the wolf inside' masses of people — often with substantial negative mental health effects."

But why is this happening now? As Bainbridge noted, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have amplified existing rifts. Joe Kelly, a cult intervention specialist, also told Salon that humans are often drawn to extremism when they are suffering.

"If an individual is hurting — financially, on any level, losing a job, having trouble with their mortgage, having trouble feeding themselves — then they're more likely to listen to extremist ideologies and talk about a conspiracy around them that is beyond their control," Kelly said.

Social psychologists like Jung often see the government as a stand-in for authority figures like parents. Indeed, Bainbridge said, one might analogize the draw to conspiracy theories and New Age religions as children acting out when their "parents" (meaning, the state) are not taking care of them properly.

"If the parent isn't taking care of a child, then the child acts out, right? The child is angry because it's not getting its needs met," Bainbridge said. "And there are lots of people, like left-progressives, who asked: 'How did Trump get elected?' But once you really look into it, you're like, that was obvious because there's a huge part of America that's in between New York and LA, and those people are fed up and they feel forgotten."

Bainbridge says the way out of this conundrum, from a Jungian perspective, is to embrace humanism and empathy.

"We have to find our humanity, and [ask], 'what does it mean to be a human being?'" Bainbridge said. "It means that you have to integrate your own darkness, wrestle with your own paradoxes and stop projecting out onto other people the opposite inside of you."

Bainbridge added: "There are no simple answers. But we have to hold on to our own humanity, instead of projecting out and demonizing other people. That's how we survive."

Scientists just came to a disturbing conclusion about the political divide in the United States

Politics in the United States have become an increasingly polarized affair for decades, driven largely by the right moving further to the right. Observation of political polarization is not merely anecdotal; studies repeatedly bear this out.

Now, some researchers say the partisan rift in the United States has become so extreme that the country may be at a point of no return.

According to a theoretical model's findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the pandemic failing to unite the country, despite political differences, is a signal that the U.S. is at a disconcerting tipping point.

"We see this very disturbing pattern in which a shock brings people a little bit closer initially . . . but if polarization is too extreme, eventually the effects of a shared fate are swamped by the existing divisions and people become divided even on the shock issue," said network scientist Boleslaw Szymanski, a professor of computer science and director of the Army Research Laboratory Network Science and Technology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "If we reach that point, we cannot unite even in the face of war, climate change, pandemics, or other challenges to the survival of our society."

As I've reported before, sociologists and experts in disaster resilience studies often observe that a "therapeutic community" surfaces in the wake of a disaster — whether that's a hurricane, wildfire, or a terrorist attack. While that was the case to some extent after 9/11, the pandemic hasn't united the nation the same way. Experts have argued that any possibility of unity was doomed from the start of the pandemic, in part because of how politically divided and polarized the nation was before the novel coronavirus began spreading. This latest paper adds to this theory, and suggests that the U.S. is so divided that it is at an irreparable point at which unity is not possible.

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Szymanski and fellow researchers reached their conclusion by simulating the views of 100 theoretical legislators around 10 polarizing issues. The researchers had their theoretical legislators interact and network with theoretical neighbors and like-minded groups to see the influence these interactions had on polarization, too — akin to a "Sims"-like video game. When manipulating the group's "control parameters" — such as increased party identification, intolerance for disagreement, and extremism — the model found that polarizing behavior among politicians is one reason why the country is as politically divided as it is today.

At various points, the research team introduced an outside threat, like a pandemic, and then recorded how the group behaved. Interestingly, it appeared that when the group introduced an internal threat that failed to unite the country, that meant that the level of polarization was beyond repair.

"If the polarization is very, very deep in these 10 issues, then we are at the very dangerous stage in which it is very difficult to reverse polarization by democratic means," Szymanski told Salon. "When that tipping point is passed, there are no constitutional means that can reverse polarization."

RELATED: 9/11 brought Americans together. Why is the pandemic tearing them apart?

Indeed, graphs displaying the relationship between polarization and the control parameters showed that in many situations a high amount of polarization that couldn't be rectified by an external threat meant that a society was in a "phase transition," where measures of polarization began to increase exponentially. In some scenarios, if the polarization was dialed down the trend could be reversed. In other cases, a recovery wasn't possible.

"Although political polarization is nothing new, expanding political division is creating an unpredictable environment that threatens the capacity of government to respond rationally in a crisis," said Curt Breneman, dean of the Rensselaer School of Science. "This research is designed to enhance societal resilience by predicting when the level of political polarization within an influential group is nearing the point where a sudden threat will no longer produce collective action."

Szymanski said he hopes people take away from this study that this "theoretical model confirms intuition."

"If the external strong signal does not unite people, we are in danger of getting into this irreversible polarization," which Szymanski alarmed is bad for democracy. "In a divided society, it's of course very difficult to maintain that democracy which requires agreements of all people and the people who win elections and lose elections."

Szymanski added that the research shows the U.S. is at a "dangerous level of polarization," but perhaps electing less polarizing politicians could reverse the trend the U.S. is facing.

"It's almost the last call," Szymanski said.

IN OTHER NEWS: RNC chair links Biden to Fox News Christmas tree fire: 'This is a huge problem for Democrats'

RNC chair links Biden to Fox News Christmas tree fire: 'This is a huge problem for Democrats' www.youtube.com

Astronomers plan to double-down on the search for extraterrestrial life

Just as God handed down the ten commandments to Moses at Mt. Sinai, astronomers are having their ten commandments moment this week — in the form of a much-anticipated 614-page report, handed down from a committee assembled by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

This article first appeared in Salon.

That report — called the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (informally, Astro2020) — determines the top three priorities in the field of astronomy for the next ten years. The once-in-a-decade visionary blueprint will shape the future of astronomy research, and perhaps even the trajectory of human civilization given the potential for astronomers to soon discover life on other worlds.

Indeed, while the report is chock full of proposals, one prominent one stands out: confirming that life exists on an Earth-like planet beyond our solar system.

The proposal calls for a massive space-based observatory to be launched in the mid-2040s as the first of three "priority scientific areas" regarding where investments in astronomy should be made within the next decade. The second priority is to further investigate the nature of black holes and neutron stars, and the third is to improve our understanding of the early universe.

Previous decadal surveys have included monumental endorsements that led to breakthrough scientific projects like NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which was a top priority in a survey in the 1970s. The priorities are determined after surveying professionals in the field, which is then organized by a 20-person panel.

Nikole Lewis, assistant professor of astronomy and deputy director of the Carl Sagan Institute who contributed to the report, told Salon the process for determining the top priorities was all about what would "push the field forward."

"We're really asking ourselves 'What's really hard to do?' and 'What would be transformational?'" Lewis said. "And so exoplanets and searching for life on other worlds is really both hard and transformational, so that is a good focus area for the future of astronomy."

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This hypothetical space observatory would essentially be a more advanced version of a collection of telescopes similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, but its main priority would be to search for biosignatures on the 25 habitable zone exoplanets that have been deemed "Earth-like." The process of creating and launching such an observatory is explained in great detail in the report.

First, the report recommends that NASA establishes a new Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation program, which would essentially change the way major projects are developed. This newly structured program would provide an opportunity for the field to make early investments in the development of smaller versions of bigger projects to make sure they are feasible before they become too large and costly.

After the program has been established, the first mission would be developing an infrared, optical and ultraviolet telescope significantly larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists would build this telescope to observe planets 10 billion times fainter than their star, which is key to identifying signs of life on exoplanets in their star system's habitable zones. Lewis explained the main difference between the proposed space observatory and the James Webb Telescope — which is planned to replace the Hubble Space Telescope in December 2021 — boils down to the technology used to observe the fainter planets and provide spectroscopic data to scientists.

"In order to access planets that are in Earth-like orbits around sun-like stars, so at the same distance from the same type of star, we need a different technology," Lewis said. "You need some way to block out the starlight in order to see the relatively faint planet next to it, and so that's a lot of what's driving this technology development towards this flagship mission."

Lewis added that while the James Webb Space Telescope is going to study exoplanets, it will only be able to look at exoplanets that are very close to their stars, due to its physical constraints.

"These are typically planets that are much closer to their stars than say Mercury is to the sun," Lewis said. Yet a close-orbiting planet does not necessarily imply a barren hellscape, like Mercury; some stars are far cooler than ours, and thus even a close-orbiting planet can be habitable. In other words, the James Webb Telescope might still image habitable worlds, but not habitable worlds anything like Earth.

"The Webb telescope will really only be able to look at those types of planets that are really not around sun-like stars in Earth-like orbits, but we're going to learn a huge amount about those potentially habitable worlds," Lewis added.

Hence, while the James Webb Telescope will aid our current understanding of exoplanets, it will in some ways be limiting. However, the next proposed generation of telescopes would be able to identify biosignatures on these Earth-like planets in other star systems.

If this space observatory were able to launch in the mid-2040s, with an estimated cost of $11 billion, does that mean we would finally be able to know if there is extraterrestrial life in the universe? The short answer is yes.

"It's an exciting time because in searching for life we're going to actually discover a whole bunch of really interesting things about how planets work, and as we get to the point where we think, 'Okay, this planet we think really has life,' and we start to build a statistical sample," Lewis said. "It's really going to put in context how unique Earth is, which is important for us as humans, right?"

"Are there a bunch of Earth twins out there? Or maybe those planets that don't look like us also harbor life, and so it will be a mind-expanding moment in contextualizing our place in the universe, our uniqueness, and also our potential to think about how life might have formed outside of the context of Earth and around another star."

Lewis said the proposed plan puts astronomers and scientists in a position to have answers to these questions in our lifetime. Indeed, astronomers whose careers have been dedicated to search for extraterrestrial and microbial life in the universe are excited about this proposal.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), told Salon he's "excited," but is managing his expectations.

"If this new observatory or even James Webb finds a planet that has oxygen in its atmosphere, we'll think 'oh, photosynthesis, the aliens have salads to eat.' Okay, that's interesting, but keep in mind that the Earth has oxygen in its atmosphere for about 2 billion years," Shostak said. "And not too many humans were walking around with the radio transmitters 2 billion years ago, 1 billion years ago, or even 100 years ago. So it doesn't necessarily improve your immediate chances, but what it does is it gives you a reason to keep looking at this category of objects."

Shostak said it is invigorating to be so close to having answers about extraterrestrial microbial or intelligent life.

"It's fortunate to think that we might be alive when it happens," Shostak said.

Fake COVID vaccine card dealers are now offering to forge digital medical records, too -- here's how it all works

It was late, the lights already off in my house, but the message lit up my bedroom like a full moon. It was the person I'd been waiting for — the "dealer."

"We work with a group of antivax doctors who have access to the database," the WhatsApp message read. "Your data will be updated to the system and a QR code sent which you can verify on your country's hub."

The message was the culmination of an investigation into fake COVID-19 vaccination cards. I'd read many stories about these cards, some funny, some shocking. But I wondered: just how easy is it to get them? And how common are they?

The answer to that question could have dire implications for public health. If they were that easy to acquire and pass off, that was reason to be more suspicious of strangers in public places that are supposed to be vaccinated-only, compromising a crucial pandemic safety policy.

Earlier in the day, I searched Reddit and Facebook; it took mere minutes to find a purported fake card dealer, the one with whom I later contacted on WhatsApp. At noon, I expressed interest in buying a card; at 8:50pm later that night, they finally got back to me.

Three hours later, I found myself waiting for answers to questions about how this illegal operation works, as I pretended to be interested in making a purchase. To my surprise, they were talkative. I even asked for a photo of what the card would look like; in response, I was sent a photo of an example from a "satisfied client."

* * *

As vaccine mandates take hold in various states, and the implementation of a federal mandate for private-sector businesses looms, a black market for fake vaccine cards has emerged. Perhaps this comes as no surprise: as this reporter observed first hand, they're easy to seek out, and the cards themselves are printed on simple cardstock. Perhaps more surprising is the cost: some go for hundreds of dollars — meaning that some consumers are so passionate about avoiding a free vaccination that they are willing to shell out for something they could have gotten at no charge had they been willing to be inoculated.

According to the cybersecurity firm Check Point Research, the number of sellers offering fake vaccination cards increased on social media platforms and the dark web after President Joe Biden announced a plan that would require private-sector workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested for the coronavirus. Prior to the announcement, Telegram groups selling forged vaccine cards had as many as 30,000 subscribers, after the announcement some groups saw an uptick to nearly 300,000 subscribers.

"The market on Telegram for fake vaccination cards has been exponentially growing, and the price for a fake card has doubled, and that kind of big exponential growth time-wise really syncs up with when the federal mandate for vaccinations was released," Maya Levine, a cybersecurity expert at Check Point Research, told me. "And since that announcement, we estimate that the number of sellers on this black market have gone up by about 10 times."

For the unfamiliar, Telegram is a messaging application — similar to WhatsApp — with robust privacy and secure chat and texting features, which in this case seem to attract black market vaccine card sellers.

But fake vaccine card sales aren't just happening on privacy-forwards Telegram; they're also happening on Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram, according to a separate investigation by the Digital Citizens Alliance (Digital Citizens) and Coalition for a Safer Web (CSW).

"What's interesting is these nefarious actors have evolved, as the fear has evolved," said Eric Feinberg, a lead researcher for the Coalition for a Safer Web, in an interview. "And this is kind of the failure of social media to keep up with it as the fear evolves, and so has the use of these nefarious actors to use these platforms in this way."

In the case of the purported "dealer" with whom I had been chatting, some of their claims were alarming — particularly the one about working with "antivax doctors" who could supposedly forge vaccination records digitally as well.

Are these sellers really in cahoots with doctors? It was certainly within the realm of possibility. There have been reports of health care workers with access to blank vaccine cards who went on to sell them — like one Chicago pharmacist who was charged with stealing official COVID-19 vaccination cards and selling them on eBay.

"There are cases where the source of these fake cards are not even 'fake,' because they work in a pharmacy — they have access to them and they just take them," Levine said. "Unfortunately, some people in the medical system are taking advantage of this."

NPR reported on another similar case, where a New Jersey woman calling herself the AntiVaxMomma on Instagram sold several hundred fake COVID-19 vaccination cards at $200. For another $250, a co-conspirator would then enter a fake card buyer's name into a New York state vaccination database. At least ten names were entered into the database via a co-conspirator who worked at a medical clinic in Patchogue, New York. The woman was charged with offering a false instrument, criminal possession of a forged instrument, and conspiracy.

Obviously, copying and selling COVID-19 vaccine cards is illegal — which is why they're not for sale on any reputable site on the internet.

"It is a felony to impersonate an official document, which is what a vaccination card is from the CDC is," Levine said. "It's a crime to definitely sell it, and it's a crime to try to use that fake card in places that are asking for it as proof of vaccination."

According to a warning from the FBI, anyone who sells, buys, or sells a fake vaccine card could be fined or face prison time.

"The creation, purchase, or sale of vaccine cards by individuals is illegal and endangers public safety," the warning stated. "The unauthorized use of an official government agency's seal on such cards is a crime that may be punishable under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1017, and other federal laws. Penalties may include hefty fines and prison time."

* * *

As for me, my conversation stopped with the anonymous seller after I received the photo. (Of course, I didn't intend to go through with the purchase; I'd already been vaccinated anyway, and was going through the process for the sake of journalism). The image showed a hand holding up a vaccine card that looked just as normal as my real card; the person's hand was hovering in front of a laptop screen in what looked like an elementary school classroom. There was a blackboard and a map of the United States in the background. Personal information on the card had been obscured by the sender.

I ran the photo through a reverse image search, and couldn't find anywhere else that it had been posted online. In checking the photo's metadata, I noticed that all identifying information — such as the device on which the photo had been taken or the GPS location — had been scrubbed or unrecorded.

As for how this person's operation works, much of that remains unclear. It certainly would have been revealing to see what would have happened if I'd gone through with the purchase, though that was out of the picture given its illegality.

On the forum where I found this seller, other users attested to their products' quality. And the illicit vaccine card dealer's narrative is similar to what others have found in investigations into fake vaccine cards: in general, the potential buyer is asked to pay money, told their information will be entered into a database, and asked for similar information about themselves.

There have been reports of the FBI and Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General cracking down on this operation. Last month, the National Hockey League (NHL) suspended San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane for allegedly submitting a fake vaccine card. In Pennsylvania, two police officers were fired for the same offense.

But that doesn't appear to be making a dent on the growing industry.

Notably, purchasing a card can put the buyer at a higher risk of being scammed, or having their information stolen or sold.

"Besides the fact that it's illegal, there's a risk when you choose to give an anonymous seller your information," Levine said. "There's a very high chance that whatever information you give them, whether it be credit card information to pay for it, or your personal information, like your name and your birthday and your email, they can then take that and just as easily sell it on the dark web."

And of course, buy using such a card and misrepresenting yourself, you put yourself and others at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Experts say that social media platforms also need to be held accountable, and an easy and immediate solution would be for social media platforms to share information about nefarious actors with each other. Sellers often move around from platform to platform; as I observed, a seller advertised on Facebook and then requested we move our conversation to WhatsApp.

"I think information-sharing between the platforms could be one thing that could pretty quickly make a dent in some of this kind of activity, even before Congress puts pen to paper on any legislation," said Adam Benson, from the Digital Citizens Alliance.

A mysterious and powerful radio signal from space is repeating itself

Outer space is chirping, and no one quite knows why.

Known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs for short, these very brief yet incredibly powerful bursts of radio wave energy appear to be coming from all corners of the universe. And while astronomers can pick up such signals, they are, because of their brief duration, very difficult to study. Very few of them ever repeat; and since they only last a millisecond, telescopes can rarely focus on them in time to get a good look. Moreover, astronomers do not quite know exactly where they are coming from, or where the next one might land.

All of this uncertainty around fast radio bursts has only heightened their mystery.

But astronomers may have found some answers in a fast radio burst that, unusually, repeats — which has given them more opportunities to study the strange signals.

Dubbed FRB 121102, the first repeating FRB has revealed new insights about this mysterious phenomenon. According to a study published in Nature last week, an international group of scientists found 1,652 independent radio bursts from the same source over the course of 47 days between August 29 and October 29, 2019. The analysis is significant for being the largest set of FRBs ever recorded from a single source. At one point during observation, 122 radio bursts occurred in the span of one hour from the source.

"This was the first time that one FRB source was studied in such great detail," said astrophysicist Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas and one of the study's corresponding authors. "The large burst set helped our team hone in like never before on the characteristic energy and energy distribution of FRBs, which sheds new light on the engine that powers these mysterious phenomena."

Part of the mystery around FRBs is that they are relatively new to science. Scientists discovered the first FRBs in 2007, and have since turned to powerful radio telescopes to track down the bursts and search for clues on where they originate and how they are produced. One prominent theory on their origins is that they spawn from a type of incredibly dense neutron star called a magnetar, which have some of the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. Another theory posits that FRBs emerge from shock waves traveling at near light-speed outside a magnetosphere.

In a news release, Zhang said the latest observations "pose great challenges to the latter model."

"The bursts are too frequent and — given that this episode alone amounts to 3.8% of the energy available from a magnetar — it adds up to too much energy for the second model to work," Zhang said.

Pei Wang, one of the article's lead authors from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), agreed.

"During its most active phase, FRB 121102 included 122 bursts measured within a one-hour period, the highest repeat rate ever observed for any FRB," Wang said.

Indeed, in a separate study published in Nature in June 2020 suggested that some fast radio bursts could be coming from a magnetar in our galaxy nearly 10,000 parsecs away.

"Because magnetars are spinning quickly and have powerful magnetic fields, they have huge reservoirs of energy that can produce outbursts," Alexandra Witze wrote in Nature. "One idea about the source of these outbursts is that something happening inside the magnetar — such as a 'starquake,' analogous to an earthquake — could crack its surface and release energy."

While their precise causes remain a mystery, astrophysicists have mostly ruled out the possibility that these mysterious radio waves are coming from an alien civilization, as Salon has previously reported.

"It is unlikely that all FRBs are from alien civilizations due to the power requirements at cosmological distances, but possible," Avi Loeb, the former chair of Harvard's astronomy department previously told Salon.


People I'm close to having COVID. I tested negative, but have symptoms. Could the test be wrong?

Dear Pandemic Problems,

I'm freaking out about possibly coming down with COVID, despite being vaccinated and boosted. I work as a nanny to two young children. Over the weekend, one of the kids came down with standard cold symptoms; so I was not surprised when I got a mild runny nose on Monday, which alone would not be a reason for concern.

(This article first appeared in Salon.)

Then, the parents of the children whom I nanny told me that the five-year-old was going to be quarantined because one of her classmates had tested positive for COVID. I started wondering if my runny nose was actually COVID. I went and got tested yesterday.

Then, this morning, the parents of the child called me and said their daughter had indeed tested positive for COVID.

But then I got my test result back — from the test I took yesterday — and it came back negative.

At this point I assumed I got COVID from the kid that tested positive — luckily with mild symptoms thanks to getting a booster a month ago. I spend a lot of time around this child, after all.

So I have trouble believing my test result, frankly. What are the chances that I get a persistent runny nose and very mild cough, and then it turns out that the little girl I nanny is COVID-positive and I'm not? It just seems weird.

I don't know what do to now. Do I believe what seems like an unlikely result? Do I get tested again? What are the chances that I have a false negative? Are there other types of tests I could get? (This test was a PCR).

Right now, my insurance will not authorize another test so soon but I feel strongly that I should get another test ASAP. How will I know when I can stop quarantining, if at all?

Sincerely,

Not Positive I'm Negative

Dear Positive I'm Negative,

I'm so sorry this is happening to you. This certainly sounds like a confusing and stressful situation. It's frustrating that we are 19 months into this pandemic, and we still have to worry about being exposed to COVID-19 and the possibility of getting false negative tests. I'd be a bit disoriented, too, if I were you — particularly given that you are vaccinated, and got a booster. Ugh!

And yet, this is where many of us find ourselves in the pandemic right now. The good news is that the Biden administration recently purchased 65 million pediatric doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is enough to vaccinate an estimated 28 million children between the ages 5 to 11— pending the Food and Drug Administration's approval, of course. This means the five-year-old you care for will finally be able to get vaccinated, providing even more protection for you at your job. I'm sorry it didn't happen earlier.

I have to be honest with you, Not Positive I'm Negative, that I haven't answered a pandemic problem in a few months. Partly because I haven't received any questions that I thought I could answer, and partly because whenever I write about vaccines, I receive a bunch of hate mail. But I was intrigued by your email because I think there is a lot of confusion around what vaccinated (and boostered) people are supposed to do when exposed to COVID-19— so let's dive in.

First, let's start with the facts. You, a vaccinated person, who was exposed to COVID-19. Here's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises on that:

"If you've had close contact with someone who has COVID-19, you should get tested 3-5 days after your exposure, even if you don't have symptoms. You should also wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until your test result is negative. You should isolate for 10 days if your test result is positive."

OK, so you did the right thing by getting a COVID-19 test, but it came back negative. I am wondering if the timing of the test has something to do with your result. When I asked Dr. Amesh Adalja, an emergency medicine physician, about your situation, he said: "The validity of the test result depends on how long post-exposure the test was performed."

"Post-exposure testing should be 3-5 days after the exposure," Adalja said. "If a person is not symptomatic and is vaccinated and tested negative 3-5 days post exposure, I would not recommend a retest. If the exposed person is not vaccinated and has no symptoms, a negative test at day 5 would be sufficient."

Adalja added that many exposures don't result in transmission of the coronavirus, which was the case "even in the pre-vaccine era," he said.

"Lastly, if the person who was exposed was vaccinated, transmission risk would be blunted as well," Adalja said.

OK, but you're having symptoms. Since I don't know the exact timing, it could be possible that you tested too early and it might be wise to retest — especially if your symptoms worsen. But as you asked, what are the chances that you get a persistent runny nose and very mild cough, after being exposed to a positive COVID-19 case?

It's estimated that adults have an average of 2-3 colds per year; children have even more. So it could be that you have a cold, or you tested too early. If it's the latter, perhaps consider retesting.

I know you said your insurance won't authorize another test, but is it possible that you can go to a nearby community testing site — where you don't need to provide insurance or pay for a test? The United States Department of Health and Human Services has a list here. You could also do an at-home Binaxnow test, which costs $23 (though it should be free).

I hope this helps, Not Positive I'm Negative. I know it's a frustrating time, but I'm positive that you will weather this storm.

Sincerely,

Pandemic Problems

"Pandemic Problems" is a periodic advice column that answers readers' pandemic questions — often with help from public health data, professors and therapists — who weigh in on readers' dilemmas. Do you have a pandemic problem? Email Nicole Karlis at nkarlis@salon.com.

Do dogs miss us when we are gone? A 'talking' dog offers insights

Any dog owner knows how hard it is to leave their pup for an extended period of time. We wonder: Do they miss us when we're gone? Do they know how long we've been gone for? Or even worse, do they think we've abandoned them?

The way humans are excitedly greeted by their dogs upon return — and the way many whine when we leave — suggests they recognize our absence, and mourn it. However, it's hard to know what is really going on in a dog's brain — perhaps they just miss the food we give them? — partly because we can't really communicate with them.

Well, most of them. Alexis Devine is the human parent of Bunny the "talking" dog. Bunny, a sheepadoodle, has been trained to communicate using a sound board with large buttons keyed to different words. By pressing them in sequence, Bunny can relay basic sentences and sentiments — "Bunny sad," or "where mom," for instance. Though there is debate over the extent to which she understands language, most animal behavior researchers and laypersons alike agree that she is positively communicating and seems to understand what she says and hears back. Devine shares videos of Bunny "talking" on her social media accounts, giving the internet a glimpse into what it might be like to have a casual conversation with Fido.

Recently the beloved sheepadoodle has been concerning herself with the absence of people and animals in her life. And to answer the question about animals missing us when they are gone: if they are anything like Bunny, it would seem that yes, they are very curious about where we go when we leave.

Devine recently filmed Bunny asking her questions about Uni, Devine's lost cat who has been gone for nearly four months. As Devine told Salon, prior to Uni's absence, Bunny didn't "talk" much about Uni.

"It was maybe like two months before he went missing that she had finally finally used the buttons, 'Uni family together,' which was a huge accomplishment because they had had such a tenuous and challenging relationship," Devine said. "And then, last week, it was just heartbreaking, she pressed 'cat bye,' and I just about burst into tears. My little heart couldn't handle it."

It's not the first time Bunny has appeared to wonder about some one or some animal while they're gone. A couple months earlier, Devine's partner Johnny was at work. "Where dad bye?" Bunny asked.

Devine said Johnny worked from home all last year because of the pandemic. He's a high school teacher, and he's finally back to teaching in-person.

"The first week that he was back at school in the classroom, Bunny was very much asking about Johnny, pressing 'Where dad?,' 'Where dad bye?' for a lot of the day, for several days in a row," Devine said.

Bunny, who has 7.1 million followers on TikTok, is one of nearly 2,600 dogs and 300 cats enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk. The study's aim is to understand if animals can communicate with humans through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. AAC systems, such as Bunny's giant labeled buttons that speak a single word when pressed, were originally designed to help humans with communication disorders. Recently, they have been adapted for use in language experiments with animals.

Of course, as Salon has previously reported, it is unclear (scientifically speaking) whether Bunny has been trained to use specific buttons on her AAC device, a sound board made up of buttons with a different word vocally recorded on each, or if her communications are actually spontaneous. Through it, Bunny has appeared to report her dreams, ask existential questions, and now answer one of the most frequently thought of questions among dog owners: do they miss us when we're gone?

Federico Rossano, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, said in Bunny's case it's "certainly" possible that Bunny is missing Uni and Johnny.

"Most social animals living in small groups or packs are aware that somebody is missing," Rossano said. "This is most obvious in a mother keeping track of their cubs and going to retrieve one that has gone too far."

Rossano added that in a pack of wolves, one might howl when an individual has been separated from the pack. It's a way of saying "we are here," Rossano explained.

"Dogs tend to form close bonds with the animals they live with (humans and non-human) that would be comparable to the forming of a pack (though it is unclear to what degree hierarchy is as important as in wolves)." Rossano said. "So Bunny's behavior in those videos makes perfect sense."

But of course, scientific studies are still pending. To date, not many have tested this precise hypothesis.

Yet there have been an array of studies that show that dogs do love their humans. For one, neuroscientist Gregory Berns trained nearly 90 dogs to stay put so he could do a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan on their brains. In one of his studies, he gave dogs five different scents — their own scent, a familiar human, a strange human, a familiar dog, and a strange dog. Researchers found that the brain region associated with positive rewards, the caudate nucleus, was most activated by the scent of their familiar human; the study was published in the journal Behavioural Processes in 2014.

In 2011, two Swedish researchers Therese Rhen and Linda Keeling performed a scientific study on 12 dogs to determine how they behaved before, during, and after an owner's absence. They found that when an owner had been gone for two hours, dogs had more tail wagging and face licking compared to when the owner was gone for 30 minutes. However, after two hours, there didn't appear to be much difference in the dog's behavior, suggesting that perhaps a dog's sense of time after two hours gets blurry.

Rossano emphasized that, while this study is often referred to, it only involved 12 dogs. There is room for a follow-up to answer some bigger questions around how dogs understand whether animals from their pack are gone or not, and to what extent they miss them.

"So much more research needs to be done to confirm this finding; there are also a series of clear confounds that any future study would need to address," Rossano said. "Indeed, it is possible that the over-excitement after two hours could be due to a desire to obtain food or get out of the house or simply play with the human."

In other words, Rossano said, "it is not that I know you have been gone for long and therefore I am nicer to you [but] rather, I (the dog) am now feeling hungry, or need to pee or am bored and therefore I am trying to engage with you, and if enough time has passed, these states might be reached independently of the dog's awareness of how long the human is gone."

Indeed, it's hard to study what's going on in a dog's mind because we can't communicate with them. But that's part of what the study that Bunny is part of hopes to eventually accomplish.

"If the dogs could tell us how long a human has been gone, it would clearly help us understand their representation of time and how their memories are structured," Rossano said. "This is why we are extremely interested in assessing how training dogs to use buttons and soundboards can lead to novel paradigms and findings concerning dog cognition."

How the once-feared mu variant all but disappeared

In September, news broke that a new coronavirus mutation — the mu variant, formally known as B.1.621 — could potentially evade vaccine-induced immunity.

"This variant has a constellation of mutations that suggests that it would evade certain antibodies, not only monoclonal antibodies, but vaccine- and convalescent serum-induced antibodies," President Joe Biden's COVID-19 adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters in September. "But there isn't a lot of clinical data to suggest that. It is mostly laboratory in-vitro data."

At the time, the idea of a vaccine-resistant variant sent a shockwave of fear through the world. The dreaded delta variant was already known to be more resistant to vaccines than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. Could mu, which was first discovered in Colombia, be worse than delta? Indeed, mu appeared to have specific mutations that have been associated with resistance to immunity, as well a mutation known as P681H that has been linked to accelerated transmission.

Now, nearly a month later — long after the World Health Organization dubbed the mu variant one "of interest" that needed to be monitored — data from outbreak.info shows the mu variant hasn't been detected in the U.S., nor anywhere in the world, since September 21, 2021.

Does that mean the mu is no longer a threat? The short answer is: probably. But Joseph Fauver, an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health, wouldn't go as far as saying it's been "eradicated," as some news outlets have reported either.

"To say it was 'eradicated' would imply that we, humans, went out of our way to make that happen … but as far as mu or B.1.621 no longer being around, yeah, I would totally buy that," Fauver said.

Fauver clarified: "What actually happened was that it was effectively out competed by delta."

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A similar trend has been observed with the alpha variant, or B.1.1.7, which was first found in the United Kingdom. According to outbreak.info, a multi-institution coronavirus public health database which collects genomic data from the GISAID Initiative, B.1.1.7 was last detected in the U.S. on September 17, 2021. It was last detected anywhere in the world on September 21, 2021.

As Fauver explained, these dates are derived from the last known genetic detection of each variant in random samples from patients. Because not every COVID-19 case is sampled and DNA tested, there is no way to know with absolute certainty if these variants are indeed still circulating — especially when COVID-19 positive case rates are as high as they are in the United States.

But as weeks go by, the delta variant continues to be the dominant strain worldwide.

Delta's dominance over the other strains may be a blessing in disguise. Indeed, delta is spreading 50% faster than alpha and is 50% more contagious than previous variants. Yet mu certainly had its own set of troubling mutations.

"Mu contains a suite of mutations that are very concerning," Fauver said. "Mutations that have been found in a lot of other variants of concerns, specifically in the Spike gene and receptor-binding domain, also by a variety of studies, look to be slightly more immuno-evasive than some of the other variants of concern."

Fauver added: "If it would not be for delta it may have been much more concerning and it could have gotten to a lot higher frequencies."

If that's the case, why did the delta variant win out?

"Million dollar question," Fauver said. "I can confidently say that delta is more transmissible, but exactly as to why, I think the jury's still out and there's still more science to be done." Fauver speculated it could have to do with something happening at a molecular level.

If the variants that made up the first part of the pandemic essentially die off, and delta is the dominant one worldwide, does that mean delta is the variant we can expect to stay around long-term? Not yet. That's because RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are always mutating. While viruses are technically not alive, it is their nature to mutate and evolve as they infect hosts' cells and replicate.

In fact, the delta variant has already mutated— just not in a way that's been significant to humans. In general, the rate at which mutations happen depend on the virus.

"Viruses replicate and survive and pass their genes to the next generation just by making more copies of themselves," said Sasan Amini, founder and CEO of Clear Labs, a private genomics company. "This replication process is not a perfect process, meaning that while you're going through the replication process errors will be introduced. But these errors are actually being corrected and the result of that actually ends up creating copies that are almost identical to each other."

Many mutations get eliminated in the process of natural selection, Amini said, but sometimes mutants get a competitive advantage— like delta.

"Those mutants actually end up replicating faster, being more infectious, and end up over time becoming the more prevalent part of the population," Amini said. "And that is pretty much what happened."

Amini said some of delta's mutations are similar to mu, but not all. This is all to say that it's possible that delta could mutate into something different.

"Whatever is defined as delta today is not going to be pretty much the only SARS-CoV-2 that you will see in future," Amini said. "And as a result of that actually means that it is very essential for any government entity, public health entity, all of the public health response, to surveil and sequence emerging and also existing versions of SARS-CoV-2."

Does this mean an even worse iteration of delta awaits? Fauver said he's not in the "prediction business," but said that a lot of mutations seen in variants of concern are shared. They have, he said, the same "repertoire."

"Is there some new suite of mutations out there, waiting to be found, to make the virus even worse? I have no idea," he said. "Delta is really transmissible, it is a really bad virus, and I hope it doesn't really get any worse than this."