Dr. Sara Browne, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Diego, is a specialist in infectious diseases and, less formally, "a global health person." She often travels to southern Africa to meet with colleagues working on the twin epidemics of HIV and tuberculosis.
"This technology, in my opinion, is an absolute slam dunk for tuberculosis."
Lately she has asked them to name the most pressing things she can help with as a researcher based in a wealthier country. "Over and over and over again," she says, "the only thing they wanted to know is whether their patients are taking the drugs."
Tuberculosis is one of world's deadliest diseases; every year there are 10 million new infections and more than a million deaths. When a patient with tuberculosis is prescribed medicine to combat the disease, adherence to the regimen is important not just for the individual's health, but also for the health of the community. Poor adherence can lead to lengthier and more costly treatment and, perhaps more importantly, to drug-resistant strains of the disease -- an increasing global threat.
Browne is testing a new method to help healthcare workers track their patients' adherence with greater precision—close to exact precision even. They're called digital pills, and they involve a patient swallowing medicine as they normally would, only the capsule contains a sensor that—when it contacts stomach acid—transmits a signal to a small device worn on or near the body. That device in turn sends a signal to the patient's phone or tablet and into a cloud-based database. The fact that the pill has been swallowed has therefore been recorded almost in real time, and notice is available to whoever has access to the database.
"This technology, in my opinion, is an absolute slam dunk for tuberculosis," Browne says. TB is much more prevalent in poorer regions of the world—in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example—than in richer places like the U.S., where Browne's studies thus far have taken place. But when someone is diagnosed in the U.S., because of the risk to others if it spreads, they will likely have to deal with "directly observed therapy" to ensure that they take their medicines correctly.
DOT, as it's called, requires the patient to meet with a healthcare worker several days a week, or every day, so that the medicine intake can be observed in person -- an expensive and time-consuming process. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says (emphasis theirs), "DOT should be used for ALL patients with TB disease, including children and adolescents. There is no way to accurately predict whether a patient will adhere to treatment without this assistance."
Digital pills can help with both the cost and time involved, and potentially improve adherence in places where DOT is impossibly expensive. With the sensors, you can monitor a patient's adherence without a healthcare worker physically being in the room. Patients can live their normal lives and if they miss a pill, they can receive a reminder by text or a phone call from the clinic or hospital. "They can get on with their lives," said Browne. "They don't need the healthcare system to interrupt them."
A 56-year-old patient who participated in one of Browne's studies when he was undergoing TB treatment says that before he started taking the digital pills, he would go to the clinic at least once every day, except weekends. Once he switched to digital pills, he could go to work and spend time with his wife and children instead of fighting traffic every day to get to the clinic. He just had to wear a small patch on his abdomen, which would send the signal to a tablet provided by Browne's team. When he returned from work, he could see the results—that he'd taken the pill—in a database accessed via the tablet. (He could also see his heart rate and respiratory rate.) "I could do my daily activities without interference," he said.
Dr. Peter Chai, a medical toxicologist and emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, is studying digital pills in a slightly different context, to help fight the country's opioid overdose crisis. Doctors like Chai prescribe pain medicine, he says, but then immediately put the onus on the patient to decide when to take it. This lack of guidance can lead to abuse and addiction. Patients are often told to take the meds "as needed." Chai and his colleagues wondered, "What does that mean to patients? And are people taking more than they actually need? Because pain is such a subjective experience."
The patients "liked the fact that somebody was watching them."
They wanted to see what "take as needed" actually led to, so they designed a study with patients who had broken a bone and come to the hospital's emergency department to get it fixed. Those who were prescribed oxycodone—a pharmaceutical opioid for pain relief—got enough digital pills to last one week. They were supposed to take the pills as needed, or as many as three pills per day. When the pills were ingested, the sensor sent a signal to a card worn on a lanyard around the neck.
Chai and his colleagues were able to see exactly when the patients took the pills and how many, and to detect patterns of ingestion more precisely than ever before. They talked to the patients after the seven days were up, and Chai said most were happy to be taking digital pills. The patients saw it as a layer of protection from afar. "They liked the fact that somebody was watching them," Chai said.
Both doctors, Browne and Chai, are in early stages of studies with patients taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, medicines that can protect people with a high-risk of contracting HIV, such as injectable drug users. Without good adherence, patients leave themselves open to getting the virus. If a patient is supposed to take a pill at 2 p.m. but the digital pill sensor isn't triggered, the healthcare provider can have an automatic message sent as a reminder. Or a reminder to one of the patient's friends or loved ones.
"Like Swallowing Your Phone"?
Deven Desai, an associate professor of law and ethics at Georgia Tech, says that digital pills sound like a great idea for helping with patient adherence, a big issue that self-reporting doesn't fully solve. He likes the idea of a physician you trust having better information about whether you're taking your medication on time. "On the surface that's just cool," he says. "That's a good thing." But Desai, who formerly worked as academic research counsel at Google, said that some of the same questions that have come up in recent years with social media and the Internet in general also apply to digital pills.
"Think of it like your phone, but you swallowed it," he says. "At first it could be great, simple, very much about the user—in this case, the patient—and the data is going between you and your doctor and the medical people it ought to be going to. Wonderful. But over time, phones change. They become 'smarter.'" And when phones and other technologies become smarter, he says, the companies behind them tend to expand the type of data they collect, because they can. Desai says it will be crucial that prescribers be completely transparent about who is getting the patients' data and for what purpose.
"We're putting stuff in our body in good faith with our medical providers, and what if it turned out later that all of a sudden someone was data mining or putting in location trackers and we never knew about that?" Desai asks. "What science has to realize is if they don't start thinking about this, what could be a wonderful technology will get killed."
Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, agrees with Desai that digital pills have great promise, and also that there are clear reasons to be concerned about their use. Turner compared the pills to credit cards and social media, in that the data from them can potentially be stolen or leaked. One question he would want answered before the pills were normalized: "What kind of protective measures are in place to make sure that personal information isn't spilling out and being acquired by others or used by others in unexpected and unwanted ways?"
If digital pills catch on, some experts worry that they may one day not be a voluntary technology.
Turner also wonders who will have access to the pills themselves. Only those who can afford both the medicine plus the smartphones that are currently required for their use? Or will people from all economic classes have access? If digital pills catch on, he also worries they may one day not be a voluntary technology.
"When it comes to digital pills, it's not something that's really being foisted on individuals. It's more something that people can be informed of and can choose to take or not to take," he says. "But down the road, I can imagine a scenario where we move away from purely voluntary agreements to it becoming more of an expectation."
He says it's easy to picture a scenario in which insurance companies demand that patient medicinal intake data be tracked and collected or else. Refuse to have your adherence tracked and you risk higher rates or even overall coverage. Maybe patients who don't take the digital pills suffer dire consequences financially or medically. "Maybe it becomes beneficial as much to health insurers and payers as it is to individual patients," Turner says.
In November 2017, the FDA approved the first-ever digital pill that includes a sensor, a drug called Abilify MyCite, made by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company. The drug, which is yet to be released, is used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. With a built-in sensor developed by Proteus Digital Health, patients can give their doctors permission to see when exactly they are taking, or not taking, their meds. For patients with mental illness, the ability to help them stick to their prescribed regime can be life-saving.
But Turner wonders if Abilify is the best drug to be a forerunner for digital pills. Some people with schizophrenia might be suffering from paranoia, and perhaps giving them a pill developed by a large corporation that sends data from their body to be tracked by other people might not be the best idea. It could in fact exacerbate their sense of paranoia.
The Bottom Line: Protect the Data
We all have relatives who have pillboxes with separate compartments for each day of the week, or who carry pillboxes that beep when it's time to take the meds. But that's not always good enough for people with dementia, mental illness, drug addiction, or other life situations that make it difficult to remember to take their pills. Digital pills can play an important role in helping these people.
"The absolute principle here is that the data has to belong to the patient."
The one time the patient from Browne's study forgot to take his pills, he got a beeping reminder from his tablet that he'd missed a dose. "Taking a medication on a daily basis, sometimes we just forget, right?" he admits. "With our very accelerated lives nowadays, it helps us to remember that we have to take the medications. So patients are able to be on top of their own treatment."
Browne is convinced that digital pills can help people in developing countries with high rates of TB and HIV, though like Turner and Desai she cautions that patients' data must be protected. "I think it can be a tremendous technology for patient empowerment and I also think if properly used it can help the medical system to support patients that need it," she said. "But the absolute principle here is that the data has to belong to the patient."
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.