It looks like an ordinary toilet but it is anything but. The "smart toilet" is the diagnostic tool of the future, equipped with cameras that take snapshots of the users and their waste, motion sensors to analyze what's inside the urine and stool samples, and software that automatically sends data to a secure, cloud-based system that can be easily accessed by your family doctor.
"It's a way of doing community surveillance. If there is a second wave of infections in the future, we'll know right away."
Using urine "dipstick tests" similar to the home pregnancy strips, the smart toilet can detect certain proteins, immune system biomarkers and blood cells that indicate the presence of such diseases as infections, bladder cancer, and kidney failure.
The rationale behind this invention is that some of the best ways of detecting what's going on in our bodies is by analyzing the substances we excrete every day, our sweat, urine, saliva and yes, our feces. Instead of getting sporadic snapshots from doctor's visits once or twice a year, the smart toilet provides continuous monitoring of our health 24/7, so we can catch the tell-tale molecular signature of illnesses at their earliest and most treatable stages. A brainchild of Stanford University researchers, they're now working to add a COVID-19 detection component to their suite of technologies—corona virus particles can be spotted in stool samples—and hope to have the system available within the year.
"We can connect the toilet system to cell phones so we'll know the results within 30 minutes," says Seung-min Park, a lead investigator on the research team that devised this technology and a senior research scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "The beauty of this technology is that it can continuously monitor even after this pandemic is over. It's a way of doing community surveillance. If there is a second wave of infections in the future, we'll know right away."
Experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the widespread acceptance of in-home diagnostic tools such as this. "Shock events" like pandemics can be catalysts for sweeping changes in society, history shows us. The Black Death marked the end of feudalism and ushered in the Renaissance while the aftershocks of the Great Depression and two world wars in the 20th century led to the social safety net of the New Deal and NATO and the European Union. COVID-19 could fundamentally alter the way we deliver healthcare, abandoning the outdated 20th century brick and mortar fee-for-service model in favor of digital medicine. At-home diagnostics may be the leading edge of this seismic shift and the pandemic could accelerate the product innovations that allow for home-based medical screening.
"That's the silver lining to this devastation," says Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing at the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles. As an interventional cardiologist, Saxon has spent her career devising and refining the implantable and wearable wireless devices that are used to treat and diagnose heart conditions and prevent sudden death. "This will open up innovation—research has been stymied by a lack of imagination and marriage to an antiquated model," she adds. "There are already signs this is happening—relaxing state laws about licensure, allowing physicians to deliver health care in non-traditional ways. That's a real sea change and will completely democratize medical information and diagnostic testing."
Ironically, diagnostics have long been a step-child of modern medicine, even though accurate and timely diagnostics play a crucial role in disease prevention, detection and management. "The delivery of health care has proceeded for decades with a blind spot: diagnostic errors—inaccurate or delayed diagnoses—persist throughout all settings of care and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients," according to a 2015 National Academy of Medicine report. That same report found as many as one out of five adverse events in the hospital result from these errors and they contribute to 10 percent of all patient deaths.
The pandemic should alter the diagnostic landscape. We already have a wealth of wearable and implantable devices, like glucose sensors to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics, Apple's smart watch, electrocardiogram devices that can detect heart arrythmias, and heart pacemakers.
The Food and Drug Administration is working closely with in-home test developers to make accurate COVID-19 diagnostic tools readily available and has so far greenlighted three at-home collection test kits. Two, LabCorp's and Everlywell's, use nasal swabs to take samples. The third one is a spit test, using saliva samples, that was devised by a Rutgers University laboratory in partnership with Spectrum Solutions and Accurate Diagnostic Labs.
The only way to safely reopen is through large scale testing, but hospitals and doctors' offices are no longer the safest places.
In fact, DIY diagnostic company Everlywell, an Austin, Texas- based digital health company, already offers more than 30 at-home kits for everything from fertility to food sensitivity tests. Typically, consumers collect a saliva or finger-prick blood sample, dispatch it in a pre-paid shipping envelope to a laboratory, and a physician will review the results and send a report to consumers' smartphones.
Thanks to advances in technology, samples taken at home can now be preserved long enough to arrive intact at diagnostic laboratories. The key is showing the agency "transport and shipping don't change or interfere with the integrity of the samples," says Dr. Frank Ong, Everlywell's chief medical and scientific officer.
Ong is keenly aware of the importance of saturation testing because of the lessons learned by colleagues fighting the SARS pandemic in his family's native Taiwan in 2003. "In the beginning, doctors didn't know what they were dealing with and didn't protect themselves adequately," he says. "But over two years, they learned the hard way that there needs to be enough testing, contact tracing of those who have been exposed, and isolation of people who test positive. The value of at-home testing is that it can be done on the kind of broad basis that needs to happen for our country to get back to work."
Because of the pandemic, new policies have removed some of the barriers that impeded the widespread adoption of home-based diagnostics and telemedicine. Physicians can now practice across state lines, get reimbursed for telemedicine visits and use FaceTime to communicate with their patients, which had long been considered taboo because of privacy issues. Doctors and patients are becoming more comfortable and realizing the convenience and benefits of being able to do these things virtually.
Added to this, the only way to safely reopen for business without triggering a second and perhaps even more deadly wave of sickness is through large-scale testing, but hospitals and doctors' offices are no longer the safest places. "We don't want people sitting in a waiting room who later find out they're positive, and potentially infected everyone, including doctors and nurses," says Dr. Kavita Patel, a physician in Washington, DC who served as a policy director in the Obama White House.
In-home testing avoids the risks of direct exposure to the virus for both patients and health care professionals, who can dispense with cumbersome protective gear to take samples, and also enables people without reliable transportation or child-care to learn their status. "At home testing can be a critical component of our country's overall testing strategy," says Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade Health and on the faculty of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. "Once we're back at work, we need to be much more targeted, and have much more access to data and controlling those outbreaks as tightly as possible. The best way to do that is by leapfrogging clinics and being able to deliver tests at home for people who are disenfranchised by the current system."
In the not-too-distant future, in-home diagnostics could be a key component of precision medicine, which is customized care tailored specifically to each patient's individual needs. Like Stanford's smart toilet prototype, these ongoing surveillance tools will gather health data, ranging from exposures to toxins and pollutions in the environment to biochemical activity, like rising blood pressure, signs of inflammation, failing kidneys or tiny cancerous tumors, and provide continuous real-time information.
"These can be deeply personalized and enabled by smart phones, sensors and artificial intelligence," says USC's Leslie Saxon. "We'll be seeing the floodgates opening to patients accessing medical services through the same devices that they access other things, and leveraging these tools for our health and to fine tune disease management in a model of care that is digitally enabled."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
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.