Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Another example of the non-prophesies of science fiction: The first newscast happened earlier than you thought (unless you're a regular reader)

Picking up from last time.

Science fiction can be a great place to discuss the social and psychological impact of technological advances, but its ability to predict otherwise unforeseen developments is not actually that clear.  Arguably most commonly cited science fiction prophesies are simply slight extrapolations of contemporary technology and widely discussed proposals, the result of a tendency, particularly among 21st century commentators, to underestimate the sophistication of previous generations.
Case in point. Here's an excerpt from an article National Geographic ran on the predictions of Jules Verne:
In an 1889 article, "In the Year 2889," Jules Verne described an alternative to newspapers: "Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, from interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen and scientists, learn the news of the day." The first newscast didn't happen until 1920, according to the Associated Press—nearly 30 years after Verne imagined it. The first network-television newscast would have to wait another 28 years, according to CBS News. By 1974 millions were able to watch U.S. President Richard Nixon resign on TV.

Putting aside the quibble that Verne's son probably wrote most of "In the Year 2889," this gets the facts wrong and completely misses the larger context. Here's the pertinent paragraph [emphasis added]: 

Every one is familiar with Fritz Napoleon Smith's system—a system made possible by the enormous development of telephony during the last hundred years. Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day. Furthermore, each subscriber owns a phonograph, and to this instrument he leaves the task of gathering the news whenever he happens not to be in a mood to listen directly himself. As for purchasers of single copies, they can at a very trifling cost learn all that is in the paper of the day at any of the innumerable phonographs set up nearly everywhere.

Now some context. This wasn't a bold claim. Edward Bellamy had made a similar prediction the year before. More importantly, to readers in the late 1880s, neither man was saying anything particularly surprising here. Lots of people were discussing these ideas and engineers in the orbits of Bell and Edison were working on adapting the telephone for broadcasting with the first newscast happening not in 1920 but in 1890.

From Wikipedia:

The origin of the théâtrophone can be traced to a telephonic transmission system demonstrated by Clément Ader at the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity in Paris. The system was inaugurated by the French President Jules Grévy, and allowed broadcasting of concerts or plays. Ader had arranged 80 telephone transmitters across the front of a stage to create a form of binaural stereophonic sound. It was the first two-channel audio system, and consisted of a series of telephone transmitters connected from the stage of the Paris Opera to a suite of rooms at the Paris Electrical Exhibition, where the visitors could hear Comédie-Française and opera performances in stereo using two headphones; the Opera was located more than two kilometers away from the venue. In a note dated 11 November 1881, Victor Hugo describes his first experience of théâtrophone as pleasant.


In 1890, the system became operational as a service under the name "théâtrophone" in Paris. The service was offered by Compagnie du Théâtrophone (The Théâtrophone Company), which was founded by MM. Marinovitch and Szarvady. The théâtrophone offered theatre and opera performances to the subscribers. The service can be called a prototype of the telephone newspaper, as it included five-minute news programs at regular intervals. The Théâtrophone Company set up coin-operated telephone receivers in hotels, cafés, clubs, and other locations, costing 50 centimes for five minutes of listening. The subscription tickets were also issued at a reduced rate, in order to attract regular patrons. The service was also available to home subscribers.

French writer Marcel Proust was a keen follower of théâtrophone, as evident by his correspondence. He subscribed to the service in 1911.


Full scale "telephone newspapers" followed shortly.

From Wikipedia:

The Telefon Hírmondó (also Telefonhírmondó, generally translated as "Telephone Herald") was a "telephone newspaper" located in Budapest, Hungary, which, beginning in 1893, provided news and entertainment to subscribers over telephone lines. It was both the first and the longest surviving telephone newspaper system, although from late 1925 until its termination in 1944 it was primarily used to retransmit programmes broadcast by an affiliated radio station.


The Telefon Hírmondó was founded by Tivadar Puskás (a few reviews translated his name as "Theodore Buschgasch"), an engineer and inventor who had worked with Thomas Edison. In view of the ever-increasing pace of living, especially in major cities, Puskás recognized that daily newspapers, even with multiple editions, could no longer effectively keep up with developing events. He decided that this problem could be rectified through the introduction of a regularly updated audio news source.

Given what was going on at the time, these predictions from Bellamy and Verne were  not about the technology (which was already largely in place) but about the adoption of that technology, and on those terms, they were simply dead wrong. There were never that many telephone newspapers and with the exception of Telefon Hírmondó, most were short lived. 

Like we said before, the most celebrated cases of prophetic science fiction usually come down to modern audiences' flawed understanding of contemporary audiences.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

While I'm being a killjoy... retconning sci-fi predictions

Following up on yesterday's post.

Science fiction can be a great place to discuss the social and psychological impact of technological advances, but its ability to predict otherwise unforeseen developments is not actually that clear.  Arguably most commonly cited science fiction prophesies are simply slight extrapolations of contemporary technology and widely discussed proposals, the result of a tendency, particularly among 21st century commentators, to underestimate the sophistication of previous generations. This is nowhere more true than with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

Before we go on, take a look at this picture.

If you saw this without any context, you might assume it was Verne's famous Nautilus. You'd be close but off by about a decade. By the same token, if a French reader picked up a copy of Verne's book hot off the presses in 1870, he or she would immediately have thought of the Plongeur.

In 1859 the Board of Construction (Conseil des travaux) called naval engineers for designs for a submarine and reviewed three, choosing that submitted by Siméon Bourgeois (later Admiral) and Charles Brun, naming the project Plongeur with the code name Q00.


The submarine was armed with a ram to break holes in the hull of enemy ships, and an electrically fired spar torpedo, fixed at the end of a pole though later, Admiral Bourgeois who was, after 1871, chairman of the Commission on Submarine Defences opposed to the use of torpedoes as the primary weapon in commerce warfare.

The submarine was 43 m (140 ft) long and 381 t (420 tons) in displacement.


On 18 February 1864, Plongeur was towed to La Pallice and dived to 9 m (30 ft).


A model of Plongeur was displayed at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where it was studied by Jules Verne, who used it as an inspiration and 3 years later published his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

For its original audience, the premise of the novel was what if a brilliant revolutionary/outlaw were to build a bigger, faster Plongeur. There was little in the book that was particularly speculative; if anything, just the opposite. Unlike Wells a generation later who who built each of his fantastic tales around some incredible breakthrough, Verne stayed close to the technology of the day. The accuracy is a hotly contentious point (with at least one fan making a dubious stand on Wikipedia), but, except for the scale, there's little tech in the book that wasn't either in use or widely speculated about, and that little hasn't aged well. 

With a few exceptions (possibly including Clarke's telecommunication satellites), most supposed cases of science fiction predicting the future involve concepts that were in the air at the time of the writing. This in no way detracts from the intellectual or artistic value of the genre. It's just a reminder that like all art, science fiction works tell us mainly about the times they came  from. What it tells us about today is normally something we bring to it.

Monday, April 12, 2021

How to be a 21st century tech visionary in two easy steps

1. Allude to something from an old science fiction movie or TV show

2. Claim that the technology to make it possible is just around the corner

Martian cities, maglev vactrains, superfast tunneling machines, cures for aging, and of course, flying cars. These just-around-the-corner stories, often credulously reported by journalists who should know better, are framed as serious proposals and announcements of major technological breakthroughs, but when you dig into the claims, there is almost invariably nothing of substance, just images and tropes from old sci-fi magazines and shows and comic books.

Almost all of these ideas are at least pushing fifty with some well over a hundred. The explanations of the advances that will make these wonders possible are never convincing and more often than not, simply expose the visionary's weak grasp of the problem. Musk and his acolytes (of whom Neuralink's Hodak is very much a member) may be the most visible propagators, but this phenomena is a defining trait of Silicon Valley/VC culture and has been for at least a decade. 

With that in mind, you might even argue that Elon and company are performing a public service. Hodak's tweet  or his boss's latest about impossible timelines for landing on Mars really aren't that much sillier the typical article on biohacking, but these tweets are so naked in their lack of seriousness that we should be safe from anyone actually believing them (we aren't but we should be).

Friday, April 9, 2021

The sad part is this makes me ever-so-slightly homesick


Thursday, April 8, 2021

This has to be peak something

We've heard lots of questionable crypto-based business plans, but as far as I know, this is the first one to actually have "alchemy" in its name. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Vaccine passports

This is Joseph.

Mark and I were discussing this tweet and how many assumptions it makes.

First, it looks at a case which is true for basically no actual vaccine, treatment, or protocol. What is 100% safe in life? Financial assets, even those backed by governments, can become worthless.  Just consider 1913 Russian government bonds or shares in Enron. Cars are not 100% safe, which is why we make other cars follow rules. Similarly, what medical treatment is 100% effective? Even very minor medical treatments can have complications. Statins save lives, but rhabdomyolysis does occasionally injure a user of statins. 

I am being pedantic because the assumption of no crossover requires perfect efficacy and safety (so that it can be treated as not having any positive herd effects). Furthermore, it presumes that all parties have access to a vaccine, all parties (even infants) can take the vaccine, and that there is no benefit in dropping the prevalence of the disease to reduce variants emerging. 

So, to be clear: the vaccines are not 100% effective and nobody has claimed otherwise. Pfizer, for example, is 95% effective against mild and moderate disease. Very happy to concede this point. Safety is a bit trickier, as we are still learning about the vaccines, but nobody disputes allergic reactions happen

It is a general principle of public health that requiring vaccinations is a great way to reduce disease spread. For example, it isn't a passport but you need proof of vaccination against measles to attend school. Or to take University classes as a student in health sciences. International travel used to require smallpox vaccinations and even today vaccinations are required for some countries. In other words, cases were a person could be a serious concern as a disease spreader have always been an issue, usually via quarantine in time periods prior to vaccinations

In other words, this stuff is just nuts. Wait until people find out about seatbelts. Until universal vaccinations are a reality then passports are just a good way to reduce disease spread, improve public safety, and rebuild confidence in public gatherings. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Three Sillies

I've been thinking a lot about the way so many of our recent discourse over a range of desperately important issues gets sucked into discussions of improbable possibilities while imminent threats and viable solutions are downplayed or ignored entirely. 

When I finally get around to writing about this, I'll have a literary reference handy.

The opening to "the Three Sillies" from English fairy tales, collected by J. Jacobs

ONCE upon a time there was a farmer and his wife who had one daughter, and she was courted by a gentleman. Every evening he used to come and see her, and stop to supper at the farmhouse, and the daughter used to be sent down into the cellar to draw the beer for supper. So one evening she had gone down to draw the beer, and she happened to look up at the ceiling while she was drawing, and she saw a mallet stuck in one of the beams. It must have been there a long, long time, but somehow or other she had never noticed it before, and she began a-thinking. And she thought it was very dangerous to have that mallet there, for she said to herself: 'Suppose him and me was to be married, and we was to have a son, and he was to grow up to be a man, and come down into the cellar to draw the beer, like as I'm doing now, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him, what a dreadful thing it would be!' And she put down the candle and the jug, and sat herself down and began a-crying.

Well, they began to wonder upstairs how it was that she was so long drawing the beer, and her mother went down to see after her, and she found her sitting on the settle crying, and the beer running over the floor. 'Why, whatever is the matter?' said her mother. 'Oh, mother!' says she, 'look at that horrid mallet! Suppose we was to be married, and was to have a son, and he was to grow up, and was to come down to the cellar to draw the beer, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him, what a dreadful thing it would be!' 'Dear, dear! what a dreadful thing it would be!' said the mother, and she sat down aside of the daughter and started a-crying too. Then after a bit the father began to wonder that they didn't come back, and he went down into the cellar to look after them himself, and there they two sat a-crying, and the beer running all over the floor. 'Whatever is the matter?' says he. 'Why,' says the mother, 'look at that horrid mallet. Just suppose, if our daughter and her sweetheart was to be married, and was to have a son, and he was to grow up, and was to come down into the cellar to draw the beer, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him, what a dreadful thing it would be!' 'Dear, dear, dear! so it would!' said the father, and he sat himself down aside of the other two, and started a-crying.

Now the gentleman got tired of stopping up in the kitchen by himself, and at last he went down into the cellar, too, to see what they were after; and there they three sat a-crying side by side, and the beer running all over the floor. And he ran straight and turned the tap. Then he said: 'Whatever are you three doing, sitting there crying, and letting the beer run all over the floor?' 'Oh!' says the father, 'look at that horrid mallet! Suppose you and our daughter was to be married, and was to have a son, and he was to grow up, and was to come down into the cellar to draw the beer, and the mallet was to fall on his head and kill him!' And then they all started a-crying worse than before. But the gentleman burst out a-laughing, and reached up and pulled out the mallet, and then he said: 'I've travelled many miles, and I never met three such big sillies as you three before; and now I shall start out on my travels again, and when I can find three bigger sillies than you three, then I'll come back and marry your daughter.' So he wished them good-bye, and started off on his travels, and left them all crying because the girl had lost her sweetheart. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

At least it's less than the Netherlands

Jamie Powell writing for FT Alphaville explains why Tesla's recent bitcoin investment is raising questions about the company's environmental priorities. 

Tesla: carbon offsetting, but in reverse

We’re not the first to point this out by any means, but bitcoin is dreadful for the environment. Still don’t believe it? Well Bank of America published an excellent report last week (which can be found on David Gerard’s blog), on the dominant digital coin. And, in particular, its carbon impact. 

 Here are a few choice stats. 

 Bitcoin -- or to be more precise, bitcoin mining -- currently consumes more energy than Greece, and a touch less than the Netherlands. In theory, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if mining was powered by renewable energy, but 72 per cent of mining is concentrated in China, where nearly two-thirds of all electricity is generated by coal power. 

 For the moment then, bitcoin has carbon emissions that sit comfortably between American Airlines’s output, the world’s largest airline which currently carries 200m passengers per year, and the entire US Federal government. 

 Perhaps the most relevant stat of all, however, is this one:

A spiked pedrail would be really cool

 Should have mentioned H.G. Wells was a fan.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

If not for the development of the caterpillar tread, these would have been big.

Another cool technology with the bad luck to come in second.

From Wikipedia:

 The pedrail wheel was invented in 1903 by the Londoner Bramah Joseph Diplock. It consists in the adjunction of feet (Latin radical "ped") to the rail of a wheel, in order to improve traction and facilitate movement in uneven or muddy terrain. Sophisticated pedrail wheels were designed, with individual suspension for each foot, which would facilitate the contact with uneven terrain.

Scientific American 1903-04-18


Friday, April 2, 2021

"Hydrodynamics is what a five-year old would do, if a five-year old had a PhD."

 Brendan Greeley writing for FT Alphaville (which you should definitely sign up for) explains the physics behind the recent traffic jam at the Suez Canal. 

Sailors talk about hydrodynamics the way CEOs talk about macroeconomics: they either treat it with mystical reverence, or they claim to understand it and are wrong. Unlike with macroeconomics, though, if you know what you’re doing you can test the propositions of hydrodynamics on actual, physical models in a lab. As in: you build little boats and then you drag them through the water, in a towing tank. Hydrodynamics is what a five-year old would do, if a five-year old had a PhD.

Lataire works with Flanders Hydraulics Research at what he calls the world’s most accurately constructed shallow-bottom tow tank. He’s currently helping build an even bigger tank, to generate more data for a ship simulator to certify pilots. The tanks are shallow-bottomed, because hydrodynamics in shallow water are different. When a boat moves through the water, it pushes the water out of the way — it displaces it. “Where the water needs to be displaced, in a deep ocean it can go under the ship and that’s not a problem,” says Lataire. “But if it needs to go into shallow water, like the Suez, the water simply cannot go under and around.” 

The Suez Canal is basically just a 24m-deep ditch dug in the ground to let the ocean in. When a ship comes by and displaces the water, the water has nowhere to go; it gets squeezed in between the ship’s hull and the floor and the sides of the ditch. A ship in a canal can squat, for example — it can dig its stern into the water. When water gets squeezed between a ship’s hull and a sand floor, it speeds up. As water flow speeds up, its pressure drops, pulling the hull down to fill the vacuum. The effect is more pronounced at the stern, and so the ship settles into a squat: bow up, stern down. 

Lataire wrote his dissertation on a similar phenomenon as a ship passes close to a bank: the bank effect. The water speeds up, the pressure drops, the stern pulls into the bank and, particularly in shallow water, the bow gets pushed away. Stern one way, bow the other. A boat that had been steaming is suddenly spinning. It’s a well-identified phenomenon; in 2009 Ghent University’s Shallow Water Knowledge Centre put together a whole conference about it. Clever pilots on the Elbe, according to Lataire, will use it to shoot around a bend. 

However: the more water a ship displaces, the stronger the effect. And the closer the side of the hull is to the shore, the stronger the effect. The bigger the ship, the faster the bow shoots away from the bank.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The almost perfect 2021 business story: funded by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, feted by goop, it was a massive fraud built around a literal shit company

If only they could have gotten Musk and Thiel involved.


SF poop-testing startup, once compared to Theranos, charged in $60M fraud scheme

Zachary Schulz Apte and Jessica Sunshine Richman, co-founders of defunct microbiome testing company uBiome, are accused of bilking their investors and health insurance providers, federal prosecutors said. They were indicted Thursday on multiple federal charges, including conspiracy to commit securities fraud, conspiracy to commit health care fraud and money laundering.


Apte, 36, and Richman, 46, founded uBiome in 2012 as a direct-to-consumer service called “Gut Explorer.” Customers would submit a fecal sample that the company analyzed in a laboratory, comparing the consumer's microbiome to others' microbiomes, prosecutors said. The service cost less than $100 initially.

The company grew to include “clinical” tests of gut and vaginal microbiomes, which were aimed to be used by medical providers so uBiome could seek up to $3,000 in reimbursements from health insurance companies. The federal indictment states that uBiome sought upwards of $300 million in reimbursement claims from private and public health insurers between 2015 and 2019. The company was ultimately paid more than $35 million for tests that “were not validated and not medically necessary."

Apte and Richman met in San Francisco in 2012 through the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences Garage, an incubator used by UCSF. Together, they founded uBiome and received funding from Silicon Valley investors like 8VC in San Francisco and  Andreessen Horowitz in Menlo Park, which hold 22% and 10% stakes in uBiome, respectively, according to court documents.

For a time, they were the latest up-and-coming business determined to disrupt the medical testing industry. In 2018, Richman was even named an "innovator" winner in Goop's "The Greater goop Awards" and at its peak, uBiome was valued at $600 million.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

"Every fool aspired to be a knave"

If you can't spot the relevance of this excerpt from Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, you haven't been following the markets.

Exchange Alley was in a fever of excitement. The Company's stock, which had been at a hundred and thirty the previous day, gradually rose to three hundred, and continued to rise with the most astonishing rapidity during the whole time that the bill in its several stages was under discussion. Mr. Walpole was almost the only statesman in the House who spoke out boldly against it. He warned them, in eloquent and solemn language, of the evils that would ensue. It countenanced, he said, "the dangerous practice of stockjobbing, and would divert the genius of the nation from trade and industry. It would hold out a dangerous lure to decoy the unwary to their ruin, by making them part with the earnings of their labour for a prospect of imaginary wealth." The great principle of the project was an evil of first-rate magnitude; it was to raise artificially the value of the stock, by exciting and keeping up a general infatuation, and by promising dividends out of funds which could never be adequate to the purpose. In a prophetic spirit he added, that if the plan succeeded, the directors would become masters of the government, form a new and absolute aristocracy in the kingdom, and control the resolutions of the legislature. If it failed, which he was convinced it would, the result would bring general discontent and ruin upon the country. Such would be the delusion, that when the evil day came, as come it would, the people would start up, as from a dream, and ask themselves if these things could have been true. All his eloquence was in vain. He was looked upon as a false prophet, or compared to the hoarse raven, croaking omens of evil. His friends, however, compared him to Cassandra, predicting evils which would only be believed when they came home to men's hearths, and stared them in the face at their own boards. Although, in former times, the House had listened with the utmost attention to every word that fell from his lips, the benches became deserted when it was known that he would speak on the South Sea question.

The bill was two months in its progress through the House of Commons. During this time every exertion was made by the directors and their friends, and more especially by the Chairman, the noted Sir John Blunt, to raise the price of the stock. The most extravagant rumours were in circulation. Treaties between England and Spain were spoken of, whereby the latter was to grant a free trade to all her colonies; and the rich produce of the mines of Potosi-la-Paz was to be brought to England until silver should become almost as plentiful as iron. For cotton and woollen goods, with which we could supply them in abundance, the dwellers in Mexico were to empty their golden mines. The company of merchants trading to the South Seas would be the richest the world ever saw, and every hundred pounds invested in it would produce hundreds per annum to the stockholder. At last the stock was raised by these means to near four hundred; but, after fluctuating a good deal, settled at three hundred and thirty, at which price it remained when the bill passed the Commons by a majority of 172 against 55.

It seemed at that time as if the whole nation had turned stockjobbers. Exchange Alley was every day blocked up by crowds, and Cornhill was impassable for the number of carriages. Everybody came to purchase stock. "Every fool aspired to be a knave." In the words of a ballad, published at the time, and sung about the streets, "A South Sea Ballad; or, Merry Remarks upon Exchange Alley Bubbles. To a new tune, called 'The Grand Elixir; or, the Philosopher's Stone Discovered.'"

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Even if scoundrels and fools get huge returns, that doesn't mean the reasons for avoiding scoundrels and fools no longer apply

This is way out of my field, but you'd think that in a time of SPACs, billion dollar unicorns that lose money on every transaction but hope to make it up in volume, meme stocks, insane volatility, investor cults of personality and P/Es over a thousand, putting aside concerns might be a bad idea.

From Bloomberg:

Bill Hwang, a former hedge fund manager who’d pleaded guilty to insider trading, was deemed such a risk by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. that as recently as late 2018 the firm refused to do business with him.

Those misgivings didn’t last.

Wall Street’s premier investment bank, lured by the tens of millions of dollars a year in commissions that a whale like Hwang paid to rival dealers, removed his name from its blacklist and allowed him to become a major client. Just as Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse Group AG and others did, Goldman fueled a pipeline of billions of dollars in credit for Hwang to make highly leveraged bets on stocks such as Chinese tech giant Baidu Inc. and media conglomerate ViacomCBS Inc.

Now Hwang is at the center of one of the greatest margin calls of all time, his giant portfolio in a messy and painful liquidation, and Goldman’s reversal has thrust it right into the mayhem.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Vitamin D

This is Joseph

There seems to be an odd discussion of micronutrients that suggest that large doses are beneficial. I first encountered this via Linus Pauling who posited large benefits to large doses of vitamin C. Now people are positing that vitamin D might help versus covid-19 infections. Now, it is clear that vitamin malnutrition is horrible and it is possible that large doses of vitamins are helpful but I want to do an analogy for why I am pretty sure that there needs to be a high level of evidence. Consider these two paragraphs:

Adequate levels of vitamin D are essential to human health. There are many places where inhabitants may have low levels of vitamin D due to environmental issues and this may adversely impact human health (muscle weakness, pain, fatigue and depression are bad). Therefore, it is clear that the more vitamin D we can get people to consume the better.

Adequate levels of macronutrients (calories) are essential to human health. There are many places where inhabitants may have low levels of macronutrients (calories) due to environmental issues and this may adversely impact human health (starvation is bad). Therefore, it is clear that the more macronutrients (calories) we can get people to consume the better.

Obviously, while starving in bad, overeating isn't ideal either. I am always a bit amazed that the default conversation for appropriate intake of micronutrients is not "adequate intake" and not "more is better". Like there is no reason to presume that macro and micro-nutrients necessarily work the same, but one is amazed that the assumption that they are so completely different is so common. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

AstraZeneca dust-up

 This is Joseph

Statement from AstraZeneca was titled (emphasis mine):

AZD1222 US Phase III trial met primary efficacy endpoint in preventing COVID-19 at interim analysis

Gave results of:

79% vaccine efficacy at preventing symptomatic COVID-19

100% efficacy against severe or critical disease and hospitalisation

Comparable efficacy result across ethnicity and age, with 80% efficacy in participants aged 65 years and over

Statement from NIAID

Late Monday, the Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) notified NIAID, BARDA, and AstraZeneca that it was concerned by information released by AstraZeneca on initial data from its COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. The DSMB expressed concern that AstraZeneca may have included outdated information from that trial, which may have provided an incomplete view of the efficacy data. We urge the company to work with the DSMB to review the efficacy data and ensure the most accurate, up-to-date efficacy data be made public as quickly as possible.

Full results from AstraZeneca:

76% vaccine efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19

100% efficacy against severe or critical disease and hospitalisation

85% efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 in participants aged 65 years and over 

So a few points. One, the data was from the interim analysis, even though it was definitely out of date at the time of publication. Still, it was one of two reportable numbers. Noah Haber discusses this here, including noting that the protocol is publicly available

Two, the media framing looks terrible. Unless the results are misreported, the interim analysis was 3% high in the overall and 5% low in the over 65 participants. These are small changes and kind of average out, given that efficacy in over 65 year old participants was a concern because of under-participation in the earlier AstraZeneca trials. But this framing seems excessive:

Federal officials were taken aback by the board’s allegations. One said the way that AstraZeneca handled the results was the equivalent of “telling your mother you got an A in a course, when you got an A in the first quiz but a C in the overall course.” Another said the disclosure by the board would inevitably hurt the company’s credibility with U.S. regulators.

I am not sure I would consider the two reports materially different. Certainly, I do not see them as being the difference between an A and C (probably I would call them both B's, compared to other trials and the degree of change between them). Since they were doing frequentist statistics, looking at numbers between the two prespecified analyses seems like a bad plan (p-hacking concerns arise). That said, why is the analysis plan not Bayesian? 

That said, unless these numbers are false in some way, how is this a major change? 

Finally, why doesn't the United States just give up on approving AstraZeneca and agree to allow it to be exported. It is pretty clear that US regulators have decided that they aren't interested in the product but the export restriction is blocking shipping it to other places that could actually use it. Why not be honest, say they won't need it (they don't) and allow it to be exported to other places across the globe who are desperate for vaccines. Isn't it in everybody's best interests to reduce variants by increasing resistance to covid-19 infections globally? 

How is this the best plan?