Science Unused

Our political leaders spent the past two years “following the science” as they led us through the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the science they follow appears incomplete, since they seem to have ignored research that was (and still is) directly relevant to managing coronavirus infections. Granted, our political leaders are not scientists. But they chose to ignore publicly funded national security research about preventing infections caused by viruses, spores, or bacteria. Let me give two examples.

First, our national security laboratories have a proven, research-based scientific and technical understanding of how to use masks and respirators to avoid respiratory infections. I describe this understanding as scientific because it is based on defensible scientific research, and describe it as technical because it implements the technology in the practical forms of masks and respirators.

How do I know? Before retiring, part of my work involved sending workers into the field in areas known to present a risk of Valley Fever infections. Valley Fever is caused by fungus spores found in soil in the American Southwest. When infected soil is disturbed and a worker inhales the dust, the spores can find a home in their lungs and start growing as a fungus. For comparison, the spores are about 4 microns in diameter, essentially the same size as the respiratory droplets that carry Covid-19 (see the article linked below for reference, if the link works), Valley Fever symptoms present as respiratory flu, and the disease can be fatal. So how did we protect the workers? With an N-100 mask (i.e. a respirator). While an N-100 respirator filters out particles the size of Valley Fever spores, an N-95 or KN-95 mask is not up to the task. And the medical masks that we see in hospitals or offices don’t even come close. Our health physicists knew that an N-100 mask would provide the necessary level of protection, but why didn’t our leaders, regulators, and policy wonks take advantage of that knowledge? I can think of two or three different answers, and you probably can, too.

Second, our national security laboratories have a proven, research-based understanding of biological attacks using microbes, spores, aerosols, etc. A big part of that research included examining how such biological agents might spread in public areas such as subway systems, train stations, or the interior of airplanes. As it turns out, the interior of an airplane is very safe from biological infections IF the ventilation system is active. Why? Because the ventilation air stream mixes HEPA-filtered air with clean air from outside the aircraft. The high-quality HEPA filtration used in passenger planes removes microbes, spores, and aerosols that might carry things like Covid-19. So why did our leaders, regulators, and policy wonks ignore that research and demand that we wear (ineffective) masks on planes? Why not simply keep the ventilation system running? Again, I can think of two or three different answers, and you probably can, too.

It is too bad that our leaders missed the opportunity to take advantage of federally funded scientific research at our national security laboratories. Regardless, let me close by noting that, in all humility, we should never stop asking questions. That is how we learn. And perhaps our leaders might learn, too.

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