Quantum drums, COVID patents and head injuries

A masked person in a car receives an injection.

The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is administered at a drive-through clinic in Marple, Pennsylvania.Credit: Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group/Daily Times via Getty

In shock move, US backs waiving patents on COVID vaccines

In a historic move, the US government has announced that it supports waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, a measure aimed at boosting supplies so that people around the world can get the shots. “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said US trade representative Katherine Tai in a statement.

The move came on 5 May, day one of a two-day meeting of the general council of the World Trade Organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland. Until now, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan have blocked efforts brought by India and South Africa to make it legal to manufacture generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines.

Former US presidents from both the Republican and the Democratic parties have staunchly defended intellectual-property rights, so the move by the administration of President Joe Biden has shocked people on both sides of the debate.

“This marks a major shift in US policy in a pro-public-health way,” says Matthew Kavanagh, a global-health researcher at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

Kavanagh is part of the growing chorus of health-policy and global-health researchers advocating patent waivers, as the gap between vaccination rates in rich and poor nations grows larger every day.

Fewer than 1% of people in low-income countries have received COVID-19 vaccines. The researchers are quick to note, however, that a waiver on patents covering all aspects of COVID-19 vaccines would be just the first step in ramping up vaccine supply.

“It’s a one-two-three,” explains Rachel Cohen, US director of the non-profit Drugs and Neglected Diseases initiative in New York City. “First we need to remove patent obstacles, second we need to transfer the knowledge on how to make them, and step three is a massive investment in manufacturing capacity.”

Drugmakers and others who oppose the measure say that waivers sabotage companies’ enormous investments in drug and vaccine development, which are compensated by their ability to set the price on products that they exclusively own.

Quantum drum device

The tiny aluminium membranes used by Kotler’s team to demonstrate quantum entanglement.Credit: Florent Lecoq and Shlomi Kotler/NIST

Tiny drums push limits of quantum weirdness

By playing two tiny drums, physicists have provided the most direct demonstration yet that quantum entanglement — a bizarre effect normally associated with subatomic particles — works for larger objects as well.

In an experiment at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, physicist Shlomi Kotler and his collaborators built a pair of vibrating aluminium membranes akin to two tiny drums, each around 10 micrometres long.

The team tickled the membranes with microwave photons to make them vibrate in sync, and in such a way that their motions were in a quantum-entangled state. At any given time, as the drums wobbled up and down, measuring their displacement from flat showed they were in exactly the same position, and probing their velocities returned exactly opposite values.

Although these structures are barely visible to the naked eye, they are enormous by quantum standards, consisting of around one trillion atoms each.

The findings, published on 6 May (S. Kotler et al., Science 372, 622–625; 2021), could help researchers to build quantum computers that can perform calculations beyond the reach of any ordinary computer.

Head-injury risk higher for female soccer players

Female soccer players are almost twice as likely to suffer concussion as their male counterparts, a study of more than 80,000 teenage players across US high schools has found.

Researchers analysed survey data from around 43,000 male and 39,000 female players from schools in Michigan over 3 academic years (see ‘Concussion risk’). They found that the girls’ chance of having a sports-related head injury was 1.88 times higher than the boys’, according to the findings published on 27 April (A. C. Bretzin et al. JAMA Netw. Open 4, e218191; 2021).

How the players sustained their injuries also differed between male and female adolescents: the boys’ most common way of becoming concussed was through bashing into another player. Girls were most likely to be concussed after colliding with another object, such as the ball or a goalpost. Boys were also more likely to be removed from play immediately after a suspected head injury than were girls.

Concussion risk. A survey of ~80k high-school soccer players found girls are twice as likely to suffer a concussion than boys.

Source: A. C. Bretzin et al. JAMA Netw. Open 4, e218191; 2021.

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