Instead of trying to work through these issues at the national level, the sequencing contracts allow individual public health agencies to request the names and contact information of people who have tested positive for variants of concern. But that just pushes the same problems of data ownership down the chain.
“Some states are very good and want to know a lot about variants that are circulating in their state,” says LabCorp’s Brian Krueger. “The other states are not.”
Public health epidemiologists often have little experience with bioinformatics, using software to analyze large datasets like genomic sequences. Only a few agencies have preexisting sequencing programs; even if they did, having each jurisdiction analyze just a small slice of the data set undercuts how much knowledge can be gleaned about real-world behavior.
Getting around those issues—making it easier to connect sequences and clinical metadata on a large scale—would require more than just root-and-branch reform of privacy regulations, however. It would mean a reorganization of the entire health care system in the US, where each of the 64 public health agencies operate as fiefdoms, and there is no centralization of information or power.
“Metadata is the single biggest uncracked nut,” says Jonathan Quick, managing director of pandemic response, preparedness, and prevention at the Rockefeller Foundation. (The Rockefeller Foundation helps fund coverage at MIT Technology Review, although it has no editorial oversight.) Because it’s so hard for public health experts to put together big enough data sets to really understand real-world variant behavior, our understanding has to come from vaccine manufacturers and hospitals that add sequencing to their own clinical trials, he says.
It’s frustrating to him that so many huge data sets of useful information already exist in electronic medical records, immunization registries, and other sources but can’t easily be used.
“There’s a whole lot more that could be learned, and learned faster, without the shackles we put on the use of that data,” says Quick. “We can’t just rely on the vaccine companies to do surveillance.”
Boosting state-level bioinformatics
If public health labs are expected to focus more on tracking and understanding variants on their own, they’ll need all the help they can get. Doing something about variants case by case, after all, is a public health job, while doing something about variants on a policy level is a political one.
Public health labs generally use genomics to expose otherwise hidden information about outbreaks, or as part of track-and-trace efforts. In the past, sequencing has been used to connect E. coli outbreaks to specific farms, identify and interrupt chains of HIV transmission, isolate US Ebola cases, and follow annual flu patterns.
Even those with well-established programs tend to use genomics sparingly. The cost of sequencing has dropped dramatically over the last decade, but the process is still not cheap, particularly for cash-strapped state and local health departments. The machines themselves cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy, and more to run: Illumina, one of the biggest makers of sequencing equipment, says labs spend an average of $1.2 million annually on supplies for each of its machines.
Health agencies don’t just need money; they also need expertise. Surveillance requires highly trained bioinformaticians to turn a sequence’s long strings of letters into useful information, as well as people to explain the results to officials, and convince them to turn any lessons learned into policy.
Fortunately, the OAMD has been working to support state and local health departments as they try to understand their sequencing data, employing regional bioinformaticians to consult with public health officers and facilitating agencies’ efforts to share their experiences.
It is also pouring hundreds of millions into building and supporting those agencies’ own sequencing programs—not just for covid, but for all pathogens.
But many of those agencies are facing pressure to sequence as many covid genomes as possible. Without a cohesive strategy for collecting and analyzing data, it’s unclear how much utility those programs will have.
“We’ll miss a ton of opportunities if we just give health departments money to set up programs without having a federal strategy so that everyone knows what they’re doing,” says Warmbrod.
Initial visions, usurped
Mark Pandori is director of the Nevada state public health laboratory, one of the programs OAMD supports. He has been a strong proponent of genomic surveillance for years. Before moving to Reno, he ran the public health lab in Alameda County, California, where he helped pioneer a program using sequencing to track how infections were being passed around hospitals.
Turning sequences into usable data is the biggest challenge for public health genomics programs, he says.
“The CDC can say, ‘Go buy a bunch of sequencing equipment, do a whole bunch of sequencing.’ But it doesn’t do anything unless the consumers of that data know how to use it, and know how to apply it,” he says. “I’m talking to you about the robotics we need to get things sequenced every day, but health departments just need a simple way to know if cases are related.”
When it comes to variants, public health labs are under many of the same pressures the CDC faces: everyone wants to know what variants are circulating, whether or not they can do anything with the information.
Pandori launched his covid sequencing program hoping to cut down on the labor needed to investigate potential covid outbreaks, quickly identifying whether cases caught near each other were related or coincidental.
His lab was the first in North America to identify a patient reinfected with covid-19, and later found the B.1.351 variant in a hospitalized man who had just come back from South Africa. With rapid contact tracing, the health department was able to prevent it from spreading.
NASA has flown its Ingenuity drone helicopter on Mars for the first time
The news: NASA has flown an aircraft on another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars, flew up about three meters, then swiveled and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was livestreamed on YouTube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference. “We, together, flew at Mars, and we, together, now have our Wright brothers moment,” she added, referring to the first powered airplane flight on Earth in 1903.
In fact, Ingenuity carries a tribute to that famous flight: a postage-stamp-size piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane tucked beneath its solar panel. (The Apollo crew also took a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, as it was named, to the moon in 1969.)
The details: The flight was a significant technical challenge, thanks to Mars’s bone-chilling temperatures (nights can drop down to -130 °F/-90 °C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere—just 1% the density of Earth’s. That meant Ingenuity had to be light, with rotor blades that were bigger and faster than would be needed to achieve liftoff on Earth (although the gravity on Mars, which is only about one-third of Earth’s, worked in its favor). The flight had originally been scheduled to take place on April 11 but was delayed by software issues.
Why it’s significant: Beyond being a significant milestone for Mars exploration, the flight will also pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could help rovers or even astronauts by scoping out locations, exploring inaccessible areas, and capturing images. Ingenuity will also help inform the design of Dragonfly, a car-size drone that NASA is planning to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027.
What’s next: In the next few weeks, Ingenuity will conduct four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each one is designed to further push the limits of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only designed to last for 30 Martian days, and is expected to stop functioning around May 4. Its final resting place will be in the Jezero Crater as NASA moves on to the main focus of its mission: getting the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.
The $1 billion Russian cyber company that the US says hacks for Moscow
The public side of Positive is like many cybersecurity companies: staff look at high-tech security, publish research on new threats, and even have cutesy office signs that read “stay positive!” hanging above their desks. The company is open about some of its links to the Russian government, and boasts an 18-year track record of defensive cybersecurity expertise including a two-decade relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense. But according to previously unreported US intelligence assessments, it also develops and sells weaponized software exploits to the Russian government.
One area that’s stood out is the firm’s work on SS7, a technology that’s critical to global telephone networks. In a public demonstration for Forbes, Positive showed how it can bypass encryption by exploiting weaknesses in SS7. Privately, the US has concluded that Positive did not just discover and publicize flaws in the system, but also developed offensive hacking capabilities to exploit security holes that were then used by Russian intelligence in cyber campaigns.
Much of what Positive does for the Russian government’s hacking operations is similar to what American security contractors do for United States agencies. But there are major differences. One former American intelligence official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss classified material, described the relationship between companies like Positive and their Russian intelligence counterparts as “complex” and even “abusive.” The pay is relatively low, the demands are one-sided, the power dynamic is skewed, and the implicit threat for non-cooperation can loom large.
Tight working relationship
American intelligence agencies have long concluded that Positive also runs actual hacking operations itself, with a large team allowed to run its own cyber campaigns as long as they are in Russia’s national interest. Such practices are illegal in the western world: American private military contractors are under direct and daily management of the agency they’re working for during cyber contracts.
Former US officials say there is a tight working relationship with the Russian intelligence agency FSB that includes exploit discovery, malware development, and even reverse engineering of cyber capabilities used by Western nations like the United States against Russia itself.
The company’s marquee annual event, Positive Hack Days, was described in recent US sanctions as “recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.” The event has long been famous for being frequented by Russian agents.
NSA director of cybersecurity Rob Joyce said the companies being sanctioned “provide a range of services to the SVR, from providing the expertise to developing tools, supplying infrastructure and even, sometimes, operationally supporting activities,” Politico reported.
One day after the sanctions announcement, Positive issued a statement denying “the groundless accusations” from the US. It pointed out that there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing and said it provides all vulnerabilities to software vendors “without exception.”
Tit for tat
Thursday’s announcement is not the first time that Russian security companies have come under scrutiny.
The biggest Russian cybersecurity company, Kaspersky, has been under fire for years over its relationships with the Russian government—eventually being banned from US government networks. Kaspersky has always denied a special relationship with the Russian government.
But one factor that sets Kaspersky apart from Positive, at least in the eyes of American intelligence officials, is that Kaspersky sells antivirus software to western companies and governments. There are few better intelligence collection tools than an antivirus, software which is purposely designed to see everything happening on a computer, and can even take control of the machines it occupies. US officials believe Russian hackers have used Kaspersky software to spy on Americans, but Positive—a smaller company selling different products and services—has no equivalent.
Recent sanctions are the latest step in a tit for tat between Moscow and Washington over escalating cyber operations, including the Russian-sponsored SolarWinds attack against the US, which led to nine federal agencies being hacked over a long period of time. Earlier this year, the acting head of the US cybersecurity agency said recovering from that attack could take the US at least 18 months.
NASA selects SpaceX’s Starship as the lander to take astronauts to the moon
Surprising selection: Last year, NASA awarded three different groups contracts to further develop their own proposals for lunar landers: $135 million to SpaceX, $253 million to defense company Dynetics (which was working with Sierra Nevada Corporation), and $579 million to a four-company team led by Blue Origin (working with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper).
SpaceX didn’t just receive the least amount of money—its proposal also earned the worst technical and management ratings. NASA’s associate administrator (now acting administrator) Steve Jurczyk wrote (pdf) that Starship’s propulsion system was “notably complex and comprised of likewise complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested, and certified with very little schedule margin to accommodate delays.” The uncertainties were only exacerbated by SpaceX’s notoriously poor track record with meeting deadlines.
What changed: Since then, SpaceX has gone through a number of different flight tests of several full-scale Starship prototypes, including a 10-kilometer high-altitude flight and safe landing in March. (It also exploded a few times.) According to the Washington Post, documents suggest NASA was enamored with Starship’s ability to ferry a lot of cargo to the moon (up to 100 tons), not to mention its $2.9 billion bid for the contract, which was far lower than its rivals’.
“This innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in spaceflight history,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the lunar lander system. “We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX.”
What this means: For SpaceX’s rivals, it’s a devastating blow—especially to Blue Origin. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, had unveiled its Blue Moon lander concept in 2019 and has publicly campaigned for NASA to select it for future lunar missions. Blue Moon was arguably the most well-developed of the three proposals when NASA awarded its first round of contracts.
For SpaceX, it’s a big vote of confidence in Starship as a crucial piece of technology for the next generation of space exploration. It comes less than a year after the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle was certified as the only American spacecraft capable of taking NASA astronauts to space. And it seems to confirm that the SpaceX is now NASA’s biggest private partner, supplanting veteran firms like Northrop Grumman and shunting newer ones like Blue Origin further to the sidelines. However, there’s at least one major hurdle: Starship needs to launch using a Super Heavy rocket—a design that SpaceX has yet to fly.
For NASA, the biggest implication is that SpaceX’s vehicles will only continue to play a bigger role for Artemis, the lunar exploration program being touted as the successor to Apollo. Former president Donald Trump’s directive for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 was never actually going to be realized, but the selection of a single human lander concept suggests NASA may not miss that deadline by much. The first Artemis missions will use Orion, and the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket is expected to be ready soon.