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Rich Countries Are Buying up Medical Supplies, Leaving Poor Countries Stranded

Politics
Rich Countries Are Buying up Medical Supplies, Leaving Poor Countries Stranded
Workers unload boxes of medical supplies at Mount Sinai Hospital amid the coronavirus pandemic on March 31, 2020 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The supply chain that provides medical supplies to the world is favoring the U.S. and Europe, which are outbidding poorer nations for masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic, according to NPR.


The Trump administration is accused of modern piracy for effectively hijacking shipments of masks and additional crucial supplies meant for other countries, including allies. The administration has also used its leverage to strong-arm private firms to prioritize America over other parts of the world, according to POLITICO.

Last week, Trump announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act to restrict U.S. exports of key medical supplies, leaving many poorer countries scrambling for supplies as they too try to contain COVID-19 and also protect their healthcare workers. The order restricts companies from selling respirators, masks or gloves overseas.

Scientists in Africa and Latin America received the unfortunate news that vital testing kits that they ordered will not be delivered for several months since everything in the supply line is headed to the U.S. and Europe. Furthermore, the increased price in all supplies from testing kits to masks has strained the fragile budgets and borrowing ability of poorer countries, according to The New York Times.

UNICEF has seen an uptick in countries turning to the agency for help. UNICEF is trying to secure 240 million masks to help people in 100 countries. So far, the global relief agency has only sourced 28 million masks, less than 12 percent of its target, as The New York Times reported.

"There is a war going on behind the scenes, and we're most worried about poorer countries losing out," said Dr. Catharina Boehme, the chief executive of Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which collaborates with the World Health Organization in helping poorer countries gain access to medical tests, to The New York Times.

The global demand for supplies and the hoarding from rich countries has led to pernicious trade wars as new rules around the world place restrictions on the export of medical supplies.

"All it takes is some other country out there to say, 'Oh, you're going to impose a limit on what you sell to us, [say] masks? Well, then, we're going to restrict our exports to you of gloves. Or gowns. Or thermometers," said Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to NPR.

While many poorer countries have reported far fewer cases of the coronavirus than the U.S. and Europe, experts fear that an outbreak will devastate local populations. Also, without adequate testing, it is possible that existing cases are being overlooked.

Many parts of Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia are already at a severe disadvantage to handle an epidemic. A recent study found that some poor countries have only one equipped intensive care bed per million residents, according to The New York Times. Those areas tend to have underfunded and fragile health systems that lack necessary equipment.

While wealthy nations are pushing to keep medical supplies for their own healthcare workers and citizenry, some experts believe it's important to help poorer nations prepare for a coming outbreak.

Thomas Tighe, the CEO of the medical aid group Direct Relief, told NPR that he can understand both sides of the conflict. "I think the concern is obvious," he said. "Why would anyone send anything other than to the U.S., given this is our home? But I think it's also true that countries that have very little to begin with are looking at this wave of COVID-19 cases coming with no protection."

In Brazil, Dr. Amilcar Tanuri runs public laboratories at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, half of which are "stuck doing nothing," instead of testing health workers, because he said the chemical reagents he needs are being routed to wealthier countries, according to The New York Times.

"If you don't have reliable tests, you are blind," he said. "This is the beginning of the epidemic curve so I'm very concerned about the public health system here being overwhelmed very fast."


In South Africa, Dr. Francois Venter, an infectious diseases expert who is advising the government, said to The New York Times that the struggle to acquire the reagents was endangering the country's overall response.

"We have the capacity to do large testing, but we've been bedeviled by the fact the actual testing materials, reagents, haven't been coming," he said. "We're not as wealthy. We don't have as many ventilators, we don't have as many doctors, our health system was in a precarious position before coronavirus."

"The country is terrified," he added.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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