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Neil deGrasse Tyson Fans Deserve More Than Twisted Tale on GMOs

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By Stacy Malkan

Neil deGrasse Tyson has inspired millions of people to care about science and imagine themselves as participants in the scientific process. What a hopeful sign it is to see young girls wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Forget princess, I want to be an astrophysicist."


His devoted fan base, as I've discovered in the past few days, includes my mom, my best friend and closest colleagues. All of them, and especially the young people who trust Tyson to lead with integrity in matters of science, deserve better than the twisted tale dished out by Food Evolution, the new documentary film about genetically modified foods (GMOs) that is driving its promotion on the coattails of Tyson's narration and kicking up controversy for its biased approach.

Already, two of the best-known experts interviewed for the film, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, have complained that their views were misrepresented and their comments taken out of context.

My review of Food Evolution describes the film as a textbook case of corporate propaganda, and offers clear-cut examples of how the film selectively and unfairly presents science. The review explains how a trade group, whose leadership hails from the agrichemical industry, funded Food Evolution as part of a multi-year messaging project and hand-picked its director, Scott Hamilton Kennedy.

This is an unusual scenario for a science documentary, but it wouldn't matter if the film reported fairly and honestly about the topic it purports to objectively explore. The film does not deliver on that promise, and making matters worse, the filmmakers are facing a series of embarrassing revelations about their unfair treatment of interview subjects.

Two days before the film's official release, which opens today in New York City, NYU Professor Marion Nestle, Ph.D., wrote a harsh review about the film's many biases, and said she has repeatedly asked the filmmakers to remove her short interview clip. "The director refuses. He believes his film is fair and balanced. I do not," Nestle wrote.

"I am often interviewed (see media) and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context. This film is one of those rare exceptions."

Her take on Food Evolution concluded, "I view it as a slick piece of GMO industry propaganda. If you want a thoughtful discussion of the real issues raised by food biotechnology, you will need to look elsewhere."

UC Berkeley Professor Michael Pollan—who also appears in Food Evolution and whose name the filmmakers have been dropping in their promotional efforts—said his experience and take on the film were "much the same" as Nestle's, and that the filmmakers have misrepresented his views.

Interviews with several other GMO critics who appeared in the film, or were asked to be in it, corroborate the picture of a strange process involving sneaky filming, selective editing, misrepresentation and lack of disclosure about the film's funding.

Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), an agroecologist with 30 years of experience in the developing world, said he spent four hours in an interview with the filmmakers discussing research from the institute's books and trying to raise issues related to the structural aspects of hunger and how GMOs have exacerbated rural poverty and decreased environmental resilience. His interview was left out of the film entirely.

Holt-Giménez said that no matter what information he provided, the director Scott Kennedy focused on the health and safety discussion and replied that he just didn't see what was wrong with GMOs. Holt-Giménez also said the filmmakers refused to answer his questions about who was funding them.

Tufts researcher Timothy Wise, an agricultural development expert, withdrew his consent to be included in the film after asking repeatedly for more information about the funding.

Why the evasions and deceptions?

One possible explanation is that the film was not an objective investigation into the science of GMOs but rather a messaging project to advance the agenda of the agrichemical industry.

The positive publicity from a pro-GMO/pesticide movie—such as the puff review written by Daniel M. Gold in the New York Times—could prove useful at a crucial political moment as the seed/chemical corporations face lawsuits and regulatory threats and pursue mega mergers to consolidate control over our food supply.

As Dr. Tyson has famously said, "The good thing about science is that it's true, whether or not you believe in it." But Dr. Tyson seems to forget that history is also true, whether or not you believe in it.

It is true, whether or not we like it, that corporations such as Monsanto have a history of manipulating science, academia and the media to manufacture doubt and confusion about science in order to keep regulations and public scrutiny to a minimum as they do whatever they need to do to maximize profits.

Now that he is in the middle of the contentious GMO debate, Tyson owes it to his fans to broker a more honest conversation—one that involves not just the views of genetic engineers who have a financial stake in public acceptance of the technology that provides their livelihood, but also considers the broader cultural, political and scientific realities relevant to genetic engineering and the future of our food system.

A more honest conversation about GMOs would include information about the complex and contradictory nature of the science; the proprietary controls over research; the legitimate concerns about the health risks of glyphosate and the worsening pesticide treadmill problem.

It would consider the environmental, social justice and economic issues at stake, and the political context in which decisions about science—and big-budget movies that purport to document science—are made.

As Tyson has so eloquently explained, "the cross pollination of disciplines is fundamental to truly revolutionary advances in our culture."

Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know.

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.