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How biological detective work can reveal who engineered a virus
Bio labs leave their distinctive traces on DNA and RNA they engineer. | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images Exciting new research should make it easier to hold rogue bioengineers accountable. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, wasn’t intentionally created in a lab. We don’t have much evidence one way or the other whether its emergence into the world was the result of a lab accident or a natural jump from animal to human, but we know for sure that the virus is not the product of deliberate gene editing in a lab. How do we know that? Bioengineering leaves traces — characteristic patterns in the RNA, the genetic code of a virus, that come from splicing in genes from elsewhere. And investigations by researchers have definitively shown that the novel coronavirus behind Covid-19 doesn’t bear the hallmarks of such manipulation. That fact about bioengineered viruses raises an interesting question: What if those traces that gene editing leave behind were more like fingerprints? That is, what if it’s possible not just to tell if a virus was engineered but precisely where it was engineered? That’s the idea behind genetic engineering attribution:the effort to develop tools that let us look at a genetically engineered sequence and determine which lab developed it. A big international contest among researchers earlier this year demonstrates that the technology is within our reach — though it’ll take lots of refining to move from impressive contest results to tools we can reliably use for bio detective work. The contest, the Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge, was sponsored by some of the leading bioresearch labs in the world. The idea was to challenge teams to develop techniques in genetic engineering attribution. The most successful entrants in the competition could predict, using machine-learning algorithms, which lab produced a certain genetic sequence with more than 80 percent accuracy, according to a new preprint summing up the results of the contest. This may seem technical, but it could actually be fairly consequential in the effort to make the world safe from a type of threat we should all be more attuned to post-pandemic: bioengineered weapons and leaks of bioengineered viruses. One of the challenges of preventing bioweapon research and deployment is that perpetrators can remain hidden — it’s difficult to find the source ofa killer virus and hold them accountable. But if it’s widely known that bioweapons can immediately and verifiably be traced right back to a bad actor, that could be a valuable deterrent. It’s also extremely important for biosafety more broadly. If an engineered virus is accidentally leaked, tools like these would allow us to identify where they leaked from and know what labs are doing genetic engineering work with inadequate safety procedures. The fingerprint of a virus Hundreds of design choices go into genetic engineering: “what genes you use, what enzymes you use to connect them together, what software you use to make those decisions for you,” computational immunologist Will Bradshaw, a co-author on the paper, told me. “The enzymes that people use to cut up the DNA cut in different patterns and have different error profiles,” Bradshaw says. “You can do that in the same way that you can recognize handwriting.” Because different researchers with different training and different equipment have their own distinctive “tells,” it’s possible to look at a genetically engineered organism and guess who made it — at least if you’re using machine-learning algorithms. The algorithms that are trained to do this work are fed data on more than 60,000 genetic sequences different labs produced. The idea is that, when fed an unfamiliar sequence, the algorithmsare able to predict which of the labs they’ve encountered (if any) likely produced it. A year ago, researchers at altLabs, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and other top bioresearch programs collaborated on the challenge, organizing a competition to find the best approaches to this biological forensics problem. The contest attracted intense interest from academics, industry professionals, and citizen scientists — one member of a winning team was a kindergarten teacher. Nearly 300 teams from all over the world submitted at least one machine-learning system for identifying the lab of origin of different sequences. In that preprint paper (which is still undergoing peer review), the challenge’s organizers summarize the results: The competitors collectively took a big step forward on this problem. “Winning teams achieved dramatically better results than any previous attempt at genetic engineering attribution, with the top-scoring team and all-winners ensemble both beating the previous state-of-the-art by over 10 percentage points,” the paper notes. The big picture is that researchers, aided by machine-learning systems, are getting really good at finding the lab that built a given plasmid, ora specific DNA strand used in gene manipulation. The top-performing teams had 95 percent accuracy at naming a plasmid’s creator by one metric called “top 10 accuracy” — meaning if the algorithm identifies 10 candidate labs, the true lab is one of them. They had 82 percent top 1 accuracy — that is, 82 percent of the time, the lab they identified as the likely designer of that bioengineered plasmid was, in fact, the lab that designed it. Top 1 accuracy is showy, but for biological detective work, top 10 accuracy is nearly as good: If you can narrow down the search for culprits to a small number of labs, you can then use other approaches to identify the exact lab. There’s still a lot of work to do. The competition looked at only simple engineered plasmids; ideally, we’d have approaches that work for fully engineered viruses and bacteria. And the competition didn’t look at adversarial examples, where researchers deliberately try to conceal the fingerprints of their lab on their work. How genetic fingerprinting can keep the world safer Knowing which lab produced a bioweapon can protect us in three ways, biosecurity researchers argued in Nature Communications last year. First, “knowledge of who was responsible can inform response efforts by shedding light on motives and capabilities, and so mitigate the event’s consequences.” That is, figuring out who built something will also give us clues about the goals they might have had and the risk we might be facing. Second, obviously, it allows the world to sanction and stop any lab or government that is producing bioweapons in violation of international law. And third, the article argues, hopefully, if these capabilities are widely known, they make the use of bioweapons much less appealing in the first place. But the techniques have more mundane uses as well. Bradshaw told me he envisions applications of the technology could be used to find accidental lab leaks, identify plagiarism in academic papers, and protect biological intellectual property — and those applications will validate and extend the tools for the really critical uses. It’s worth repeating that SARS-CoV-2 was not an engineered virus. But the past year and a half should have us all thinking about how devastating pandemic disease can be — and about whether the precautions being taken by research labs and governments are really adequate to prevent the next pandemic. The answer, to my mind, is that we’re not doing enough, but more sophisticated biological forensics could certainly help. Genetic engineering attribution is still a new field. With more effort, it’ll likely be possible to one day make attribution possible on a much larger scale and to do it for viruses and bacteria. That could make for a much safer future. A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!vox.com
What Dave Chappelle gets wrong about trans people and comedy
Neverending Nina speaks as trans employees and allies at Netflix walk out in protest of the Dave Chappelle special on October 20, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. | Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images Dave Chappelle’s trans friend knew how to take a joke. So what? Toward the end of Dave Chappelle’s incendiary Netflix standup special The Closer, he says something revealing about the fight he’s waged against trans people — a fight that’s drawn Netflix itself into the fray and which led to a walkout and protest against the company on October 20. After discussing the death of his friend, a trans comedian named Daphne Dorman who Chappelle also mentioned in his previous special Sticks and Stones, Chappelle makes a joke where the punchline is to blatantly misgender her. Then he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that, I’m telling you right now — Daphne would have loved that joke.” As I’ve attempted to grapple with the aims of Chappelle’s comedy, this line has stuck with me. Chappelle’s use of Dorman as a kind of totem for the type of relationship he’d like to have with the trans community at large is both telling and confusing — not because of what it says about Chappelle and Dorman, but because of what it says about the nature of comedy and the nature of pain. Trans people have expressed outrage at both Chappelle and Netflix for amplifying overtly transphobic and anti-scientific views about gender and trans identity. In his defense of Chappelle, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos first said that he didn’t believe The Closer could cause any real-world harm, and then, after recanting that statement, said that trans people would simply have to deal with the special being on the platform. What we wind up with, then, is this: Yes, The Closer could cause real-world harm, but trans people will just have to get over it. So perhaps the real question is, should trans people have to get over it? “Yes” seems to be the answer from The Closer, more or less. There’s no getting around the reality that transphobic rhetoric like Chappelle’s absolutely contributes to real-life harm. But Chappelle seems to view that hurt, and even the immediate pain of his transphobic jokes, as a worthy trade-off. Chappelle wants to make classes of oppression into a zero-sum game. Individual identity doesn’t work that way. Throughout The Closer, Chappelle argues — often savvily, if with glaring hypocrisy — that many queer and trans people enjoy white privilege, and that their white privilege makes them essentially more cosseted and protected than Chappelle and other Black men in America. “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again,” he notes at one point. Chappelle gets close to lobbing a critique of social justice movements that mainly focus on aiding white people, but his analysis lacks nuance: He frames whiteness as the protective cover most gay and transgender people default to, ignoring Black trans people in the course of the show. Chappelle repeatedly attempts to redirect the conversation back to concerns of Black oppression and violence against Black communities. These are serious problems — but in contrast, he treats the equality movement among sexual and gender minorities as essentially shrill window-dressing. Chappelle rarely acknowledges that these communities contain people of color; instead, he frames the concerns of queer and genderqueer people — especially the linguistic arguments about pronouns, anatomy, and bodily functions that often arise from conversations about trans and nonbinary identity — as solely a product of white progressive hysteria gone mad. In fact, in the moment where he comes closest to accepting trans identity, again using his friend Daphne as his lodestar, it’s the semantic argument that makes the crucial difference for Chappelle. Praising Dorman for her skills as a comedian and her good-natured attitude, he recalls Dorman telling him, “I don’t need you to understand me. I just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience.” Then he points out that he accepted her explicitly “because she didn’t say anything about pronouns” or make him feel like he was about to be “in trouble” for saying something wrong. On one level, Chappelle’s anxiety here is deeply relatable. It’s the anxiety felt by many people who are frustrated by cancel culture and what they perceive as its policing of language and free speech. No one likes to be yelled at or told they’re problematic, especially if they say the “wrong” thing when they’re trying to get clarity on complex situations. Much of the conversation around “canceling” and the reactionary politics it engenders — reactionary politics that include all of Chappelle’s recent comedy material — seems to demand a degree of patience with people who are still working out the basic issues surrounding complicated identity vectors. Often, thinking about these things is hard. But Chappelle makes it clear that he needs Dorman to exist on his terms, not hers — not as a trans woman with autonomy, but as a trans woman who’s proven she deserves autonomy by way of having a chill, laid-back sense of humor. Furthermore, in repeatedly reducing Dorman’s existence to her body parts and her relationship to them and the language surrounding them, Chappelle dehumanizes her and dehumanizes other trans people. Dorman’s fate — she died by suicide shortly after the release of Sticks and Stones in 2019 — directly undermines Chappelle’s logic. Because Dorman was trans, she was at an extremely high risk of dying by suicide or transphobic violence. Any way you look at it, trans people are among the most vulnerable populations in society: Out of all hate crimes that result in homicide, 72 percent of the victims are trans women, according to 2013 data. 50 percent of trans people will experience sexual assault or abuse in their lifetimes; this number is even higher for Black trans people. 54 percent of trans people experience intimate partner violence. Trans people of color are six times more likely to experience police brutality than white cisgender people. 10 percent of trans people experience violence from a family member after coming out as trans. Eight percent of trans people are kicked out of their homes after coming out. 30 percent of trans people experience homelessness at least once in their lives. In 2015, 30 percent of trans people reported experiencing workplace harassment, including sexual assault, physical harassment, or being fired for their gender expression. More than 50 percent of trans teens seriously considered suicide in the last year; more than 66 percent of trans teens experienced major symptoms of depression within the two weeks prior to the survey. This is what Chappelle’s critics mean when they discuss the real-world impact of Chappelle’s transphobia. His comedy, which involves continually insisting, against science, that gender is always tied to biology, isn’t just reactionary semantics. It’s dangerous rhetoric that’s been shown in study after study can directly impact the levels of anti-trans violence and societal prejudice that trans people already face daily. It’s important not to omit this reality from the equation — which is what Chappelle does when he treats Dorman as though she’s a comedian first and a trans woman second. Chappelle seems to think all trans people should have the attitude of comedians like Dorman Chappelle views comedians as their own “tribe.” In The Closer, he even claims Dorman for his own “tribe” and not for the trans community: “She wasn’t their tribe, she was mine,” he says. “She was a comedian in her soul.” Chappelle’s not just talking about comedy as a medium here, he’s talking about comedy as a worldview. Comedy is a subculture, after all, with its own very particular set of rules and mores. Perhaps the chief rule is the one comedians tend to embrace the hardest: Always, always be able to take a joke. In the past, this principle has led to the privileging, within the comedy community, of the comedian’s right to make rude, disturbing, or even heinously offensive jokes. The logic goes that if the comedian can take a joke, the audience should be less sensitive, too. (See, for instance, the notorious moment in 2012 when a comedian heckled a woman in the audience who reacted to a sketch about rape jokes by making a rape joke about her.) Much of the recent cultural conversation over comedy and free speech has centered on the idea that comedians should be able to discomfit their audiences, whether in the service of making them laugh or making them think, without backlash — and that if you can’t handle a joke that makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem, not the joke-maker’s. Dorman herself was adept at taking an offensive joke. As Chappelle recalls, when an audience member interrupted one of Dorman’s shows with a transphobic question, she shot back by making an even better joke about her own anatomy. This, Chappelle wants us all to know, should be the response when we’re confronted with transphobia: not anger, hurt, or pain; not a walkout in protest of Netflix, but good-humored deflection. This rule applies, at best, within the realm of comedy, between a comedian and their audience, not to the lived experiences of people in their everyday lives. Chappelle seems to need all trans people to accept the mores of his own very specific professional subculture, and he makes this request sound reasonable — he’s just a guy wanting to be allowed to make transphobic jokes without getting canceled for it, geez — but in practice, it’s baffling. Most people aren’t comedians, and most people are sensitive to jokes designed specifically to hurt them. Chappelle’s idea that trans people should have to prove, like Dorman, that they can take a joke without getting offended before they’re worthy of respect is a bit like a journalist demanding trans people prove they can use AP style before allowing them to command a conversation about their own gender identity. What’s more, if “always be able to take a joke” is sacrosanct, there’s another rule that comedy holds just as dear: the one about never “punching down.” In comedy, punching down refers to humor that targets vulnerable groups of people who don’t hold much power in society. It exists in opposition to the kind of “punch up” that aims to critique people and institutions with power. Onstage, punching down is generally considered a huge “No” — the kind of thing that can immediately alienate an audience if you’re not doing it to make a deeper point. (Chappelle talks about this concept in The Closer, asking the larger LGBTQIA community not to “punch down” on his people, using Kevin Hart and DaBaby as examples.) Chappelle’s deeper point seems to return again and again to the idea that trans people are too sensitive and that this sensitivity is somehow bolstered by white fragility. He seems to feel that his prioritization of the pain of Black communities over those of trans communities — as if, again, they are entirely separate — justifies an evening devoted to homophobic and transphobic jokes. Because Chappelle seems to believe that all queer and trans people have white privilege, he views himself as punching neither up nor down and even quotes Dorman as suggesting as much. But Chappelle, of all people, should know better. He’s hyper-aware, as a comedian who frequently uses humor to make points about racial and social justice, that comedy impacts the real world. In fact, in 2005, Chappelle completely killed his own hit comedy show, the legendary Chappelle’s Show, because of one joke that made him realize, according to an interview he gave to Time, that rather than critiquing racist comedy, he might instead be reinforcing racist stereotypes for white audiences who were enjoying the joke unironically. At the very least, then, Chappelle should know that there’s a possibility his jokes about trans people could be taken the wrong way and used to hurt trans people. There’s even an echo of the 2005 moment in the new special, when Chappelle has to stop and gently reprimand an audience member who starts to applaud a transphobic law. As Vulture’s Craig Jenkins put it, “You talk enough shit, and you’ll draw flies.” Rather than acknowledging this possibility and its potential for harm, Chappelle not only justifies his comedy using white privilege, but seems to go a step further: He suggests that being hurt is good for trans and nonbinary people. When he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that,” and then follows it up with any kind of defense, he’s telling audiences that he knows the joke is painful, hurtful, and transphobic — but that it’s somehow productive for trans people to be confronted by it. That it’s a learning experience to be confronted with transphobia onstage, as though trans people aren’t confronted with gender policing in every other moment of their lives. Only then, in Chappelle’s telling, can Chappelle and trans people “[start] getting to the bottom of shit.” Once trans people have shown him that they’re capable of being good-humored about other people’s continual objectification and degrading dismissal of transgender identity issues, they can — on the terms of the person using transphobia to interact with them — be heard and accepted and loved. This isn’t equality. Chappelle, who’s spent his entire comedy career using humor to make sharp, trenchant commentary on racism and injustice, should know that. Trans people should never have to just live with or get over or get used to rhetoric that dehumanizes them. The man who speaks viscerally about the fear Black Americans experience daily should know that asking trans people to accept and embrace transphobic ideology isn’t tolerance. It certainly isn’t the love and good humor he wants to be credited with. And despite the audience laughing with Chappelle, it’s not funny at all.vox.com
Who should get a Covid-19 booster shot right now?
Hattie Pierce, 75, receives a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine booster shot from Dr. Tiffany Taliaferro at the Safeway on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 4. | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images Three big questions about booster shots, answered. It may be time for your Covid-19 vaccine booster shot. The Food and Drug Administration has now authorized additional doses of all three Covid-19 vaccines in the US — Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — for certain higher-risk groups and has said that booster shots don’t have to be the same brand as the first round of vaccination. The CDC has seconded those recommendations. The government’s recommendations for booster doses are based on different subgroups’ risk from Covid-19; thus far, boosters are only recommended for older adults or people at higher risk because of their health or occupation. Experts have debated to what extent boosters are appropriate for everybody, given the evidence of persistently strong protection against severe illness for many people. But most seem to agree an additional dose makes sense to increase immunity for people considered more vulnerable to the virus. While boosters still aren’t technically recommended for everyone yet, the groups already okayed by the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for booster shots are quite broad and cover much of the adult population. Everybody over age 65 is eligible for an additional dose — that’s 54 million people. People with certain medical conditions such as heart disease (as much as 48 percent of adults) and people who are obese (about 42 percent) are also eligible for a booster. So are people in occupations deemed to be higher risk, such as first responders, manufacturing workers, teachers, and grocery store employees. The bottom line for now: If you were vaccinated at least six months ago with the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna shot and you’re at higher risk for Covid-19 based on your age, job, or medical history, it’s recommended that you receive a booster. So should anyone vaccinated at least two months ago with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the FDA. Who is recommended for a booster shot? The FDA has approved booster shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and J&J vaccines, and the CDC has finalized matching recommendations for who should receive a booster. Under the FDA’s authorization, the following people are eligible for an additional Covid-19 vaccine dose: Any person over age 65 who initially received either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine Any person over age 18 who initially received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine People ages 18 to 64 who initially received either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine and whose health puts them at higher risk from Covid-19 People ages 18 to 64 who initially received the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine and whose job puts them at higher risk of exposure to Covid-19 The lists of medical conditions and occupations that qualify for a booster shot extend eligibility to a lot of Americans. Those medical conditions include not only heart disease, diabetes, and cancer but also depression and pregnancy. High-risk jobs include the people in the food and agriculture industry, nursing home workers, and US Postal Service employees. Check the list — more people are eligible than you may think. Age is the strongest indicator for a booster shot, according to the experts I’ve spoken to. Even those who think the case for booster shots for younger and healthier people is not as strong agree that people over 65 would likely benefit from an additional dose. Most experts also support boosters for immunocompromised people, though the vaccines are still not as effective for those people to begin with. There is less consensus among experts about workers in jobs considered to be high risk, if they don’t already qualify because of age or health. Experts stress that research continues to show strong protection against severe illness for younger people without any significant medical conditions. But senior government health officials have insisted on including those workers in the groups eligible for a booster shot. Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images Sandra Lindsay gets a Pfizer booster shot at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, on October 6. Lindsay, an intensive care unit nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, became the first American to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in December 2020. For the eligible people whose first doses were either the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, they can receive their next dose at least six months after their initial vaccine course was completed, the FDA said. For people whose first dose was the J&J vaccine, they can get a booster shot two months after their first shot. The federal guidance matches what many experts have said is appropriate based on the current scientific evidence. There have been indications of the Covid-19 vaccines waning in effectiveness over time and against the delta variant. But the protection they provide against severe disease — resulting in hospitalization or death — remains strong for many people. The exceptions are older people, who have seen a greater drop in efficacy over time, and people with compromised immune systems, for whom the vaccines are often not as effective to start with. They are the focus of the booster guidelines, along with workers in higher-risk settings. What about mixing and matching different shots? All of the Covid-19 vaccines offer good protection against severe illness, but they are not equal. The Moderna vaccine has held up the best over time, including since the delta variant became dominant. Pfizer/BioNTech performs the next best, while Johnson & Johnson was the weakest of the three in its original one-dose regimen (though it has not seen much waning over time). Those differences have led some people — J&J recipients, in particular — to wonder whether they should get a dose of one of the better-performing vaccines for their booster shot. As the Atlantic reported last week, research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found the people who received a first dose of J&J and a second dose of Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech showed higher antibody levels than the people who got J&J for both doses. Antibody levels are not the only metric by which immunity is measured, but they are a useful proxy. The evidence is not as clear about whether it’s better to get a Moderna booster if you previously received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (or vice versa) because the NIH study used a full dose of the Moderna vaccine for its booster, whereas, in the real world, the Moderna booster will be a half dose. The new FDA guidance does say that people should be okay mixing and matching different vaccines. Generally speaking, they can get whichever booster shot they like if they fall in one of the subgroups recommended for an additional dose and sufficient time has passed: again, two months for J&J recipients or six months for Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna recipients. Different vaccines also have different side effects, another consideration for booster shots. Younger men who receive the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines have been found to be at a slightly higher risk of heart inflammation. Younger women who receive the J&J vaccine may be at a somewhat elevated risk of a rare blood-clotting problem. Both of those side effects, though serious, have been rare, and the FDA said the expected benefits of a booster shot for each of the vaccines outweigh the risks. Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Wanda Shaffer, 83, got her Pfizer booster shot at a California McDonald’s in September, as the California Department of Public Health and local McDonald’s franchisees held pop-up vaccine clinics at locations throughout Southern California. Should I get a booster shot? First off: The vaccines work. Recent waves of Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths have been concentrated in the remaining unvaccinated population. People who receive a vaccine are less likely to contract Covid-19 in the first place, much less likely to develop severe symptoms, less likely to transmit the virus to other people, and less likely to develop long Covid. But the vaccines aren’t perfect. There are going to be breakthrough cases. For some people, they don’t work as well. The recent death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell — who was fully vaccinated but immunocompromised because of blood cancer — served as a reminder that some people remain at risk so long as the virus is still circulating. The current federal guidance is concentrated on those people, to provide them more protection ahead of the winter. In the best-case scenario over the next few months, at-risk people get this additional immunity, more people get their first vaccine dose, and the virus slows down without new variants emerging. We should see fewer deaths than we did during last winter’s devastating wave. Still, Covid-19 isn’t going to disappear entirely, and experts expect booster shots may eventually be authorized for most people. A lot of Americans had already gone ahead and gotten an extra dose before the FDA officially approved it. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University, told me she thought people who are already eligible should get their booster “as soon as possible.” Other people might consider it, she said, if they were expecting to congregate with a lot of others during the holiday season or if they have to spend a lot of time around unvaccinated people or individuals whose vaccination status they don’t know. Covid-19 is here to stay, and booster shots are a reflection of that reality. They are one way to make it more palatable to live with this disease.vox.com
The French Dispatch is peak Wes Anderson. I wish I loved it.
Bill Murray in The French Dispatch. | Searchlight Pictures Anderson’s latest film feasts on melancholy nostalgia for a world gone by — but the flavor is off. The French Dispatch takes place in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France — the name of which, to my chagrin, neatly matches my feelings about the movie. Wes Anderson’s latest (full title: The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) is not bad, per se. It’s just that the eponymous listlessness and indifference is, for me, its entire emotional effect. Part of the trouble with Wes Anderson is that I know he’s making movies specifically for me, an occasionally pretentious dreamer with francophile tendencies and a fetish for printed magazines. The French Dispatch is nostalgic, a little weird, visually sumptuous — all characteristics that are far too uncommon in mainstream American film today. In a plot- and spoiler-obsessed film culture, he’s the rare filmmaker who reminds people that movies are a primordially visual medium. He favors symmetry and fussiness, intricately designed tableaus and meticulously selected color palettes. (Occasionally I might argue he’s too visually oriented.) For some people, his movies play like some kind of soothing ASMR for the eyes. The French Dispatch seems formulated in a lab for my narrative preferences.It’s not just that Ennui-sur-Blasé stands in for some imagined version of Paris, the kind that Francophile Americans imagine still exists in some corner of that storied town, a little seedy but also incredibly cute. It’s that the whole film is a tribute to the kind of literary magazine that so many writers of my vintage dream of working for, specifically the New Yorker, whose famed editors and writers, like Mavis Gallant, Harold Ross, and James Baldwin, furnish the models for a number of the film’s characters. While there are some obvious differences between the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun and the New Yorker — among other things, the latter has soldiered on into the new millennium — Anderson’s status as a New Yorker fanboy is clear from the start. He’s loved the publication since his teens, and owns almost every issue from the 1940s onward. In a recent interview with the magazine itself, Anderson said that in adulthood, “I found myself reading various writers’ accounts of life at The New Yorker—Brendan Gill, James Thurber, Ben Yagoda—and I got caught up in the whole aura of the thing.” He’s even worked to compile a book containing some of the articles from the magazine’s archive that inspired the film. Searchlight Pictures Wally Wolodarsky, Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson in The French Dispatch. I’ve seen The French Dispatch twice, and I felt that aura, too. But both times, watching it was like smacking into one of those white limestone walls that line most Parisian streets. I struggled to care about its characters or stories or journalism more broadly. Somewhere in my soul, I feel this ought not to be. If you’re a Wes Anderson fan and you’re mad at me now, I’m sorry! Kind of. Let me try to explain. For Wes-heads, The French Dispatch is likely satisfying. It’s like a greatest hits album, with many of his favorite themes: loneliness, friendship, family, love, death. Every intricate tableau and winking nod to his influences feels like a nudge to the audience, an invitation to be in on the joke. Which I mostly am. Yet I came away cold. Anderson’s New Yorker stand-in was started by Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), scion of the owner of the Kansas Evening Sun, who more or less conned his way into putting out a “little-read Sunday supplement” to that paper for five decades. He posted up in Ennui-sur-Blasé as a youth in 1925 and ended his tenure when he died in 1975, whereupon the French Dispatch shut down — paying, of course, a handsome bonus to its already handsomely paid staff writers. (Nearly 50 years in the future, we who write for magazines on paper and otherwise can only dream of that kind of life.) On his staff are celebrated journalists like Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). They write about art and history, food and culture, protests and poetry. After revealing to its audience that Howitzer will have died by the end of the movie, The French Dispatch moves backward slightly to see Howitzer gruffly guiding them through the editing process (there’s a strictly enforced “No Crying” sign above his office door), inquiring about their expense reports and helping shape their prose. Based on an amalgam of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross and his successor William Shawn, Howitzer is the kind of hands-on editor you don’t see much anymore. When he dies, the movie tells us, he receives “an editor’s burial.” The French Dispatch is arranged as if it’s the final edition of Howitzer’s Sunday supplement, the one he was working on when he died. It’s an anthology film, with small segments that furnish the “articles” — one on the outsider artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard muse (Léa Seydoux); one on the leader of roiling student protests (Timothée Chalamet) and the girl he falls for (Lyna Khoudri); one on the author’s (Jeffrey Wright) encounter with a curious corner of French cuisine; and one by a roaming cyclist-reporter (Owen Wilson) on Ennui-sur-Blasé itself. There’s also an obituary for Howitzer, written by his staff. Searchlight Pictures The French Dispatch roams from color to black and white and back again. Stylistically, The French Dispatch is Anderson working at the height of his powers. A delightful sequence near the beginning of the film features just a close-up of the hands of an expert preparing coffee and cocktails for the magazine’s staff on a rotating silver platter, then a wide shot of a waiter maneuvering the platter up an intricate set of staircases and doorways to reach the offices and deliver the drinks. He moves from black and white to color, playing delightedly with framings and image composition. Sometimes Anderson seems to be making a Jacques Tati movie; at others, he’s channeling Truffaut or Hitchcock or Visconti. That may be the problem. The French Dispatch is so referential that the pastiche overwhelms, delivering a swirling vortex of references that don’t quite add up to anything in particular. Watching it reminded me of legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s response to Anderson when, in 1998, he showed his film, Rushmore, to his then-retired hero. “I don’t know what you’ve got here, Wes,” Kael said. I don’t know what he’s got in The French Dispatch, either. There’s a strand of arguing for the essential joy of things that can’t be easily commodified, whether they’re old markets in French towns or a painting that can’t be easily transported or cuisine that can’t be easily located or little-read Sunday supplements to Midwestern newspapers. Anderson’s films are, themselves, part of this heritage of impracticality — his brand of fussiness is not easy or cheap to replicate. But his world is a fantasy one, an imagined ideal that can be fun to sink into yet doesn’t leave a lot of room to walk around and think in. I felt like I was being distracted from something while watching the movie, my attention turned away from the bigger tragedy — the slow death of magazines — that’s hiding underneath. Maybe it’s just the fact that the fantasy of the kind that The French Dispatch weaves feels a lot more like calamity if you work inside the world of magazines. Just this week, the announcement that The Believer, one of the few remaining staunchly impractical French Dispatch-like magazines out there, will cease publication next year, as part of a “strategic realignment” within the Black Mountain Institute, which publishes the magazine. The “little magazines” that shaped American thought during the last century have been slowly dying off, as have legendary alt-weeklies and local journalism. Most writers barely get paid enough to live on; workers at magazines and newspapers (including the New Yorker) are fighting for fair pay; those of us lucky enough to have jobs are always watching our backs, having seen friends lose theirs over and over again. Searchlight Pictures The staff of the French Dispatch — played by Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens, and Griffin Dunne — try not to cry. The New Yorker, for now, endures. (May it live long and prosper.) But watching market forces eat away at this kind of nourishing, curious, resolutely unlucrative but vital writing is soul-crushing. I can’t help but wonder if thefrantic pastiche and rampant nostalgia of this film weakened my ability to enjoy it. It feels hollow. One single moment in The French Dispatch did worm its way into my heart, however. Roebuck Wright, the amalgamation of James Baldwin and food writer A.J. Liebling played by Jeffrey Wright, is asked by an interviewer (Liev Schreiber) why he, an accomplished writer who’s covered many topics, has so often returned to writing about food. Wright responds, slowly and thoughtfully, that the life of being a journalist is difficult and lonely. “I chose this life,” he acknowledges, before explaining that, at the end of the day, there’s always been a table somewhere for him, with a chef and a waiter ready to warm his heart and fortify him with a good meal. “The solitary feast has been very like a comrade,” he says. Which I read, just a little, as Anderson’s statement about the feast that an issue of a great magazine has been to him. Or a great movie or, indeed, a literal feast. Something that sustains and delights the soul. So if I feel blasé about The French Dispatch — and despite my best efforts, I do — at least I admire and know what it’s getting at. Everybody’s feast is movable, and with movies and writing and art, there’s no accounting for taste. The French Dispatch is playing in theaters.vox.com
How Vox built a YouTube channel with 10 million subscribers
Hint: We had help. When Vox launched a dedicated YouTube program seven years ago, it was a team of two, aiming to create a new type of explainer video for the internet. It’s now grown to 31 talented producers, animators, and story editors, who have produced over 1,335 videos, racked up 2.6 billion views, and helped launch shows like Glad You Asked on YouTube Originals, Explained on Netflix, and Level Playing Field on HBO. Vox videos are now watched in over 240 countries by students, educators, and policymakers and have helped bring clarity to everyday questions and the big challenges of the day. This week, the YouTube channel reached a massive milestone: We officially hit 10 million subscribers on the channel. To celebrate, we asked VP of Creative Development Joe Posner, Senior Producer Joss Fong, Editorial Director Mona Lalwani, and Managing Producer Valerie Lapinski to explain how we built it, the impact of the Vox video program, and where we’re going. What has it been like to see Vox video grow over time? Joe Posner, VP, Creative Development: It’s been such a great adventure. When we started, most newsrooms were making work that was like cable news; some others were making short, character-driven documentaries that might be the kind of thing you’d see at a film festival. We, instead, were most inspired by and aiming for the kinds of things we loved most on YouTube, but making the most of the motion design and animation skills we all had and the journalistic institution we were a part of. There was, and still is, just a really special culture of collaboration and good-spirited competition on the team. I’m almost constantly in awe of what my teammates make, and it’s their opinions I’m most nervous to hear when I’ve made something new — as the team grew, our standards grew higher, too. Joss Fong, Senior Producer: In those early days, I truly never imagined that we’d have such a big, impressive team. We were just trying to figure out what a good internet video looked like. We hired people who seemed flexible and eager to learn, and from the very start, everyone who joined the team has shaped what a “Vox video” is, whether through their unique interests or their unique skills. Mona Lalwani, Editorial Director: Our team has grown consistently, in both size and ability, and our channel reflects that growth. It’s been energizing for me to see our coverage, and our global viewership, expand over the years. Vox established a unique voice and visual format around US politics and policy in the first couple of years, and since then we’ve intentionally pushed our scope and abilities to cover international stories. We care deeply about global affairs, and I hope that we can continue to push ourselves to do more on that front. What do you see as the driving mission of Vox Video? Has it changed over time? Valerie Lapinski, Managing Producer: Our official mission has always been “Explain the News,” but I feel that the unspoken agreement we’ve always had with our video audience is “We answer the questions you never knew you had.” We try to home in on questions that are floating around about big issues, but we also take a lot of joy in covering the little mysteries about the world around us, and that extends to our coverage on culture, history, science, design, and everything in between. I think our commitment to covering things like international affairs has deepened over time, but our major goal of empowering people with understanding remains consistent. Lalwani: Our mission is to provide a better understanding of the world around us. That could be a news event, an overlooked chapter in history, the most feared song in jazz, or a mystery behind a photograph. We’re fully driven by our curiosity, and I’m glad that our ability to ask the right, and sometimes completely bizarre, questions hasn’t diminished over time. While our core mission hasn’t changed, our execution continues to evolve. We’re always looking for new ways to deliver explanations, and I think that’s the force that pushes us forward. What kind of an impact have Vox videos had? Are there any examples you’re most proud of? Lalwani: We’ve seen our videos reach far corners of the world, and it’s been very rewarding to receive feedback about our videos providing clarity during chaos. Through protests and the pandemic, we’ve seen evidence of our work informing large and diverse audiences. We were really surprised to see stranded travelers watching our Hong Kong protests explainer projected on a screen at an airport in Hong Kong. And more recently, when I was in India during the deadly second wave of Covid, I was shocked to see our video on vaccine efficacy go viral on WhatsApp. Our work had unexpectedly cut through the clutter of misinformation on the messaging app. Lapinski: A recent impact that I’m so, so proud of is our coverage of the Covid-19 virus and the vaccine science. The international reach our videos have gotten is tremendous. We had health departments and organizations from all over the world asking to use and adapt our videos, from Italy to the Philippines. One of our freelancers spotted a Vox vaccine video being played at a vaccination site in Taiwan. To be helpful and relevant at such important moments is incredibly rewarding. Posner: I married a public school teacher, which might be why one of my favorite pieces of feedback is from teachers, telling us they use our videos to help them do their work. It happens all the time. I met a math teacher on the sidewalk the other day, and she mentioned she used one of our new videos in class just the previous week. I think it was Maddie Marshall’s “How the rich avoid paying taxes.” But it happens for all types of topics, both for videos on our YouTube and elsewhere. Netflix released a bunch of the episodes of our Explained series on YouTube last year as schools were closing from the pandemic, for the same reason. We’ve also had some real-world impact — one of my proudest moments as a video creator came a week after we released the “Misclassified” episode of Level Playing Field, where the lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board announced new policy that cited the show. We were one of many things it cited, but the policy clearly was — at least in part — inspired by the show’s story. Vox has become incredibly well-known for its explainer video format. How do you feel about that legacy? Fong: Our explainer video format mixing narration, archive, and informative graphics is truly a potent form of communication (and a fairly efficient production style that tolerates social distancing quite well). We have seen that plenty of other news organizations and independent video creators have adopted the format over the years, so I do feel the urge to keep innovating. That’s the biggest challenge: trying something new when you’re already well-known for a particular style and voice. What’s coming next? What are you most excited for? Lalwani: Honestly, I’m excited to be here every day. The team constantly surprises us with their story ideas and visual skills, and that keeps our work and our channel interesting — and unpredictable. On any given day, we could be working on a video about the climate crisis, bird calls, taxes, or fluffy tennis balls. So the plan is to continue to be a creative space where our journalism isn’t limited to hard news. We’ll keep polishing the range of explainers that we’re known for, but we’re also excited about finding new visual ways to provide explanations. As a team, we’re always having conversations about pushing our journalistic voice and visual identity in new directions, and I can’t wait for our viewers to see that evolution in the coming year. Lapinski: I’m really excited for our team to go back out into the world to shoot and report as Covid wanes and it becomes safer (crosses fingers). There’s so much energy right now around “What do we do next?” We’re great at explainers and have expanded to so many new outlets — what else can we do to push our creativity and leadership in the video space? I don’t want to reveal too many plans, but there are several things coming in 2022 that I’m excited for. We also have a new newsletter where you can stay up to date with all the new series and projects we have launching. Sign up here.vox.com
How you’ll know when Covid-19 has gone from “pandemic” to “endemic”
Experts say it is unrealistic to think Covid-19 will be totally eradicated. | Getty Images It’s more subjective than you might think. You’ve probably heard it by now: Covid-19 is not going away. The broad consensus among experts is that it’s not realistic to think we’re going to totally eradicate this virus. We will, however, see it move out of the pandemic phase and into the endemic phase. That means the virus will keep circulating in parts of the global population for years, but its prevalence and impactwill come down to relatively manageable levels, so it becomes more like the flu than a world-stopping disease. For now, “we have to remember that we are still in a pandemic with this virus,” said Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We’re not yet at a point where we’re living with endemic Covid. When we get to that point some of this will be much easier, but we’re not there.” So, how will we know when we are there? Is there some clear threshold or some magical metricthat will tell us, objectively and undeniably? Yes and no. For an infectious disease to be classed in the endemic phase, the rate of infections has to more or less stabilize across years (though occasional increases, say, in the winter, are expected). “A disease is endemic if the reproductive number is stably at one. That means one infected person, on average, infects one other person,” explained Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray. “Right now, we are nowhere near that. Each person who’s infected is infecting more than one person.” That’s largely due to the hyper-contagious delta variant and the fact that most of the global population doesn’t yet have immunity — whether through vaccination or infection — so susceptibility is still high. (For a while, there had been hope that the arrival of vaccines would mean we could reach herd immunity — that is, when enough of a population has gained immunity to confer protection to everyone. But those hopes have been dashed as we’ve failed to vaccinate enough people and more contagious variants have circulated widely.) But getting the virus’s reproductive number down to one is just “the bare minimum” for earning the endemic classification, Murray said. There are other factors that come into play, too — and assessing these factors is a more subjective business. In general, a virus becomes endemic when we — health experts, governmental bodies, and the public —collectively decide that we’re okay with accepting the level of impact the virus has. And obviously, that’s a tricky thing: People will differ as to what constitutes an acceptable level. The multiple factors that determine when a disease is endemic The worst outcome from becoming infected with a virus is obviously death. The flu, for example, kills between 12,000 and 52,000 Americans each year, according to CDC estimates. Is that figure “acceptable” or too high? “The way I think about it, even with influenza, that’s too much,” Joshua Petrie, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told me. But as a society, we’ve implicitly decided that we will accept that level of mortality rather than taking measures to lower it by, say, wearing masks in winter or mandating flu vaccines. Similarly, with Covid-19, people will disagree about what constitutes an “acceptable” level of mortality. “I am not prepared to say what the appropriate benchmark is yet, but it certainly is much, much lower than where we are, and much closer to where the flu is,” Kates said. Because pandemics don’t end by a disease just fading away, & pandemics don’t end with everyone able to completely forget about the disease.Pandemics end when we decide how much death and disease we’re satisfied with. I dont know about you, but for me—this is too much death. pic.twitter.com/yRGoZ2euEd— Dr Ellie Murray, ScD (@EpiEllie) October 1, 2021 Mortality isn’t the only type of impact we need to take seriously. Covid-19 can lead to long-haul symptoms in a minority of cases — estimates range from 10 to 30 percent in unvaccinated people, with a small number of vaccinated people also affected. The symptoms, like brain fog, memory loss, and fatigue, are sometimes so debilitating that the condition is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The reasons why some people get “long Covid” and others recover quickly are still not well understood, and the path to effective treatments for long-haulers is uncertain. In determining endemicity, Murray said she’d look at the availability of treatments for long-haulers as well as treatments for people in the early stages of the disease (Merck’s pill molnupiravir, which the pharma giant said cuts hospitalizations in half for at-risk patients, looks like it’ll be helpful in this regard). She’d also consider other factors like ICU and hospital bed capacity, supply-chain issues, and whether the use of medications for Covid-19 is detracting from the supply of those medications for other chronic conditions that they’d normally be treating. “What you want is to get to a stage where you don’t have to worry about disruption because of Covid,” Murray told me. “The pandemic is over when the crises stop — not just when we get to a certain level of death.” Again, though, determining when something stops being a crisis can be a bit subjective. There’s one imminent development that makes Murray hopeful about the pandemic phase winding down in the US by 2022: Vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds are expected to be approved within weeks. “I think once we have vaccines for all ages, I’m a lot more hopeful about the control situation in the US,” she said. Vaccinating school-going kids is crucial both because it’ll protect them and because it’ll limit spread in the community. Will we get an official declaration saying the state of emergency is over? In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic. Soon after, the US government declared a national emergency. Then, one by one, states followed suit. As we move toward endemicity, we can expect to watch this process happen in reverse, experts told me. First, we’ll likely see individual states declaring an end to the emergency (some states already have). This will be staggered. Some areas, notably those with high vaccination rates, will reach a reasonable approximation of endemicity sooner than others. On a national level, “the CDC may pull back our state of emergency in the US if cases remain low at some point in the future,” said Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University. “But we still have a long way to go in controlling the virus around the globe,” she added. “A pandemic by nature is global, and while we’re doing better in the US and other wealthy countries, vaccine availability in many low- and middle-income countries has been atrocious.” The WHO will eventually declare an end to the global pandemic, just like it’s done in the past for, say, the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic. You just shouldn’t expect to hear the WHO’s declaration anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean you can’t move forward with your life in the meantime. If you live in the US, “it’s certainly possible” your region will be reasonably classed as being in the endemic phase in 2022, Petrie said. When the time comes, your state health department and local officials will likely make an announcement, based partly on the virus’s objective reproductive number and partly on the more subjective criteria above. And until then? Rather than thinking of endemicity as an on-off switch next year, plan to think of it as a dimmer switch, Petrie told me. He plans to keep an eye on the CDC’s county data tracker to monitor local transmission levels. When his county is no longer in the red zone, he’ll start to feel more comfortable doing more public activities. We all have different levels of risk tolerance, so, for a while yet, we’ll be making our own subjective choices about which thresholds feel safe enough. “As we’re transitioning to a more endemic level,” he said, “I think adjusting your behavior based on what’s happening locally makes a lot of sense.” A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!vox.com