The Download: a universal covid vaccine, and protecting toddlers from polio

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Long before Alexander Cohen—or anyone else—had heard of the alpha, delta, or omicron variants of covid-19, he and his graduate school advisor Pamela Bjorkman were doing the research that might soon make it possible for a single vaccine to defeat the rapidly evolving virus—along with any other covid-19 variant that might arise in the future.

So in early 2020, when covid-19 hit, Cohen, Bjorkman, and other members of the lab set to engineering a universal covid vaccine—one that would provide protection not just against all its variants, but also against future illnesses caused by entirely new types of coronaviruses—thanks to its highly effective nanoparticle.

The pair and their collaborators are now tantalizingly close to achieving their goal of manufacturing a vaccine that broadly triggers an immune response not just to covid and its variants but to a wider variety of coronaviruses. And while it could take as long as two years to begin the trial, if it’s successful, it could protect us against ever having to endure another covid-related lockdown again. Read the full story.

—Adam Piore

Why I got my one-year-old vaccinated against polio

My colleague Jessica Hamzelou’s daughter will be two in October. She’s already had three doses of polio vaccine, and is scheduled to receive another when she’s three years and four months old. But thanks to the detection of polioviruses in sewage in North and North East London, where they live, she is one of hundreds of thousands of children between one and nine in the city who are being offered a booster dose.

It’s not the first time the poliovirus has been found in London’s sewage. But this time, there are signs that it may be spreading. No cases have been diagnosed in the UK since 1984, but in the US, a 20-year-old man in Rockland County, New York, has developed paralysis caused by polio—the country’s first diagnosed case of the disease since 2013. So, what’s going on? And can booster vaccination campaigns like London’s help? Read the full story.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 A notorious anti-trans forum has been taken offline
Host Cloudflare, said it believed there was now an “immediate threat to human life.” (NBC)
+ Trans streamer Clara Sorrenti led a campaign to get the site taken down after she was swatted. (NBC)
+ The site’s removal is a victory for true freedom of speech. (Slate $)

2 NASA’s moon mission could be delayed for weeks
After it called off its planned relaunch over the weekend. (BBC)
+ A persistent hydrogen leak is to blame. (The Verge)

3 Anti-Ukrainian refugee misinformation is sweeping across the internet
Google is hoping that short videos could help to change minds. (Bloomberg $)
+ Twitter is woefully ill-equipped to cope with misinformation, a new report has found. (WP $)
+ How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Scientists have restored sight to the eyes of dead donors
The impressive feat was previously believed to be impossible. (WSJ $)
+ A bioengineered cornea can restore sight to blind people. (MIT Technology Review)

5 How three states could sway the 2024 Presidential election
The Republican candidates could attempt to overturn a Democrat victory. (Vox)
+ Donald Trump’s supporters are incensed by the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago. (The Atlantic $)

6 We don’t know which virus will spark the next pandemic
But knowledge is power when it comes to observing the likely threats in animals. (New Yorker $)

7 Your old plastic water bottle could become a diamond 💎
Once scientists subject it to similar conditions to those found on Neptune and Uranus, that is. (Motherboard)

8 Why soccer is essential to creating natural-moving robots ⚽
From muscle movement to split-second decision making. (Wired $)
+ This robot dog just taught itself to walk. (MIT Technology Review)

9 This drug really does solve hair loss
The problem is, it’s not equally effective for everyone. (NY Mag $)
+ Going bald? Lab-grown hair cells could be on the way. (MIT Technology Review)

10 How TikTok fell in love with cleaning graves 🪦
A surprisingly wholesome hobby. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“If you can’t keep up, steal the tech and do your best with it.”

—Arsenio Menendez, a NASA contractor, describes Russia’s approach to the electronics inside its military weapons to the New York Times.

The big story

This tool lets you confuse Google’s ad network, and a test shows it works

January 2021

We’ve all been there by now: surfing the web and bumping into ads with an uncanny flavor. How did they know I was thinking about joining a gym? Or changing careers? Or that I need a loan? You might wonder if Google can read your mind. Google even boasts that it knows you better than you know yourself.

Google can’t read your mind, of course. But it can read your search history. It tracks a lot of your web browsing, too. It has an enormous amount of data about its users, which it uses to make an unimaginable amount of money from advertising: over $120 billion a year.

The company runs a vast profiling machine, fitting people into categories that say who they are, what they’re worth, and how they’re expected to act—surveillance advertising that has major social costs. But while it’s not possible to hide from Google’s surveillance, you can introduce inaccurate or excessive information to confuse and ultimately sabotage it. Here’s how. Read the full story.

—Lee McGuigan

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ How movies murder wholesome songs and make them unbearable. 
+ Russia’s only female cosmonaut is prepping for space.
+ Text tones interpreted as dance moves has really tickled me (thanks Allegra!)
+ An ode to GoldenEye 007—the ultimate Nintendo 64 classic.
+ Uhoh—the pseudo-Irish accents in The Rings of Power have not gone down well.

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