Meet the ‘Forest Ninja Bison’ Living in Grand Canyon National Park

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Wildlife managers recently relocated dozens of the iconic animals to help restore balance to the park's ecosystem

Wildlife managers recently relocated dozens of the iconic animals to help restore balance to the park's ecosystem

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To Save Whales, Should We Stop Eating Lobster?

The North Atlantic right whale isn’t doing well. There are fewer than 350 of these stocky baleen whales believed to be left in the wild—and the numbers are shrinking. In the last six years, vessel strikes, entanglements in fishing gear, or other unknown causes have killed or injured at least 92 whales, prompting scientists to […]

The North Atlantic right whale isn’t doing well. There are fewer than 350 of these stocky baleen whales believed to be left in the wild—and the numbers are shrinking. In the last six years, vessel strikes, entanglements in fishing gear, or other unknown causes have killed or injured at least 92 whales, prompting scientists to declare the die-off an “Unusual Mortality Event.” At the rate they’re dying, experts warn, the whales are at risk of disappearing forever. But the question of who, specifically, is to blame is controversial. In September, one of the nation’s most influential voices on sustainable seafood weighed in: The Monterey Bay Aquarium announced that its Seafood Watch program, a popular consumer seafood rating guide, had red-listed several fisheries that use vertical fishing lines due to the risk they pose to North Atlantic right whales. Included in the group was the American lobster fishery. In short, the message to consumers was: If you care about the survival of whales, avoid eating lobster. Maine is responsible for landing about 80 percent of the country’s lobster. Several food suppliers listened. In September, meal kit companies HelloFresh and Blue Apron said they’d pull lobster from their menus. And last week, Whole Foods announced it would temporarily stop selling lobster fished in the Gulf of Maine after another seafood monitoring group, the Marine Stewardship Council, said that Maine lobster would lose its “sustainable” rating. The American lobster fishery is a behemoth, particularly in Maine. Last year, according to the governor’s office, the fishery brought in a record $725 million in sales at the docks, 82 percent of the value of all of Maine’s seafood that year. The fishery employs more than 4,500 people (for reference, that’s about a third of the number of teachers in the state), and is responsible for landing about 80 percent of the country’s lobster, around 100 million pounds per year. So it was no big surprise that these new ratings didn’t sit well with the state’s fishers and their friends in Congress. A month after the Monterey aquarium released its assessment, Maine’s entire Congressional delegation—including Sens. Angus King, an Independent, and Susan Collins, a Republican, as well as Democratic Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree—announced they planned to introduce a bill to cut off all of the science institution’s federal funding. In a press release, King called the aquarium’s red listing a “baseless attack” on a “proud, sustainable fishery” and a “clear attempt to put thousands of Maine people out of work”; Collins said there was “zero evidence” behind Seafood Watch’s “absurd decision”; Pingree referred to it as “unscientific”; and Golden said it was “a slap in the face to lobstermen and their families.” Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, also announced support for the bill. It’s difficult to overstate how unusual this is: Every single one of Maine’s top lawmakers put their partisan interests aside to defend lobster fishing (and eating) and condemn an aquarium on the other side of the country. The lawmakers argue that there is no proof their lobstermen were responsible for right whale deaths. In an open letter, they wrote, “[T]here has not been a known right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear since 2004, and right whale deaths or serious injuries have never been attributed to Maine lobster gear.” They issued a similar statement in November, after Whole Foods’ decision. Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, an organization that promotes Maine lobster, told me the red-listing “seems like a drastic step to take for a significant unknown.”  According to government data, entanglement in gear is indeed the leading cause of injury and death for right whales. And it’s easy to see why: Typically, fishers catch lobster or crab with traps on the sea floor. Ropes called “endlines” connect the traps to a buoy marker at the ocean surface, while “groundlines” connect up to dozens of traps together along the floor. Because right whales feed on zooplankton by diving with their mouths open, the gear, particularly endlines, can easily get caught in their baleen plates or wrap around their bodies. More than an estimated 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, according to research reviewed by the aquarium. But when it comes to whether Maine’s lobster fishery is to blame, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency tasked with regulating endangered whale deaths, doesn’t seem to be on the same page as the aquarium. As the agency told me in a statement in October, “The US wild-caught American lobster fishery is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under state and federal regulations.” The debate, I’ll admit, left me confused. Should we all be cutting back on Maine lobster? Or was the aquarium’s listing “unscientific”? Is it true that right whale deaths have never been attributed to Maine lobster gear? And should the aquarium consider any aspect of human welfare, like jobs or the economy, in its ratings? Let’s start with the aquarium’s decision. Seafood Watch gives one of three ratings to seafood coming into US markets: green, meaning that a particular seafood is sustainably caught and managed; yellow, which means that the researchers see some potential issues and are monitoring them; and red, which usually means, according to Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vice president of global ocean initiatives, there is a “very severe” environmental impact associated with the seafood “and/or management’s not doing enough” to address that impact. In its rating, the aquarium considers the health of the “target stock” (in this case, the lobster population), the impact of fishing on other species (like whales) and the habitat, and the effectiveness of how the fishery is managed. In the case of lobster, she says, management is a big problem. “NOAA is supposed to be working with the states and the industry to identify measures to reduce risk to this whale,” Dianto Kemmerly says. But the agency is not doing that, she argues, pointing out that in July, a court found the Biden administration to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act over a failure to limit whale deaths. By NOAA’s own estimates, the species can only sustain less than one whale death per year. While there have been no recorded whale deaths so far in 2022, there have been five known entanglements and one vessel strike. At least one right whale, named Snow Cone, got tangled in new fishing gear this year while still carrying old gear, and is not expected to survive. A year ago, NOAA scientists determined the agency would need to work with fisheries to reduce the risk of entanglement to right whales by about 90 percent. In an emailed statement, the agency says it has since achieved about half of that goal—47 percent—with its most recent set of regulations and is currently working to revise them. NOAA has, by court order, until December 2024 to do so.  Researchers estimate that the North Atlantic right whale population for 2021 was 340 individuals. North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium So it’s clear that these whales are in deep trouble, but are Maine’s lobster fishers directly responsible for any of these entanglements or deaths? Data is too limited to tell. According to NOAA, only about a third of right whale deaths are documented. And even for whales that are known to have died from entanglements, the gear may not be recovered with the carcasses. Or if it is, it may just look like generic rope, unattributable to any fishery. In fact, the aquarium notes, only 10 percent of documented whale deaths can be linked to a specific type of gear and only 12 percent to a specific location. So it’s true that no single right whale death has been linked to Maine lobster gear. But that’s true of almost all right whale deaths—the majority of them can’t be linked to any specific fishery. “What we definitely do know is that right whales have been entangled in the American lobster fishery.” In 2020, a law went into effect requiring Maine lobstermen to start marking their gear and making it identifiable. But entanglements can often last “a very long time, years even,” Dianto Kemmerly says, before whales die from starvation or lacerations to their skin as a result. So it may be years until a right whale dies from newly marked gear, revealing a clearer picture about whose gear is responsible. And the whales may not have that kind of time: While gear marking is helpful, says Hannah Myers, a marine biology PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks focused on whale behavior and policy, “we can’t really wait on that.” “What we definitely do know,” she says, “is that right whales have been entangled in the American lobster fishery.” The vast majority of endlines are fished in the state of Maine, she notes, with an estimated 900,000 lines in the water at peak season. “That’s just a total minefield for whales to be swimming through,” she says. While whale sightings in the Gulf of Maine have decreased over the past decade—something the Maine lawmakers note in their open letter—the whales’ movements aren’t totally understood by scientists. “Right whales are perverse beasts,” says Robert Kenney, a whale researcher at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and a member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which advises the federal government on how to reduce entanglements. “Every time you think you know what they’re doing, they do something different.” Even with all the uncertainty, both Myers and Kenney expressed support for the aquarium’s decision. “I think it’s totally appropriate for the Monterey Bay Aquarium to list Atlantic lobster as ‘red’ because of the bycatch risk that fishery poses to the world’s most critically endangered large whale species,” Myers said. In all of this, it’s important to keep in mind that Seafood Watch’s assessment is an environmental one. It doesn’t take jobs or the economy into account. No part of their equation considers that all of Maine’s lobster fishers are, by law, self-employed. It doesn’t consider how many of them often come from generations of lobster fishers before them. And it certainly doesn’t consider lobster’s cultural importance to the state, like the Maine Lobster Festival or the lobster license plate or the sanctity of a well-prepared lobster roll. Seafood Watch’s assessment is an environmental one. It doesn’t take jobs or the economy into account. But should it? What responsibility does the Monterey Bay Aquarium have to people? Some, apparently. In 2018, the aquarium, along with two other organizations, Liberty Shared and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, released an early version of what is now the Seafood Social Risk Tool. Its purpose is to help businesses “take the first steps in identifying and managing the risk of human rights abuses in their seafood supply chains.” So the aquarium recognizes human impacts in some lists. When I asked Dianto Kemmerly if she thought Seafood Watch should take people’s economic livelihoods (on top of their human rights) into account, she emphasized in an emailed response that the mission of the aquarium is to “inspire conservation of the ocean” and that Seafood Watch helps ensure “people and the planet can thrive for the long-term.” She said that there are currently no plans to include economic indicators in the organization’s assessments.  Regardless of the aquarium’s recommendation, for the North Atlantic right whale to avoid extinction, according to Kenney and Myers, there simply needs to be a drastic reduction in the amount of vertical fishing line in the ocean. Getting whale deaths below NOAA’s threshold of one animal per year, “is achievable,” Kenney says, “if we take rope out of the water.” Solutions may not have to hurt fishers’ bottom lines. Some lobster fishers are currently experimenting with “ropeless” or “on-demand” fishing gear, a technology that can raise traps off the seafloor with pop-up buoys or inflatable lift bags without requiring a marker at the surface, eliminating virtually all risk to whales. Earlier this year, NOAA released a plan to encourage the adoption of the technology and is currently allowing experimenters to try it out through its gear library. But on-demand gear is expensive, NOAA wrote in its report, and fishers may not be able to afford it on their own without “financial incentives” or “supplemental funding.” Other fixes could include reducing rope strength to make it easier for whales to break free if they do become entangled, or scaling back the number of endlines in the water, which would reduce the chances of entanglement in the first place. Whatever the cure, it will need to happen quickly. As Myers put it, “One of the most important things for right whales right now is time. We’re moving towards solutions. But we have very, very little time left to act.”

Europe’s Surprising Record of Dam Removals

A growing movement across the continent is working to remove thousands of barriers and restore some of the world’s most fragmented rivers. The post Europe’s Surprising Record of Dam Removals appeared first on The Revelator.

The 1999 demolition of the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River set off a wave of dam removals across the United States. Since then some 1,200 dams have come down to help restore rivers and aquatic animals, improve water quality, and boost public safety — among other benefits. Across the Atlantic, European nations have been busy removing thousands of river barriers, too. But until recently the efforts have gone largely unnoticed, even among experts. Pao Fernández Garrido can attest to that. An engineer and expert in ecosystem restoration from Spain, Fernández Garrido was finishing her master’s thesis in 2012 when she attend a dam-removal training in Massachusetts that was part of a conference on fish passage. She was floored to learn about the United States’ widespread dam-removal efforts and returned to Europe determined to learn what was happening with dam removals on the continent — and to be a part of the action. So did Herman Wanningen, a freshwater consultant  from the Netherlands, who also attended the conference. Fernández Garrido joined him when he founded the World Fish Migration Foundation in 2014. Soon after they helped form a coalition organization called Dam Removal Europe that also includes European Rivers Network, WWF, Rewilding Europe, the Rivers Trust, Wetlands International and the Nature Conservancy. One of the first things Fernández Garrido and her colleagues wanted to know was the extent of river fragmentation on the continent. That wasn’t easy: While the United States has an exhaustive inventory of its 90,000 dams, not every European country, they learned, had collected similar data. At the time not much was known beyond the fact that Europe had 7,000 large dams. But as their project to map river barriers, known as AMBER, got underway, they learned the on-the-ground reality included many smaller dams and other barriers — at least 1.2 million river barriers in 36 European countries. Fernández Garrido and her colleagues spent more than three years on research, including river surveys in 26 countries, to gather the more robust data. Their results, published in Nature in 2020, found that on average river barriers occur almost every half mile. Two-thirds of these barriers are under seven feet tall, but small doesn’t mean insignificant. Low-head dams and smaller obstructions like weirs and sluices can still block the movement of some fish, as well as aquatic plants, invertebrates, and the flow of sediment and nutrients. Many of the dams — around 150,000 — are also obsolete and no longer provide any beneficial functions. The good news, though, is that they also found that 4,000 European river barriers had already come down in the previous 20 years, with France, Finland, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom being the most active. These efforts, though, had largely flown under the radar. “Nobody was talking about these, nobody,” says Fernández Garrido. “The United States is celebrating that it has removed 1,200 and nobody’s celebrating in Europe because nobody knows.” That’s changed as they continued with their work to compile research, organize supporters across the continent, and push policymakers for action. In 2019 the researchers delivered a report on case studies of dam removals and their benefits to the European Commission. The following year the World Fish Migration Foundation published the first-ever Living Planet Index on the global state of migratory fish. It found that migratory freshwater fish populations in Europe had dropped 93% since 1970, much higher than the already dismal global average of 76%. The cumulative weight of those findings may have had a big impact on policy. That same year the European Commission published its biodiversity strategy for 2030. “For the first time ever in history, it stated that we should free at least 25,000 kilometers (15,500 miles) of river in Europe from barriers by 2030,” says Fernández Garrido. While that was welcome news, it was still only a guideline — not legally binding. In May 2022, however, the commission followed up with a proposal called the EU Nature Restoration Law. “In this law, they say we must start removing dams,” she says. And the proposed language calls for restoring 15,500 miles of river to a “free-flowing state by 2030.” The European Parliament will need to ratify the law in the next couple of years. “In the meantime politicians could work to weaken it,” she says. “That’s why environmental groups are working hard to keep it strong.” On the ground, the work to restore free-flowing rivers continues. Last year 239 river barriers were removed in 17 European countries, including more than 100 in Spain. Finland is in the process of removing three hydroelectric dams on the Hiitolanjoki River, which will aid salmon populations. And France is home to the tallest dam removal on the continent yet, the 118-foot Vezins Dam on the Sélune River in Normandy, which was removed in 2020. Demolition began this summer on a second dam on the river, La Roche Qui Boit, which will allow the Sélune to run free for the first time in 100 years. Migratory fish populations like salmon are expected to return, and the dam removals will also reduce toxic algae that pooled in the warm waters of the reservoirs during summer. Some of this work — and more — is showcased in a new documentary, #DamBusters, by director Francisco Campos-Lopez of Magen Entertainment. The film follows Fernández Garrido across Europe as she meets dam-removal heroes in Spain, France, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland. “Restoring nature is probably the job of our time, our generation,” she says in the film. But it’s a process that will also take time. “There are some river systems, like for example in North America, where the benefits of dam removal are shocking and so amazing because that river system was only blocked for only 100 years,” she tells The Revelator. “But when you are talking about recovering our river systems in Europe that have been controlled and mismanaged for 500 years, 600 years, 1,000 years, we have to be cautious about what we expect.” But even if ecological restoration comes more gradually, political movement has been swift. “The progress since we started in 2016 until now — having policies proposed at the European level — it’s amazing,” Fernández Garrido says. “It’s really an achievement.” The combination of research, policy reports, political pressure and movement-building have kickstarted a river restoration effort that shows no signs of slowing down — and could be a model for other regions. Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Previously in The Revelator: 5 Reasons to Rethink the Future of Dams The post Europe’s Surprising Record of Dam Removals appeared first on The Revelator.

There’s no such thing as a good cold

A mother checks her son’s temperature in 1949. | Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images “Immunity debt” can explain this year’s eye-popping cold and flu season — but it can also be dangerously misinterpreted. This fall, America’s pediatric hospitals have been overwhelmed by a “tri-demic” of RSV, flu, and Covid-19. And while it’s not a surprise to see respiratory viral infections hit hard at this time of year, what is surprising is to see so many of these viruses hit so many parts of the country so hard at the same time. Why is everyone so sick, so simultaneously? One explanation that’s gotten a lot of airtime is the concept of “immunity debt,” coined by a group of French pediatric infectious disease experts in an August 2021 publication. A central premise of immunity debt is that for many infectious diseases, repeat infections are milder than the first infection. The authors hypothesized that after several pandemic years during which masks, distancing, and ventilation protected so many people from initial infections with a range of viruses, more people than usual would be catching certain diseases for the first — and worst — time now that those protections are not as strongly in place. At the same time, suboptimal vaccination rates for flu, Covid-19, and other vaccine-preventable diseases — due to pandemic disruptions — meant there would be less protection than usual from vaccine-preventable diseases. The core concepts of the authors’ idea have been muddled by the internet’s inevitable game of telephone, and some experts reject the term as misleading. Inaccurate interpretations of the concept suggest its originators think the pandemic era somehow broke our immune systems, and are being used to armchair-quarterback the wisdom of masking, school closures, vaccines, and other mitigation measures that saved lives. In fact, the fundamentals of immunity debt actually make a lot of sense, immunologists and infectious disease experts told me. While the term is new, the concepts it describes are actually well-trodden ideas in epidemiology. There are still lots of unanswered questions about why respiratory viral dynamics have taken the shape they have over the past few months and years. For now, here’s what we actually know about the concept, and how it can be dangerously misinterpreted. The “debt” in immunity debt is actually a surplus — of infection-susceptible people When we think of debt, most of us think of a deficit, a lack or low supply of something. It might be more intuitive to instead understand this phenomenon as a surplus of susceptible people, especially children. That is to say: In pre-pandemic times, young children would be exposed to and develop some immunity to a variety of infections in just the first few years of life. During the pandemic, children were still being born — but they weren’t being exposed to infections at nearly the same rate. That means that in many parts of the world, there are nearly three years’ worth of new children with relatively naive, and therefore vulnerable, immune systems, explained Ron Dagan, a doctor and researcher who specializes in pediatric respiratory infections at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “A whole cohort is born without exposure, so all of them will be having much lower antibodies than normal — so there will be much more susceptibility to infections,” Dagan said. There are a few reasons for this immunological naivete, some of them obvious. Social distancing and masking meant that many babies born during this time simply didn’t have contact with the usual number of other children who might have been sick. For a year, many kids didn’t go to school or day care — places where they traditionally encounter lots of infections. And even though many schools and day cares opened up in the fall of 2021, many had mask mandates in place for staff and children during the coldest part of the year, when opening windows and moving class outdoors were least likely to be used as preventive measures. But other reasons for lower protection levels have more to do with lower levels of infection in adults — specifically, pregnant adults. During the first year of life, most of babies’ infection protection comes in the form of antibodies passed on to them naturally during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The degree of protection newborns have corresponds to their birthing parent’s level of protection. “If you’re born to mothers with higher antibody levels, you will be more protected,” said Dagan. For the first two and a half years of the pandemic — before companies began requiring employees to return to the office, and before other pandemic-era measures became far less commonly used — pregnant people, like other adults, weren’t catching colds as often. Due to systemic inequities, that reprieve wasn’t experienced to the same extent by all Americans. Still, on a population level, many of the babies born during those years didn’t receive as many antibodies during pregnancy or breastfeeding — and were therefore born more vulnerable to common infections. Several of the experts I spoke with thought that most of the sick children currently being hospitalized would probably have been hospitalized in 2020 or 2021 if they’d been infected back then. In other words, they said, what makes the current hospitalization surge so large is that it represents a backlog of severe infections that, while inevitable, would have caused less of an onslaught if it had been spread out over two-plus years. All told, the population is more vulnerable to widespread transmission of some respiratory viruses. And because infections in people without immunity are usually more severe than in people with some immunity, that translates to more people at risk of getting sicker when they catch what would otherwise be a casual winter cold. However, it does not mean our individual immune systems are weak or “out of practice,” say epidemiologists. This is the key source of confusion, experts tell me. While past colds and illnesses from previous seasons can protect us from current outbreaks conditions, there really isn’t such thing as a “good cold.” We shouldn’t seek out sickness for ourselves or our children. When you go looking for viruses, you never know what you’re going to catch. Preventing respiratory infections is a good thing. That’s an important fact that misinterpretations of “immunity debt” get wrong. Remember the hygiene hypothesis? That’s the theory that overly clean environments prevent healthy children’s immune systems from getting the “education” they need to respond adequately to infectious organisms. Without that education, goes the theory, the immune system compensates by overreacting, leading children to develop allergies, asthma, and other problems of immune system dysregulation. In many people’s imaginations, the hygiene hypothesis means the more colds children are exposed to early in life, the more protective their immune systems are later in life. But there are very real risks with taking an open-door approach to catching colds, said Steven Varga, an immunologist at the University of Iowa who studies viral respiratory infections. For starters, when it comes to respiratory viruses, you never know what you’re breathing in: a mild virus that will cause a few days of snot, or something more deadly. It’s impossible to game out getting a mild infection, said Varga. “You can’t prevent one kind of respiratory tract infection and allow the others to go through,” he said. If people are unprotected against less virulent pathogens like rhinovirus, for example, they’re also unprotected against viruses that can cause real damage, like RSV and SARS-CoV-2. That creates threats to those known to be at risk for severe infection from these viruses, like older and immunocompromised people. Again, trying to get sick on purpose is a dangerous game of roulette. However, Varga cautioned that it’s impossible to predict who will get super-sick with a pathogen — even healthy people can get unexpectedly and severely ill. The vast majority of kids hospitalized for RSV are otherwise healthy, he said. “We can’t predict with any great certainty who is at increased risk for that more severe disease.” The most helpful germs for our immune system are mostly ingested, not inhaled There are also misconceptions, the researchers say, about which microbes help “train” our immune system most effectively. It’s not respiratory viruses like the cold and flu. Rather, it’s the billions of microbes that live peacefully in our bodies, sometimes called the microbiome, said Marsha Wills-Karp, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies the environmental determinants of allergic airway diseases. Within that microbiome, there are many “teachers,” like bacteria that educate infants’ immune systems to develop lymphoid centers, the B-cell factories that contribute to antibody production, or that train macrophages and other immune cells to respond to pathogenic invaders (i.e., germs). A lot of work that’s supported the hygiene hypothesis suggests that most of the microbiome’s important immune system education originates in the gut — and, therefore, that what kids swallow contributes more to their immune development than what they breathe in. Additionally, it’s not currently clear how many of those helpful microbes are viruses — largely because most microbiome work has been on bacteria. There is a small microbiome in the upper airways and the lungs, but it’s much less diverse than the digestive tract’s, said Wills-Karp. Although the respiratory microbiome does play a role in health and disease states, “in population studies and animal studies, the hygiene hypothesis seems to be more linked to a healthy gut microbiome,” she said. The bottom line here: There’s currently not much evidence to support the idea that adding more viruses to a person’s respiratory tract does anything to improve the immune system or to otherwise improve health. Wills-Karp recommends training young immune systems the way you might train a young football player: with players you know they can handle. Kids should run drills with other players their own size, not with an NFL team, “because there’s more potential for you to get hurt with the big boys,” she said. Similarly, immune systems should get trained on the safe environmental and comestible microbes that live in our guts — exposures children and adults get anyway by living in non-sterile environments, but which are enriched by certain factors like living with animals and eating fermented and fiber-rich foods. The best cold virus is the one you don’t catch Instead of relying on direct exposure for the little protection it might provide, a safer bet is to train our immune systems using vaccines whenever we can. Flu and Covid-19 vaccines are available now, and RSV vaccines will likely be approved within the next few years. Also a safer bet — for immune systems young, old, and everywhere in between — is not getting sick to begin with. Wearing masks, maximizing our indoor air’s ventilation and filtration, and other pandemic-era strategies prevent more than just Covid-19. There are still a ton of unanswered questions about respiratory viruses and how they impact our health later in life. A big one surrounds the link between asthma and severe RSV disease: Babies with bad RSV infections are more likely to go on to develop asthma, but the medical community has never fully understood whether the infection causes the asthma, or instead, whether the factors that predispose a child to asthma make severe RSV more likely. Other big questions revolve around the cause, treatment, and overall footprint of post-viral syndromes like long Covid, and the role (if any) of viral interference — meaning, when one viral infection reduces or enhances the severity of a second viral infection — in respiratory virus trends. But one of the most pressing questions, said Dagan, involves what we can expect from these pathogens in the near term. Will next year bring another explosive respiratory virus season? Right now it’s impossible to say. We do know the immunity boost that follows infections with RSV and certain flu strains is probably only enough to protect people for about a year afterward. But overall, viral outbreaks are easier to explain in retrospect than they are to predict (although, it should be noted, the authors of the “immunity debt” paper did accurately foretell the current RSV surge). “We don’t know how these viruses will behave in the next two or three years,” or what the SARS-CoV-2 virus will look like a year from now, and whether any changes might portend different impacts on children and adults, he said. “There are too many questions that we can ask — and every answer brings you more questions.”

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