Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Bump in the Road for the Shanghai Temple

Unfortunate news just reported in The Salt Lake Tribune indicates that plans for a Shanghai temple may have hit a bump in the road. Peggy Fletcher Stack's story, "Plans for an LDS temple in Shanghai may have hit an obstacle," reflects some decent investigation and a good understanding of how things work in China. Kudos, Peggy! We can't be sure at this stage if the apparent problem is real, serious, or just temporary, or if anything has actually gone wrong, but with parts of the government in China saying we don't have a deal, it sure looks like trouble As the article points out, such setbacks happen often in negotiations in China.

There are many organizations, departments, bureaus, and diverse interests that can play a role in these things and influence outcomes, resulting in the fairly common occurrence of a foreign entity thinking an agreement is settled when, in fact, it is still up in the air or might be reversed. It is possible that President Nelson's surprising announcement has been set back by increasing tensions between the US and China, or that it was premature from the perspective of key leaders in Beijing, Shanghai, or a variety of agencies and bureaus, or had not yet been approved by someone that those involved did not realize needed to be involved. The announcement itself could have triggered alarms or stirred people to become involved that might not have been originally--if so, that doesn't necessarily make it a mistake, for it may have resulted in facing hidden challenges months or years earlier than would have occurred otherwise, possibly leading to a swifter final resolution, one way or the other (of course, I personally hope that a temple will be possible in the end). I doubt that there is no fundamental issue apart from temporary misunderstanding from some officials -- to me, this looks like genuine trouble that will require further negotiation and patience.

When sensitivities are at play, surprises abound in China. Anything involving foreigners can be sensitive, as can anything involving religion, and when you put the two together for a deal involving foreigners seeking to create a temple in China, a final agreement may take several cycles past the stage when all seems settled to the foreign party.

The announcement of a Shanghai temple, as surprising as it was, was merely a baby step, and this set back may also be merely a small but painful step backwards, the kind of temporary setback we have encountered many times in seeking to build temples around the world. Will there be a temple in Shanghai? I sure hope so. It will benefit local members there and reduce their need to go to Hong Kong or other places to receive temple blessings. But until all relevant authorities are on board and any new concerns are resolved, we'll need to be patient. It may also require some improvement in relationships between the West and China which have become greatly strained in recent weeks.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Science-based vs. Faith-based Policies for Coping with the Corona Virus

Are we using faith or science to cope?
Though I am open about my faith and often welcome steps that allow faith to play a more visible role in society, I prefer to let faith be a personal matter and not a basis for government policies. Unfortunately, I fear that an abundance of faith,, perhaps even blind faith, is behind many policies and plans being pursued by government leaders these days, especially when it comes to dealing with the novel Corona virus. 

Here in Wisconsin, we have a popular governor, Tony Evers, who is a man of great faith. His faith was on display in his recent announcement that Wisconsin's "Safer-at-Home" slockdown policy would be extended for at least another month. In a touching and poignant expression of his faith, Governor Evers said:
"I want to be honest with you folks, things won't get back to normal until there's a vaccine and treatment for this disease and even then our new normal will not be the same as our old normal," Evers said. "This will be a slow and gradual process."
I fully support Governor Evers' right to have faith that unpredictable future events may happen, even miraculous ones. I would love to have a successful cure and a safe, effective vaccine, preferably both. But my personal faith on this matter is not as strong as his.

This novel Corona virus, which is closely related to the old-fashioned Corona viruses that have been part of the viral group causing common colds for millennia, might be conquered in a year or two with a vaccine. If so, we'll have yet another reason to shout hosanna (be sure to use a white Kleenex tissue instead of a handkerchief for that occasion)! But we can't base that hope on a reliable prediction grounded on firm science, only our faith in what might happen, if we are very lucky. 

Scientists have not been able to develop successful vaccines or cures for the common cold after all these decades of trying. Scientists have been working on a vaccine for HIV for almost 40 years. We are closer than ever and perhaps need to keep spending money based on the belief that a vaccine will solve that problem, and this could happen, but so far our faith has not been rewarded. Fortunately, scientists have had much more success in developing vaccines for influenza, which have been administered to people since the 1940s. The faith-promoting success stories from the battles that science has won in fighting influenza with vaccines may (and even better stories for polio and other diseases) be the source of Governor Evers' deep faith that similar success might be seen with the novel Corona virus and COVID-19. But just how successful have influenza vaccines been? There is too much misinformation about vaccines on the web (I am not an anti-vaxer and have stayed current on many vaccinations, even getting several vaccine shots while I was in China), so let's turn to the US government's CDC website, "Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work?":
  • Flu vaccination can keep you from getting sick with flu.
    • Flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor’s visits each year. For example, during 2017-2018, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 6.2 million influenza illnesses, 3.2 million influenza-associated medical visits, 91,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 5,700 influenza-associated deaths.
    • During seasons when the flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.
That's wonderful news. The 2017-18 flu season was perhaps the biggest in the past decade, but thanks to vaccines, 5,700 lives were saved and over 6 million people were prevented from becoming ill. Wonderful! Sadly, skeptics (there's always one in every crowd!) might try to cast doubt and create distraction at this point with cheap shots like, "Yeah, but how many people actually died from influenza that season? How many got ill anyway?" Fortunately, the CDC also has provided documentation on this so there's no need to turn to negative fake-news sites.  On the CDC's tersely titled page, "2017-2018 Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths and Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths Averted by Vaccination in the United States," we find the facts:
CDC estimates that influenza was associated with 45 million illnesses, 21 million medical visits, 810,000 hospitalizations, and 61,000 deaths during the 2017–2018 influenza season. 
Wait, 61,000 died? Over ten times as many as the lives saved? And 45 million still became ill? OK, not everyone gets the flu shot, but a flu shot is no guarantee of success. Not even close. One problem is that there are many viruses and viruses mutate. A vaccination based on one virus might not work on another strain. The CDC makes this point in its assessment of vaccine efficacy against influenza:
During seasons when the flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.
In other words, under favorable circumstances when the influenza virus that is circulating happens to be similar to the virus used in creating the vaccine, the risk of needing to seek medical help is reduced by about half. Will be any luckier with the novel Corona virus?

"Fortunately," you may say, "we're dealing with just one novel Corona virus, not a host of variants like we have with influenza, so there's no problem. One virus, one vaccine, one hope for all! That vaccine will work and will come on schedule, soon!" Thank you for that expression of faith. But please recognize that it is a view based on faith, not real science. Science might offer a different perspective. A study from one of the top universities in China, Zhejiang University in beautiful Hangzhou (one of my favorite cities in the world) examined the virus in 11 different patients in that city and found over 30 mutations. See "Coronavirus has mutated into at least 30 different strains new study finds" at The Jerusalem Post.

The large number of mutations that are probably occurring with this virus could make it more difficult to control with a vaccine. Even before this new data, Dr. William Haseltine for Scientific American explained why we really don't know if we can develop an effective vaccine for this disease. So how long do we need to keep roughly 30 million people unemployed? How long do we need to suspend the Bill of Rights and let governors exercise vast power over their people and decide which businesses can live and which must die? Well, how long has it taken to successful prevent and cure the common cold from other Corona viruses (and other families of viruses as well)? How long has it taken to cure AIDS with a safe, successful HIV vaccine?


We may see a miraculously swift and effective vaccine come out soon and be ready for widespread use in a year or two. But policies that rely on such hope are not really "science based," no matter what our politicians and medical celebrities tell us as they justify the need for more control and more spending, with more billions going to their friends in Big Pharma and Wall Street. 

At this point, you may be feeling your blood pressure rise and a wave of righteous indignation sweeping over you. "This fool sounds like he's about to question the wisdom of the lockdowns! They are working and saving our lives. He must be a vile person who doesn't care about other people and puts money over lives!" If so, please understand that this reaction is not based on the scientific method. In principle, at least, the scientific method does not lead scientists to become angry when someone asks if there is solid evidence to support an assumption. Science is based on questioning assumptions and considering new evidence to test our hypotheses. Science should welcome, not condemn, data that points to weaknesses in understanding, for that may be an opportunity to advance our knowledge, if the data is accurate. It is in the realm of faith, especially blind or immature faith or religious zealotry, where reasonable inquiries may cause believers to feel threatened or angry, and where the response is to shout down or denounce the infidel who dares ask questions. The "science-based" approach some people support may be more faith-driven than they realize.

It's an article of faith across much of our society that draconian lockdowns in the US and Europe are saving lives and are essential for coping with the virus. But do we really have data to support that? Yes, it's logical that social distancing will reduce the rate of spread of the disease. But Americans were already taking extensive steps to do social distancing on their own before the lockdowns began. Many of us, most of us, were already washing our hands more, being careful about gatherings, and taking other steps that could help protect us. Is there evidence that we are significantly safer now because we have forced many businesses to close and tens of millions to lose their jobs? Is there evidence that staying indoors is safer than going to the public parks? Is there evidence that mass assemblies every day in Walmart make us healthier than going to the gym, to a park, or to a small business? Your faith may be strong and passionate on this matter, but is it really based on science as you have been led to believe?

An important question, though, is not whether or not the lockdowns work, but whether they are justified. Many influential voices are praising the lockdowns for saving many lives, but have they presented careful evidence that a lockdown truly saves lives versus no lockdown? If we compare states without draconian measures to those that ignore the Bill of Rights, can we see clear evidence that a lockdown itself can be credited with saving lives? This is rarely considered, though so far it seems that the data suggests there may not be evidence of a significant benefit to a lockdown. See, for example, Wilfred Reilly's attempt to compare results to see the impact of lockdowns

South Dakota, for example, has come under much heat from the media for the apostate approach of  Governor Kristi Noem, the infidel who claims that she lacks the power to suspend the Bill of Rights and actually must uphold it based on some oath she took long ago when sworn into office. Her approach seems to be "teach people correct principles, and let them govern themselves" -- a concept you may have heard before -- when it comes to social distancing and coping with risks. Tragically, under this reckless approach, there have been 10 deaths in the state as of today. Each death is tragic, but when we consider that this number is barely a blip compared to many other routine causes of death, it might give you pause if you are open to science-based discussions. For example, South Dakota had nearly 200 suicides in 2017, over 20 times the deaths from COVID-19 so far. 

South Dakota is a remarkably safe place to drive, and last year had a record low number of automobile fatalities: 102, ten times their COVID-19 fatalities so far. That number was reported as good news, showing great progress in automobile safety, and was not used to frighten people into staying home and shutting down all non-essential travel, but we certainly could cut those deaths to nearly zero by simply banning travel. So why don't we ban vehicular travel nationwide? Why don't we spend most of each news broadcast talking about frightening automobile accidents and the need to force people to stay home to save lives? For most of us, the ability to travel is viewed as a right and as a necessity for economic well being. It's always risk, a risk that could kill us one day, and while every death is tragic, facing risk and living with risk is part of life. 

But a key question for justification of the lockdowns is not whether they reduce Corona virus deaths. Even if we believe that they are legally justified (that governors can properly suspend the Bill of Rights when they feel there is an emergency and dictate where we can go and which businesses can continue), to be justified, the lockdowns should at least have an overall positive effect on the health and well-being of the people. Even if you believe that one life saved justifies making 30 million people lose their jobs and a nation of school children regress in their education, does the science really show that lives are being saved overall? If one life saved is worth any cost, as one governor seems to think, what if that cost is 10 lives? Is that rational?

If the lockdown saves the lives of a lot of us older grandparents but leads to two suicides of younger people for each of us seniors that are saved, would anyone be arguing that we older people are just worth more than those with mental health issues? (Some mental health professionals are worried about the impact of our response on suicides. Tennessee, by the way, recently reported having more deaths from suicide than COVID-19, a phenomenon that may be true for many other places.) 

If more people will die from failure to see doctors now due to missed cancer detection, missed hypertension treatment, missed warning signs of heart disease -- these are all very big killers, and the impact of lessened "non-essential" health care is a cause for great concern -- or if lives saved from Corona virus proves to be far less that the additional deaths due to the inactivity, poor diet, stress, and poor health care that comes from unemployment among millions of people, are we doing the right thing by crushing the economy now? Should be we be angry at people who are least ask such questions about the overall impact, even if it shakes one's faith to hear such apostate talk?

The only thing that is apparently being considered by most of our politicians and, by his own admission, Dr. Fauci, is the impact of the Corona virus per se. There's no attempt to consider the balance between multiple factors. But the massive steps we have taken will affects tens of millions in adverse ways that will also cost lives. Just the missed diagnoses for cancer alone may result in deaths from lack of early detection that could be as great or greater than the health impact of the Corona virus. On this issue, see: "Professor Warns Cancer Deaths Due to COVID Disruption Will Be Greater Than Deaths From Coronavirus" and the Harvard summary of a study on the 2008-10 economic downturn, "Global economic downturn linked with at least 260,000 excess cancer deaths." What we have down to our economy already may have a far bigger impact than what we faced in 2008-10.

The lethal impact of our economic suicide may not be limited to indirect deaths from cancer, heart attacks, and actual suicides,  but could have a more direct lethal impact through widespread famine. This is not something I learned about from random angry anti-big-government sites, but from one of the major pro-government sources of all, the United Nations. David Beasley, UN World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director in the April 21 virtual session of the UN Security Council on the Maintenance of International Peace warned about the far-reaching impact of poverty arising from the response to COVID-19:
There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself. 
In a related article at WFP.org, WFP’s Chief Economist, Arif Husain said:
COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock – like COVID-19 – to push them over the edge. We must collectively act now to mitigate the impact of this global catastrophe.
I have been lucky to travel in China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, and some other parts of the world where real poverty afflicts many people, in spite of great progress in recent years to life the living standards there. It was especially in visiting the homes of a few of those afflicted by poverty in China and seeing what happens to their options, their quality of life, their health care, and other issues, that I came to see how awful the impact of poverty is. It leads to tragedies and unnecessary deaths and despair.  Our self-inflicted economic collapse, one that could be greater that that of the depression, will not just affect many American lives, but will have a wide circle of influence on the global economy and on the lives of those many millions who are now trying to rise out of poverty around the globe. Our nations and their nations need us to have a healthy economy, not one that is shut down unnecessarily. It is my disdain for poverty that makes it impossible for me to relish a trade war with China or other steps that will exacerbate poverty there or in other nations like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Mexico. (And don't get me going on my disdain for war and the global harm caused by our war machine. Some other time we can have a calm discussion, I hope, about the evidence regarding the issue of what our trillions spent for war is doing in terms of making the world a better place or not.)

So many have a passionate faith that they need to stay locked down indefinitely and just trust their prophet-like leaders with their prophetic models of doom, even though the models have been so severely wrong that they should have no credibility by now, though they continue to guide policy and faith. what they have been told and stay locked down in fear. These passionate believers know what to do when someone raises inconvenient concerns about the bigger picture and the possibility that our self-inflicted economic wounds may be doing more harm than good. They will respond with passionate acts of faith to condemn the uncaring infidel. They may ask the social media enforces to deplatform me for spreading "fake news" that challenges the official government position. Perhaps some will eventually pursue an even more flamboyant act of faith, such as the good-ol' auto-da-fé that was a tried and true way in the past to enforce the faith and correct the non-believers. But if such anger is your gut reflex, at least realize that it may not be as scientific and science-based as some would have you believe. 

At least for some parts of the country, sustained lockdowns do not appear to be justified by logic, science, or law (I suggest that the freedom to assemble, free speech, religious freedom, etc. are meaningless if all it takes is one official declaring it's an emergency to nullify those rights without due process). The impact of economic suicide may be far greater than the limited good being achieved. And the fear that has been whipped up in the media with constant attention to this virus may be wildly out of proportion to risks that the US people have been coping with for years, such as a over 60,000 deaths from the flu in a single season a couple years ago, 99,000 deaths last year from hospital acquired infections (easily solved by any politician: just burn hospitals to the ground to stop those infections at their source -- isn't it worth it if only one life is saved?), 40,000 deaths a year from car crashes, etc. But for centuries, we have understood that such risks are part of life, and have chosen to move forward. Now we are surrendering our economy and our Constitutional rights to cower in fear. Is this healthy? The latest scientific data suggest that sunlight is useful in killing the virus, so instead of a "Safer-at-Home" edict for my state and yours, the science-based approach perhaps should be "Safer Outside of Home" edicts that let us get back to our lives, while continuing to take appropriate steps to keep us more vulnerable folks safe, while letting the young have their future back.

COVID-19 is worse than the flu. The death rate for infected cases looks like it's about 0.4% now that we have better data, which is worse than the flu, but not horrifically so.  The death rate in many states has been far less than a typical flu season. In fact, far less than a typical flu season for that state. Flu deaths in South Dakota for the 2017-18 flu season were over 20 times higher than the 10 COVID-19 deaths far, and here in Wisconsin, the flu deaths were nearly 4 times higher than the 262 deaths we've had so far, though we've had a new spike in cases and sadly more deaths are likely. As a reminder to those of you who are saying these lockdowns are needed to save the children, 97% of our deaths in Wisconsin have been in the 60+ age group and zero have been reported for people under 40 years old. It's not the young that we're saving. 

The horror that we see from COVID-19 largely comes from New York City, where severe problems exist. It seems that their crowded subway system was the ideal environment for spreading the disease (woe to the heretics who might opine that maybe driving to work in a car is much safer). But their crisis is not the crisis the entire nation faces. Florida with a greater population and a very high percentage of vulnerable older people was predicted by the experts to be facing even more deaths than New York, but at 1,046 deaths in Florida, they are nowhere close to the 16,599 deaths in New York as of today. New York's panic need not be ours (though almost all our media is from their and their crisis informs every report, contributing to the national panic). The steps they feel they must take need not be emulated everywhere else. Even at this late date, with abundant data showing New York's situation to not be representative of the rest of country, I see intelligent believers declaring that if we lift the lockdowns soon, we will end up having a worse problem than New York. That kind of fear is based on faith in authority figures who have botched their figures; it is not based on science.  

What am I calling for? Science, not misguided faith in technocrats or politicians or media figures, to make informed decisions. Respect of our Constitution and allowing communities to decide what protective measures are appropriate. Teaching the people correct principles and letting us figure out how to live our lives, run our businesses safely, how to exercise in a gym, how to jog or enjoy sunlight without getting a ticket, how to get a haircut without having to be an elite politician (sorry, Chicago!), how to take care of our children and our elderly, and how and where to shop. 

As for education, let communities and families figure that out. But one thing I'll say: we should realize that the people who have done most to help keep school children safe from viruses, safe from bullying, and safe from mass shootings are the parents who have been doing home schooling. Right now, if you know a home schooling parent, chances are they can give you great tips on the resources needed for effective remote education and how to do schooling at home more effectively. In addition to praising our medical care workers for the valiant work they are doing (sorry to the many who are now on inactive or furloughed because of the painful ban on non-essential medical services, resulting in many hospitals being emptier than ever), perhaps we should also spend some time thanking home schoolers for the work they have done to help keep children safe and healthy. Many more families may wish to consider that option for their children. 

Wow, so many heresies in one blog post! I'm truly a lost soul, I know. But I had to mention the home schooling issue because in the widespread spirit of "never let a crisis go to waste" and "let's use this panic to push through the rest of our agenda," a brilliant Harvard professor just came out with a call to ban homeschooling in order to "protect" our children. As with many things being done to "protect" us in this crisis, the solutions are sometimes more about power and wealth than about actually making life better for Americans. Sorry, but I'm just not a believer when it comes to trusting the elite who always know how to run our lives better. 

Whether you agree or not with my proposals, I hope you will agree that we should ask for wise decisions to be made that will protect our communities in the long run, overall, carefully weighing the multiple factors and risks, not just one. I hope you will also ask that such decisions carefully respect the rights of individuals, rights that should not be summarily suspended without due process regardless of how bad a flu season or how bad any other crisis is or is imagined to be.  Let's rely more on real science and real inquiry, not a faith-based, fear-based approach.

Postscript

At least one faithful member of the Church has accused me of going against the Church in suggesting that the lockdowns might not be helpful. Since the Church has asked members to suspend their meetings to reduce spreading the virus, that supposedly suggests the Church and the Lord think that lockdowns are the way to go. But as I've explained, I'm very much in favor of what the Church has done.  It's a great example of the voluntary steps that organizations can take on their own to reduce risk. The Church and the Lord, as far as I can tell, has not called for businesses to be shuttered and millions to be unemployed. In fact, on the COVID-related Church website, "Keeping Our Employees and Service Missionaries Safe During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic," we read the Church is encouraging working from home for its employees when possible, but does not appear to be laying off mass numbers of people or slashing paychecks. Further, regarding Utah offices, "Church offices remain open for the workforce, including stand-alone operations (e.g. Church Office Building, Global Services Department, Joseph Smith Building, Riverton Office Building, Bishops’ storehouses, Beehive Clothing, Granite Mountain Records Vault)." Offices are being kept open. Work is continuing, but being done safely. It's a smart, voluntary move, one that businesses can figure out on their own. Nothing in any of the Church's statements regarding COVID-19 appear to endorse shutting down most of the economy and promoting a nation dependent on a government for sustenance. The principles of provident living and self-reliance still apply.
 

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Keep Preparing: Food Storage May Become Especially Important

There are many reasons to be optimistic about overcoming the pandemic before us and getting our economy moving again (for example, one optimistic perspective is being offered by one of the world's leading epidemiologists, Professor Johan Giesecke). But the impact of broken supply chains, of excessive debt, and possible massive misallocation of resources (like taking trillions out of some sectors of the economy to funnel them to favored big businesses) can have many unexpected consequences in the future. Those consequences can lead to banks defaulting and problems in cash flow and finances for companies that manage your food supply, among many other supply chain problems. The food supply chain is nothing to take for granted. There are reports of food going to waste in many regions due to problems in transport and many other factors directly or indirectly related to COVID-19. Many products are already in short supply and prices of some are rising, even as prices of oil plummet, all a sign of market chaos.

There's no need to panic about food, just as there's no need to keep panicking about COVID-19, but wise precautions make sense in both areas. Are you ready if there's a shocking jolt in the realm of food? It could come from a bad turn in the weather, a broken international supply chain that creates a shortage in packaging materials, the economic collapse of major players related to the food supply, food processing plants being shut down due to disease, a trucking strike, or other events. Many items are already in short supply in many stores. When happens when something else goes wrong? Just be prepared.

I hope you will strengthen your ability to bless the lives of your family and those around you by building food storage steadily. For basics like grains, did you know that members in the United States can log into the Church's website and use the Church's online store to get some items such as #10 cans of red wheat? I didn't even know that until today, when a daughter-in-law explained it to me. Good prices for red wheat, but many other products appear to be sold out. I also made some purchases at Honeyville Farms, a Utah-based operation with a good selection of grains and other food-storage items. Again, many things are sold out -- we are not alone in recognizing the need for food storage, but bags of red wheat and a number of other products are still available.

Stay calm and prepare steadily.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Easter and the Corona Virus: Rays of Hope in a Time of Darkness

Good Friday was a time of much reflection on the state of the world and our country, filled with cause for sorrow and also cause for hope and rejoicing. The greatest hope of all comes from Jesus Christ. In this world of death and decay, death, of course, is inescapable. It can be delayed, perhaps, but never escaped, no matter how long we are forced to be locked up in our homes, no matter how much the government spends, and no matter how many vaccinations you get. But the shadow of that grim reality is swept away in light of the glorious news, attested by eye-witnesses in two hemispheres, that Jesus Christ lives and has unlocked the gates of death and hell. The sting of death is swallowed up in victory. His Resurrection is the greatest victory of all time and of all eternity.

It's painfully easy for people to disregard the New Testament accounts of multiple witnesses of Christ's Resurrection: "The Bible has through so many hands, copies of copies of copies. We don't have the original documents. What did they say? And even if we did, perhaps Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, if they were even the authors of the manuscripts bearing their names, just repeated rumors someone else concocted or did fabricated their stories. Who knows?" The Bible stands as a witness of Jesus Christ and contains the accounts of multiple human witnesses of His reality and triumph, but it's far too easy to disregard that ancient account.

Here is where we, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have something marvelous for the world, an independent and majestic second witness, another testament of Jesus Christ that was brought to the world through miraculous means, for which numerous evidences continue to mount that demand attention. The Book of Mormon is that additional testament of Christ. No other book I've ever seen is so centered on Christ and does so much to clarify the majesty of His mission, the reality of His Resurrection, and the power of His Atonement. Shout it from the housetops: we have a record, an ancient record brought forth by miraculous means, filled with evidence for and truth about the Savior of the world. In this time of pain and sorrow, it has a message the world desperately needs. The Book of Mormon is true and confirms what the world needs to know today: Jesus Christ lives and has power not only to rescue us from death, but to cleanse us from sin and to bring us back into the presence of God and the Lamb of God, the Son of God who lived and died for us.

That's the key good news we should focus on. Christ is our most real and vital source of hope in times of despair and throughout all the seasons of our lives. But in much less important areas that still matter greatly to many of us, there may be more rays of hope in this time of crisis.

Update: On Easter Sunday or anytime, why not experience this hope musically with the majestic Lamb of God Singalong with the music of  Rob Gardner? I am listening to it now and am so impressed with the music and artwork that brings the story of Easter to life. I especially love the song sung by the Lord’s mother at His death. How kind of Rob Gardner and many others to give the world this gift about the Ultimate Gift to mankind.

Good Friday was a day of fasting and prayer for millions of members of the Church and many others, as we sought the Lord's help and guidance in this trouble time. We need miracles. We need added hope. I have been praying that there might be advances in our knowledge so that we can better cope with the virus without causing far more harm, without further crushing the economy, without adding terrible burdens to those who are already ill or suffering from mental health challenges, without impoverishing our nation and others, and without allowing thieves to steal our future or diminish our liberty.

While there has been much bad news recently, some surprising good news has come forth during this time of fasting and prayer that may give us some hope. Here are some examples:

1. Iceland Gives Us Hope
So much of what has been done to cope with the Corona virus has been done without consideration of available data. Granted, early on, very little data was available and what was coming from China wasn't always clear or timely, and yes, there's still much we don't know. To cope with the virus, we need to know how lethal it is. What is the real infection fatality rate (IFR), the number of deaths divided by the number of infected people? We often hear reports on CFR, the number of deaths per reported cases, but those numbers can be misleading. When a new virus comes, the only cases known are the real serious ones that go to the hospital, resulting in frightening CFR statistics that tend to decline steadily. But what really matters is the IFR. Understanding IFR requires thorough testing, and nobody is doing more extensive testing than little Iceland. To me, the data from Iceland gives us hope. Here's an excerpt from the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service and their report, "Global Covid-19 Case Fatality Rates," updated April 7:
Iceland has tested a higher proportion of people than any other country (9,768 individuals), equivalent to  26,762 per million inhabitants the highest in the world (as a  comparison, South Korea has tested  6,343 individuals).

Screening suggests 0.5% are infected;  the correct figure is likely higher due to asymptomatics and many not seeking testing: estimates suggest the real number infected is 1%.

Iceland,  currently reports two deaths in 963 patients, CFR . 0.21%.  If 1% of the population (364,000) is infected, then the corresponding IFR would be 0.05%.    However, they have limited infections in the elderly as their test and quarantine measures have seemingly shielded this group, and the deaths will lag by about two weeks after the infection.

Iceland’s higher rates of testing, the smaller population, and their ability to ascertain all those with Sars-CoV-2  means they can obtain. an accurate estimate of the CFR and the IFR during the pandemic (most countries will only be able to do this after the pandemic). Current data from Iceland suggests their IFR is somewhere between 0.01% and 0.19%.
Thank you, Iceland, for extensive testing! (I wish the US had not messed up so bad in the testing area, a factor that has been a key contributor to our problematic state.) Your data helps us better understand the true enemy that we are waging war against. Maybe we can fight this war without fire bombing the entire nation.

Iceland, though, may have shielded the most vulnerable (the elderly) effectively from the disease, keeping the IFR low. But taking into account data from all over the globe, not just Iceland, the Oxford report ("Global Covid-19 Case Fatality Rates") gives this overall estimate:
Taking account of historical experience, trends in the data, increased number of infections in the population at largest, and potential impact of misclassification of deaths gives a presumed estimate for the COVID-19 IFR between 0.1% and 0.39%. [emphasis added
If the IFR for the US will be as low as Iceland reports or is in a higher range between 0.1% and 0.39%, is that rate so terrible, so unlike influenza or other diseases, that we really need to shut down the economy, require government approval to travel and work, and give unlimited power to bankers to create trillions of new dollars via digital creation ex nihilo (without even the courtesy of at least printing their counterfeit money so that ATMs won't run out of bills when banks begin to fail)? Maybe panic is not the correct response. Maybe Iceland and good global data can help us get back to normal (and can we have our future and our freedom back, please? or at least the trillions the Fed is taking?).

The Oxford report also notes that we still have not adequately distinguished between dying with the virus versus dying from it. Many elderly people who die and are reported as COVID-19 deaths may have had the virus but died from other factors such as diabetes or heart disease, with the virus just being one of several new problems. Once we understand that differences, they note that the IFR may be even lower.

For the record, I've just added a trip to Iceland to my bucket list, if I don't kick the bucket first from COVID-19 or anything else. I've only been to the Reykjavik airport, but thinking about Iceland has stirred travel fever in me. A beautiful nation that I want to visit when things get back to normal.

Other countries also give us hope. How about Sweden and Brazil? Both have been criticized for their failure to follow social distancing and to lock down their economies. Have they invited chaos? It doesn't look that way so far. They seem to have done remarkably well. Some say Sweden's success comes from a compliant population who are following sound social distancing rules, but I don't know if that explains Brazil. Sweden and Brazil give us hope and might give us courage to ask if the US lockdown is really the source for the success we've had, relative to the gloomy forecasts of models (discussed below).

Right next to China is Vietnam which, as of a few days ago, had zero deaths. Lots of Chinese tourists go there. I saw many while I was there in January. Quickly closing their borders may have been their key to success. The virus may eventually spread, but so far they have done well. Some have speculated that other factors there such as climate or diet might have helped. In any case, I think we need to be looking more closely at Vietnam, at Taiwan, and other nations that are coping effectively with the disease and have not needed to intubate their economy.

2. California Gives us Hope 
I usually don't say that about California, but look at the amazing numbers.  Their 541 deaths, while a cause for morning, is less than 10% of what New York has. Their population is 2/3 that of Italy (40 vs 60 million), but Italy is reporting over 19,000 deaths. OK, it may be that nearly 90% of Italy's deaths should not be classified as strictly due to the virus, but even if the real count in Italy is 2000 or so, California's numbers are still amazingly good in comparison. Experts with their brilliant, unbiased models were predicting tens of thousands of deaths for California and utter chaos as it would surely become the epicenter of viral chaos.  California should be the epicenter because no other state has had such close contact with Wuhan before we knew what was happening. There have long been direct fights from Wuhan to California and just about every Chinese tourist going to North America wants to go to California. They will also go to New York, but California is the focal point based on what I see among my Chinese acquaintances. And no matter where you are going in the US, if you travel from China, you are likely to first fly to LA or San Francisco and then transfer (but there are direct flights to several other cities).

So why is California so lucky? Well, they had an unusually severe and unusually early flew season in late 2019 which may have actually been due to the Corona virus, and now we are seeing the benefits of some degree of herd immunity in California. See Victor Davis Hanson's article, "Coronavirus: The California Herd." It's an amazing story that needs more investigation but may give us hope. The great numbers from California may mean that their close contact with China gave them a head start in building herd immunity -- without having to shut down their economy and without having to force people to stop having funerals, weddings, parties, and religious gatherings until a perfect vaccine can be developed, perhaps once the virus stops mutating). Yes, it was a rough flu season and hospitals then were overwhelmed, but they got through it. If they did, maybe the rest of us can, too. That's a cause for hope.

However, Hanson's hypothesis may be wrong and California may not have a real head start on herd immunity after all, as some are arguing in response (see a discussion of the issues at SFist.com). 

But even if California did get hit with the virus earlier than we thought, don't let that give you too much hope. In fact, the same basic information (once stripped of the actual numbers) can be properly spun in a way that supports the normal narrative in this way: "Yikes, the virus was here in California even earlier than we thought, and that means it's had more time to spread -- so we're really doomed!" In The Los Angeles Times, the April 11 article, "New signs suggest coronavirus was in California far earlier than anyone knew," shows us the politically correct approach. The story begins and ends with tragic stories of death and tells us that the lag time between the early arrival of the virus to California in 2019 and the social distancing rule in 2020 "has had dire consequences, allowing the virus to spread unchecked before social distancing rules went into effect." But it would be great if there is some herd immunity in California, and hopefully we'll know for sure soon. 

Based on the history of failure and delays with vaccines for new viruses, perhaps herd immunity (getting back to normal life with good hygiene but not panic while encouraging sheltering for the more vulnerable), not mandatory vaccinations and lengthy lockdowns is the real hope for us. AIDS has killed about 700,000 people in the US, more than are likely to die from the Corona virus. How's that HIV vaccine working for you? Oh, right, there still isn't one. Scientists have been working to develop one for years, or rather, decades, but there still isn't one, as HIV.gov reports. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the official recognition of the AIDS epidemic (June 15, 1981). Thank goodness we didn't have politicians lock down the economy then until a successful vaccine could be developed and mandated.

3. Consistently Failed Predictions and Inflated Numbers Give Us Hope
I usually don't say this about failed software or the many massive failures from bad or biased computer models, which have driven much of the panic over the Corona virus. But these persistent failures now give me hope. Bill Gates' IHME model, relied on so heavily by our government, has, like all the other "professional" models being touted in the media, been grossly wrong on many things. New York should have run out of hospital beds by now, but they did not. The models have been highly inaccurate, but have been used to stir up fear and were trusted to make sweeping policy decisions that could affect us for years to come. They have been unreliable, but that's good news. Maybe we don't need to panic or to trust those stirring the panic.

When a trusted government icon like Dr. Anthony Fauci tells us that we should never shake hands again, that it might be a good idea for the government to require us to carry papers to justify our travel in the future, that we may need to stay in lockdown mode for 18 months or so, etc., etc., it's OK for us to not blindly trust what he or any other acclaimed expert says, Bill Gates included. In fact, when he claims that the great decline in actual numbers versus predicted number is because Americans have complied with his edicts, it's OK for us to ask questions, like what is the evidence that the edicts actually created the unexpected decline? Since your models already had considered the effect of social distancing, and were still wrong, do we really understand this disease enough to attribute good news to your policies? Do you really know that the reason for the lower numbers when the collective wisdom of the models gives predictions that often aren't even close?

What about inflated numbers? Above I mentioned the concern raised in the Oxford report about the failure to distinguish between deaths "with" the virus versus deaths "from" the virus, especially among the vulnerable group of people who are already struggling with severe issues. A large number of these deaths should not be flagged as deaths caused by the virus. Sadly, the new legislation to cope with the virus has added strong financial incentives to count deaths as corona virus deaths, even when that's not very accurate. See "Hospitals Get Paid More to List Patients as COVID-19 and Three Times as Much if the Patient Goes on Ventilator" at The Spectator, April 9. That's a financial incentive that may be hard to resist and surely will exacerbate any problems in overcounting COVID-19 deaths. On top of that are whistleblower allegations that the CDC is also manipulating deaths to be excessively high. But the disconnect between the fearful models and physical reality, even with overcounted deaths, is great enough to help us see past the fearmongering, and that's hopeful.

4. Perhaps Some Hope from Anecdotal Reports by Doctors
Some doctors have touted apparent benefits hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19. This medication has not been proven yet with serious double-blind studies, but such studies are underway. Instead of waiting many months or possibly years for those studies to be completed, some maverick doctors are jumping the gun and reporting apparent dramatic benefits. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to question Trump's emphasis on this drug and reasons to think that widespread use may be a bad idea. But maybe it will help some, or perhaps many. Let's see. Meanwhile, there are also reasons that think that it may be unwise to deny patients the right to take an experimental treatment when in a life-threatening situation. I think Katherine Timpf makes a reasonable argument on this point.

Update, 4/12/2020: As was kindly pointed out to me this morning, I should also mention zinc as one of the rays of hope from anecdotal but significant reports from multiple doctors. A fascinating video clip shows the frantic media effort to downplay the possible good news that such inexpensive materials as zinc and hydroxychloroquine might be making a significant difference for those with COVID-19. And another friend suggested I might wish to remind people of the tentative evidence or at least reasonable hypotheses that other inexpensive nutriceuticals like glucosamine and N-acetyl cysteine might be helpful as well.

5. And a Hands-free Touch of Hope from Face Masks
One of the positive developments recently has been that the US government is finally (finally!) acknowledging that masks might actually help, something that numerous studies support. There are many companies that could make plenty of masks, but sadly, government regulations make that just about impossible. While it's now too late for most of us to buy them, partly because the government has begun seizing large orders of masks that were being shipped to US hospitals that needed them, or, in some cases, were being exported to other places that needed them, there's still hope. Just grab and old T-shirt or bandana and you are good to go.

Fortunately, there are some good resources showing you how to make a face mask. See the "Face Mask Guidelines" document and its links at https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2020/04/face-masks.php. Special thanks to University of Utah Health who partnered with Intermountain Healthcare and Latter-day Saint Charities to create these guidelines.  

Face masks, hand washing, healthy caution about crowds -- these are principles that can help us cope with infections disease not just now but throughout our lives. That's a source for hope, though I'm still disappointed that the Surgeon General told us something that wasn't very accurate and possibly harmful. Glad we are past that and now have the government's approval to protect ourselves a little more.

The Best News I Had on Good Friday
During my fasting for Good Friday, I received me joyous news from my wife in Shanghai. She reported that a government doctor had just visited her and gave her the government's permission to leave her quarantine. The electronic lock on her door was now removed after two weeks of being under close scrutiny (she was allowed to open the door during 3 brief intervals each day in order to receive ordered food or to place a garbage back outside her door). At last, now she can step outside her apartment. She was even allowed to go jogging, a freedom millions of Americans may now lack or soon will lack (sorry, Chicago!). There will still be restrictions on movement, but she has an app on her phone showing a QR code that can prove she's been given the government's thumb of approval, after a successful quarantine apparently free of the virus, so now she can move about the city and enter one of Shanghais numerous malls, for example.

Being locked up in her apartment for two weeks was a remarkable blessing, as a matter of fact, compared to be quarantined elsewhere. Two of her friends returning to China were not so lucky. They were required to go to a government quarantine facility, a converted hotel, and to pay for two weeks of a hotel stay plus additional fees to get delivered meals. For at least one friend, that was a huge financial blow. There were other challenges. For safety, the heating was turned off so there was no air conditioning to spread germs. But it was cold, and one friend of ours in such a place had just come from warm Singapore without many warm clothes, so it was really hard. Fortunately, friends from our branch were able to bring a space heater to his facility and asked the guards to give it to him, and I understand that worked. For another friend, staying in the facility was physically challenging for other reasons. I won't go into details because they might be perceived as just rumors, but it's understandable that being held in any government facility in any country can be challenging and can impose difficulties that might not exist when one is free to just walk down the street and buy whatever one wishes to eat or drink, for example.

China's system is different than ours. There is much to respect in China (their advances in innovation and strong intellectual property rights, for example, are remarkable, and I even had surgery there in a low-cost public hospital and had a remarkably positive experience), but there are also some things that we US citizens will disagree with in light of our ways, our systems, and our traditions. I have no right to tell China how to run their country, but as a US citizen in a nation with a very different system and very different history, I not only have the right but a duty to be involved here and to stand up for the US Constitution. I can and should say that under our system and with our heritage, it would be a dramatic loss of the liberties our Founding Fathers fought to secure for us if US citizens need to have government approval to leave our homes or go to work or travel anywhere, even though Dr. Fauci may favor that idea. Some other nations require their citizens to have government papers in order travel and are subject to arrest for seemingly arbitrary reasons by overly powerful police. Are we on that path? If so, it's time for a detour. And in the war against the virus, once again, maybe it's time we give peace (and liberty) a chance.

Here's a fair question and a reasonable answer I just saw from Congressman Justin Amash:

https://twitter.com/justinamash/status/1248641039830745090?s=20


I am deeply concerned about the far-reaching side-effects of the political actions being taken to cope with the virus. First, it seems like many things are being done in bad faith, almost as if some governors and mayors want the populace to be as unhappy as possible (is there algorithm something like more pain = more hate for Trump, perhaps?), or as if politicians see this as an excuse to slip all sorts of mischief and corruption into emergency bills that few have time to scrutinize or even skim carefully. Some of the steps being taken could do lasting harm, decades of harm, long after we've reached herd immunity to this virus.

To prevent tens of thousands of deaths mostly among us older people (I'm in a higher risk age group), the entire nation is being hurt in ways that could lead to many more deaths. The lack of exercise due to closed gyms and having to stay at home can exacerbate hypertension and heart disease, which are huge killers. The failure of millions to see doctors for routine checkups could lead to many failing to be diagnosed for cancer or other diseases where early diagnosis is critical. Some states are seeing suicides spike and outpace COVID-19 deaths. For those with mental health issues, the lockdown is horrific. The vast unemployment being created by government decrees can lead to numerous health issues. Healthy diets are less likely under these conditions. As I've seen in my travels around the world, poverty is debilitating. It leads to so much heart break, so much suffering. We need to lift people out of poverty, and the rise of the US economy again can help lift other nations. For their good and ours, I pray that we can shake off these chains and revitalize our economy. As an older guy with not such great lungs, I'd rather be at elevated risk of death by COVID-19 than see the future of our young people jeopardized in the need of keeping me safe. We don't want anyone to die early, but there's a balance that must be made with the welfare of our future generations in mind, and that welfare is being shot today.

Speaking of balance, in late March I heard an interview with Dr. Fauci in which he was asked if he looks at the big picture such as the impact on the economy, on jobs, on other aspects of life when he makes recommendations. He said no, his entire focus is on the medical issues:
No, I don’t consider the balancing act; that is a very good question. The president has the awesome responsibility of considering every aspect of this. I just give public health advice completely clean, unconnected with anything else. He has to factor in other things. And that’s the way he operates; he takes in advice from a number of people from a number of different vantage points and then he makes his decision.
Wait, is he serious? Everyone in the media and in Washington seems to be relying on him as the  COVID-19 guru for policy decisions, for clues about when we can open up the economy again and what we need to do. He's making statements about why we need to keep the lockdowns going longer, a major policy matter that goes far beyond pure medical science. His statements are driving policy, but admittedly lack consideration of the economic impacts (and the massive indirect health impacts). So if he were in charge of a task force to reduce automobile deaths, would we all be locked in our homes because that will drop auto fatalities to zero? Heaven help us -- and while I'm serious about that request, heaven's help often requires that we do something first.

The crisis we are in is not just one of health, and not even one about the economy, but a crisis in the battle for liberty. I have been praying that leaders might be more wise, but also that people might be more wise in resisting the erosion of their liberties and the theft of the nation's wealth. We need miracles and good news, not just for coping with one virus, but with the viral tendency to erode liberty and to exercise unrighteous dominion over others -- something that every petty official in the country seems to be doing these days. Imagine fining people for jogging outdoors, handcuffing and dragging away a man in an empty park for playing with his wife and daughter (hey, Colorado folks, that happened in your state!), banning of non-essential medical services (a mindless move that is punishing health care workers as well as patients), and releasing violent criminals including child molesters using the virus as an excuse. These are among the assaults to reason, public welfare, and liberty that have been occurring. Shake off those chains!

Religious liberty, one of the fundamental principles behind the rise of this nation and one of the first rights specifically protected in the Bill of Rights, may be at risk. I appreciate the way our Church has called off meetings. That's a responsible, voluntary action. But if a group of believers in some other faith wish to gather, even if we think it is irresponsible, what right do we have to stop them? Or to threaten them with permanently closing their churches, as Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City did? In a letter from some of members of Congress to President Trump calling for protection of our religious freedom, it was stated that "recent reports indicate the Governor of Kentucky will be tracking the license plates of any individuals attending Easter services and subsequently forcing them to quarantine for fourteen days. There is no place for this behavior in America." Looks like we need to include Kentucky in our prayers. The idea of police tracking down and forcing quarantine on citizens for choosing to attend an Easter service seems outrageous. This is still America.

Hey, here's an idea. Why not get creative but also very safe, and hold a drive-in religious service where every stays in their cars, apart from everyone else, with your windows rolled up while listening to a lonely preacher in the church preach over a weak radio signal? That would work! Oops, sorry, it was tried by the Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi and, apparently under orders from the state, the police came in and fined those religious zealots $500 each for holding a gathering. Honestly, I was really impressed at how calm the man making the video remained as his religious liberties were being threatened. No cussing, no nastiness, just a polite question or too. Well, here's a proud shout out to you innovative and faithful Baptists for trying this and for holding your ground as Christians even as the police came to your cars issuing tickets, as I saw in the video.

If Constitutional rights only exist when the government says they do, and can be withdrawn whenever someone declares an emergency of some kind exists, then those rights don't really exist, certainly not as inalienable rights. We need to be reminding our representatives of this. Meanwhile, I hope we can be tolerant of those who wish to gather in a church rather than at Walmart to express their faith and priorities, even if we think gathering at church should be avoided for now. Let that be a voluntary decision.

Don't overlook the long-lasting implications on liberty from this crisis. While the aim of the Book of Mormon is to turn us to Christ and teach us of Him, it also teaches us about the essential nature of liberty. Without liberty, the work of the Church of Christ can be impeded and the welfare of a nation can be imperiled. The Book of Mormon repeatedly teaches us that there are many people who are looking for excuses to seize power and to exercise unjust control over the lives of others. They will use anger, fear, and even war to manipulate others for their ends. They will corrupt the government or ignore the laws or create vile laws to enforce their agenda. They will enter into "secret works of darkness" to gain wealth or power. Those who believe such things are reflexively called "conspiracy nuts" and are told to trust the elites in government, but the lesson of history across the world for millennia is that humans generally cannot be trusted with unlimited power and that some of the worst among us will gravitate to such power. Being wary of human leaders is not paranoia, but the very loud lesson of world history. It is also an important theme of the Book of Mormon which teaches us not to be naive, not to blindly trust those seeking for power, but to recognize that there may be corruption and danger. It may be time for us to revive that awareness of danger rather than to blindly trust in ever expanding government power. I may be wrong in my views on what politicians are doing, but in any case, we have much to learn from what the Book of Mormon teaches us about dealing with perilous times. Let's dig in and learn more.

These are dark times. Pray for light, courage, and relief. We need more miracles here including breakthroughs in medical science and breakthroughs in liberty. It can be done.

One final thought: In addition to praying that these lockdowns may end soon, I would like to suggest that in our remote ward and branch council meetings, and in our conversations with family members and friends, that we be sensitive to the sudden eruption of unmet needs that may be occurring among those who may need just as much attention as any victim of the virus, but might be alone and vulnerable due to the isolation created by these lockdowns. When people need visits and attention but visits are banned or seem overly risky, what works? Do calls do enough? Any tips from your experience? I'd love to hear from some experienced people who understand the challenges of mental health issues when everything has become so difficult recently.


Sunday, April 05, 2020

God Bless China and the New Shanghai Temple



Update, April 29, 2020: Plans for a temple in Shanghai have hit an unfortunate snag, as was just reported today. See my post, "A Bump in the Road for the Shanghai Temple."

What an amazing climax to the most unusual General Conference ever, a conference held in an empty building with no audience, but one that, in spite of current pain and fear from a serious pandemic, is causing bursts of celebration in spots across the globe, especially among the Saints in Asia and all those who yearn for the Lord's blessing upon China (not to mention the Near East with the newly announced temple in Dubai, among other places: see the Church's Newsroom announcement for the new temples). God bless China and its people, and bless that the new Shanghai Temple will bring more joy to that nation. Don't make too much about this announcement: it's a small step, but an exciting one for those with ties to China.

President Nelson concluded General Conference with some announcements about temples, the last being the most surprising to me: Shanghai, China. He was careful to give context. He explained that this would involve a multipurpose building where members living in China could attend the Temple by appointment only (in the initial phase, at least). It does not mean a change in status for the Church (not one of the official religions, which must allow the Chinese government to approve leaders and have some influence over teachings), nor does it mean that missionary work will happen. Not at all! Further. foreign tourists will not be allowed to visit the Temple there. I don't know if foreigners living and working in China with proper Chinese residency permits and visas will be able to attend [update: further information at ChurchofJesusChrist.org/China indicates this will be for Chinese members only], nor do I know if that multipurpose building means that the Church can have a building that is also used for Sunday services, at least for the local members, but am anxious to find out. The only details that have been given at this point are those in the announcement,  the summary at the Newsroom, which also has a video clip of President Nelson' s announcement, and some China-specific information at ChurchofJesusChrist.org/China. Please don't speculate beyond that.

The announcement elicited tears and shouts of joy for the members of China. My wife connected with me from China via FaceTime in tears also as we shared our joy over the announcement as Conference was closing. Like many members in China and elsewhere, we have prayed for such progress, but thought it would take decades still. But in faith and patience, we, like essentially all the faithful members we know in China, have tried to be the best residents of China we could be, to follow the rules of China carefully (no proselyting of Chinese citizens in China and other regulations to respect), to welcome the monitors the government sends to observe our meetings, and to seek to do good in appropriate and legal ways. We love China and its people and yearn for the blessings of the Gospel to be more abundantly available to China and the members of the Church there. (Along with many other blessings, such as lifting the many poor and sick there, an important reason why I want to see the economy get back on track as soon as possible.) Join us in praying for peace and collaboration between our nations, and pray that the ravages of the virus (not yet over in China) may end in all nations, and that our sacred temples may become places of peace and healing around the world.

China is kindly allowing a Temple of the Lord to be established in its borders! What a hopeful sign. To me it seems like a significant step, though perhaps a small one, but truly a tender mercy from the Lord. Meanwhile, this week, we shall join millions in fasting gain for healing from the virus and for more of the Lord's small and big miracles to help in bringing this under control. This health crisis may pass shortly, in a matter of weeks or months, and I hope and expect that casualties may be far less than those predicted by some models. The blessings of the Temple, though, can last for generations, and this small step may be the first of many miracles in China that will bless the lives of millions. I'm so grateful for the close and respectful relationship that exists between President Nelson and the people and some of the leaders of China, and for the Lord's guidance through a prepared Prophet of God to make this possible. Makes me want to do that Hosanna Shout all over again!

Meanwhile, congratulations to the other areas getting new temples: Bahía Blanca, Argentina; Tallahassee, Florida; Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (had to cheer for this one also, especially after learning of the remarkable Saints there and their many sacrifices); Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Benin City, Nigeria; Syracuse, Utah; Dubai, United Arab Emirates (and another cheer!). So glad this was in the privacy of my lonely dwelling place here in the States where I could cheer without bothering anyone.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Love the New Symbol of the Church!


President Russell M. Nelson introduced members tonight to a beautiful new symbol for the Church. It places the familiar logo of the Church within a box that represents the cornerstone of the Church, which is Jesus Christ, and above that is the image of the beautiful Christus statue that is so widely and appropriately used through the Church. What a beautiful and appropriate design! 


Thursday, April 02, 2020

Coping with the Corona Virus: A New Report on Glucosamine and Other Nutriceuticals, and an Update on Masks

I irritated some readers (as I often do) in February when I shared some thoughts from another reader about the possible importance of glucosamine in helping pneumonia patients survive. I'm not sure about the mechanisms proposed by that reader, a certain CT, but to her credit, there was a significant peer-reviewed study supporting the claim that people with respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and lung cancer had a higher survival rate if they had been taking glucosamine: see Griffith A. Bell et al., "Use of glucosamine and chondroitin in relation to mortality," European Journal of Epidemiology, 27/8 (2012): 593-603; https://www.jstor.org/stable/23272500.  When I shared her tentative research results and proposals, I sought for feedback from the medical community just in case there might be something to glucosamine that could help with our current crisis. But the scant private feedback I received suggested the medical community felt that there was no serious reason to accept CT's proposals regarding glucosamine and diet on pneumonia survival or survival of COVID-19. The studies I cited were not the double-blind clinical tests that the medical profession is looking for in assessing efficacy of a treatment, but observational studies where various random factors and bias can be a problem. All fair points. So I didn't push the issue any more, but, just in case, I did buy some glucosamine and also N-acetyl cysteine, a nutriceutical known as an antioxidant but also an effective aid in treating cystic fibrosis because it reduces the viscosity of the mucous-like biofilm in the lungs of patients. I figured if it helps there, maybe it could be useful with the pneumonia COVID-19 can bring. I don't think I was alone because the price for N-acetyl cysteine has about tripled in the past couple of months and some suppliers are out of stock. But glucosamine prices seem more stable.

Last night, I came back to reflecting upon the puzzling and frustrating events related to my post on glucosamine in February (I won't discuss them here), and I felt it was time to see if there were any updates in the literature. Within seconds I spotted an intriguing post on Science Blog that led me to a new study:
In a compelling article in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, published by Elsevier, Mark McCarty of the Catalytic Longevity Foundation, San Diego, CA, USA, and James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, Kansas City, MO, USA, propose that certain nutraceuticals may help provide relief to people infected with encapsulated RNA viruses such as influenza and coronavirus.
The new study is M.F. McCarty and J.J. DiNicolantonio, "Nutraceuticals have potential for boosting the type 1 interferon response to RNA viruses including influenza and coronavirus," Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases (in press, available online Feb. 12, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2020.02.007. The full report is available both as a web page and as a PDF document. This peer-reviewed report reviews a variety of other studies and proposes specific mechanisms in light of recent research to explain why several nutriceuticals, including glucosamine and N-acetyl cysteine, may be helpful aids in coping with the Corona virus. The nutraceuticals discussed include glucosamine, N-acetyl cysteine, sulforophane (found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables), spirulina, lipoic acid, ferrulic acid (found in many foods), and selenium (high in Brazil nuts, but don't take really high doses of selenium supplements because this essential nutrient can be carcinogenic in excess -- it was once said to be carcinogenic in high doses, but that may not be correct, as you can see on the CDC's page on selenium). Yes, I know, the whole area of nutrition and medicine is filled with irresponsible claims and con artists. Get 50 pounds of vegetable and fruit nutrition in a single pill! Eat this oregano concentrate and you'll prevent cancer, foot odor, acne, hair loss, and inflamed navel disorder. Lots of claims, rumors, and little science. On the other hand, the impact of nutrition seems too zealously ignored in the medical community. When I ask questions of my doctors, I've been told things like, "We don't study nutrition. We don't get into that."

While the publication is in a peer-reviewed journal, please note that it is not based on original clinical work and the author's own double-blind studies, but looks at numerous related studies and pulls together bits and pieces to offer a hypothesis that several specific nutriceuticals may be effective in coping with influenza and the Corona virus. This study, like almost anything related to health and nutrition, will not meet the criteria physicians want to see in a new drug. The nutriceuticals discussed may not do any good or even if they are helpful, it may require extensive further studies that may never happen before they can be generally accepted. However, from the perspective of a potential Corona virus victim, there may be little harm to making sure we have some cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and a few Brazil nuts in your diet. Further, both glucosamine and N-acetyl cysteine are already popular nutriceuticals that are low in toxicity and known to have some benefits. However, I've also seen a warning that excess anti-oxidants like N-acetyl cysteine can also increase cancer risk since our body's defenses against cancer cells often can involve oxidative reactions that can be hindered when anti-oxidants are too high. See Derek Lowe, "N-Acetyl Cysteine: A Warning Shot," Science Translational Medicine at ScienceMag.com, October, 4 2019. He reasonably warns that anti-oxidants aren't always good for you. However, N-acetyl cysteine is well known as a treatment for cystic fibrosis because it reduces the viscosity of the biofilm mucous in the lungs, so using it  for COVID-19 doesn't seem like an outrageous stretch. But I am not a medical expert nor a nutritionist (in fact, I can also say, "I don't study nutrition; I don't get into that"), so get advice from competent sources before you do anything unusual based on the new publication on nutriceuticals and the Corona virus.

One of the authors appears to be a nutritionist and may not have the expertise needed to really understand the horrifically complicated mechanisms involved, and some of the studies he cites may not be that great. So this could all be a mistake. If they are wrong and you follow their advice by taking safe levels of nutriceuticals, you may be just be wasting your money. But if there is a benefit, it may help. Would appreciate any further feedback, pro or con. 

Here are a couple of excerpts from the report by McCarty and DiNicolantonio:

Glutathione production can also be promoted by administration of N-acetylcysteine (NAC), which has been shown to be protective in rodents infected with influenza.16., 17., 18. In a little-noticed 6-month controlled clinical study enrolling 262 primarily elderly subjects, those receiving 600 mg NAC twice daily, as opposed to those receiving placebo, experienced significantly fewer influenza-like episodes and days of bed confinement.19 Although the rate of seroconversion to influenza A was comparable in the two groups – indicating that they were exposed at the same frequency – only 25% of the virus-infected subjects in the NAC group developed symptoms, as contrasted to 79% of those of placebo. (Given the carnage that influenza wreaks among the elderly, it is most regrettable that no effort has been made to replicate this study, conducted over 20 years ago.) The particular utility of NAC in the elderly might reflect the fact that plasma cysteine levels and cellular glutathione levels tend to decline with advancing age.20

The downstream consequences of hydrogen peroxide production might also be addressed by phase 2-inductive nutraceuticals, as these induce various peroxidase enzymes and promote the synthesis of glutathione, a cofactor for certain peroxidases and a catalyst in reactions that reconvert oxidized cysteine groups to their native form.15 Glutathione production can also be promoted by administration of N-acetylcysteine (NAC), which has been shown to be protective in rodents infected with influenza.16., 17., 18. In a little-noticed 6-month controlled clinical study enrolling 262 primarily elderly subjects, those receiving 600 mg NAC twice daily, as opposed to those receiving placebo, experienced significantly fewer influenza-like episodes and days of bed confinement.19 Although the rate of seroconversion to influenza A was comparable in the two groups – indicating that they were exposed at the same frequency – only 25% of the virus-infected subjects in the NAC group developed symptoms, as contrasted to 79% of those of placebo. (Given the carnage that influenza wreaks among the elderly, it is most regrettable that no effort has been made to replicate this study, conducted over 20 years ago.) The particular utility of NAC in the elderly might reflect the fact that plasma cysteine levels and cellular glutathione levels tend to decline with advancing age....20






Glucosamine administration may up-regulate MAVS activation
Another key mediator of type 1 interferon response is the mitochondrial antiviral-signaling protein (MAVS), which oligomerizes in response to activation of cytosolic RNA virus detectors RIG-1 and MDA5, and subsequently participates in the activation of the transcription factor interferon regulatory factor 3 (IRF3).25 (TLR7 signaling likewise contributes to activation of this factor; both pathways promote the K63-linked polyubiquitination and activation of the tank-binding kinase-1 – TBK1 – which in turn activates IRF3 via phosphorylation.26., 27., 28.) Duan and colleagues have recently shown that RNA virus infection promotes O-GlcNacylation of MAVS on multiple sites, and that this renders MAVS susceptible to the K63-linked ubiquitination that enables it to activate IRF3.29 Moreover, they show that, the more extensive this O-GlcNacylation is, the more effectively MAVS is activated. Hence, they are able to demonstrate that measures which suppress or amplify the cellular pool of UDP-N-acetylglucosamine – the substrate for O-GlcNacylation – correspondingly suppress or amplify the activation of MAVS. They then proceed to demonstrate that feeding mice a glucosamine-enriched diet (2.5% by weight) markedly enhances the survival of wild-type mice infected with influenza virus, whereas this provided no protection in mice in which MAVS, type 1 interferons, or O-GlcNac transferase (the mediator of O-GlcNacylation) were genetically absent.

This striking new finding points to the possibility that high-dose glucosamine supplementation might aid prevention and control of RNA virus infections. Whereas the hexosamine biosynthesis pathway is capable of generating UDP-N-acetylglucosamine in the absence of exogenous glucosamine, glucosamine administration can further enhance the intracellular pool of this compound, thereby boosting the extent of O-GlcNacylation evoked by viral infection.30 The dietary dose employed in this study is quite high in the context of previous clinical experience – 2.5% of a human diet providing 400 g dry weight daily would correspond to 10 g glucosamine – but an intake of 3 g daily would be practical and is within the range of previous clinical experience.31 Rather high intakes may be required for significant clinical benefit, inasmuch as this compound is rather inefficiently absorbed after oral administration.32
Any merit to this work? I'd still love to have further input from the medical community. Meanwhile, would it be dangerous to include a bottle of glucosamine and some N-acetyl cysteine in your medical supplies? Along with face masks, by the way. The top dog of our medical community, the US Surgeon General, the one who warned us that we should not use face masks because they are ineffective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 among us ordinary folks (and might even make things worse!) but urgently needed to protect medical workers, might not have been very accurate in his statement.  Other nations that are doing a much better job in taming the virus (Taiwan, for example, where schools are still in session and business is moving ahead with our draconian lockdowns) encourage widespread wearing of facemasks. Having a barrier is better than no barrier -- in fact, the CDC is now telling medical workers to at least use a bandana or some other material because a barrier is helpful, even a poor one. Who would have guessed?  Also see C. Raina MacIntyre et al.,  "Face Mask Use and Control of Respiratory Virus Transmission in Households," Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 15, Number 2 (February 2009) as one of several studies on this matter. Masks work. Maybe it's time we start wearing them here. Yesterday, for the first time since returning to America, hanging out in Minnesota and Wisconsin, I saw multiple people wearing masks when I went to Walmart to pick up some things. A good sign. Maybe I'll dare to wear one now. Have been afraid of stirring added panic and worry among others.

Don't panic, and don't let your local officials panic either (I know, a bit late to say this!). We'll get through this health crisis. But the economic and social consequences of the our nation's response may be felt for years to come, so keep preparing for more trouble ahead.

Update 1: One more thing to watch out for is that the main clinical study cited in this report, a study that found N-acetyl cysteine to be helpful,  was written by two professors and an employee of the Zambon Group, an Italian pharma company that I happen to know is a leading producer of -- can you guess? -- N-acetyl cysteine. Now this kind of thing happens a lot in academia because it takes funding to do studies and companies interested in the effects of their products are likely to want to fund relevant research. It doesn't mean the data are bad, but it's a factor to weigh.  The study is
Silvia de Flora, C. Grassi and Livia Carati (of the Zambon Group), "Attenuation of influenza-like symptomatology and improvement of cell-mediated immunity with long-term N-acetylcysteine treatment," European Respiratory Journal 10/9 (1997): 1535-41; DOI: 10.1183/09031936.97.10071535.

Update 2: You may have noticed I've got a bee in my facial bonnet over the mask issue and the deliberate misinformation from the US government. Glad to see I'm not the only one. Jeremy Howard, a distinguished research scientist at the University of San Francisco, founding researcher at fast.ai and a member of the World Economic Forum's Global AI Council, used AI tools to find many (34) research papers supporting the notion that masks should help, and none supporting the idea that they don't help or make things worse. He shared his thoughts for the Washington Post on March 28, 2020. And if you're thinking, "I can't buy any masks now!," the title of his op-ed piece should give you an important clue about how to be more self-sufficient in this crisis: "Simple DIY masks could help flatten the curve. We should all wear them in public." Here is an excerpt:


When historians tally up the many missteps policymakers have made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the senseless and unscientific push for the general public to avoid wearing masks should be near the top.

The evidence not only fails to support the push, it also contradicts it. It can take a while for official recommendations to catch up with scientific thinking. In this case, such delays might be deadly and economically disastrous. It’s time to make masks a key part of our fight to contain, then defeat, this pandemic. Masks effective at “flattening the curve” can be made at home with nothing more than a T-shirt and a pair of scissors. We should all wear masks — store-bought or homemade — whenever we’re out in public....

There are good reasons to believe DIY masks would help a lot. Look at Hong Kong, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which have covid-19 largely under control. They are all near the original epicenter of the pandemic in mainland China, and they have economic ties to China. Yet none has resorted to a lockdown, such as in China’s Wuhan province. In all of these countries, all of which were hit hard by the SARS respiratory virus outbreak in 2002 and 2003, everyone is wearing masks in public. George Gao, director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stated, “Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
My data-focused research institute, fast.ai, has found 34 scientific papers indicating basic masks can be effective in reducing virus transmission in public — and not a single paper that shows clear evidence that they cannot.

Studies have documented definitively that in controlled environments like airplanes, people with masks rarely infect others and rarely become infected themselves, while those without masks more easily infect others or become infected themselves.

Masks don’t have to be complex to be effective. A 2013 paper tested a variety of household materials and found that something as simple as two layers of a cotton T-shirt is highly effective at blocking virus particles of a wide range of sizes. Oxford University found evidence this month for the effectiveness of simple fabric mouth and nose covers to be so compelling they now are officially acceptable for use in a hospital in many situations. Hospitals running short of N95-rated masks are turning to homemade cloth masks themselves; if it’s good enough to use in a hospital, it’s good enough for a walk to the store.

The reasons the WHO cites for its anti-mask advice are based not on science but on three spurious policy arguments...
 The WHO, which has been criticized for catering to China and pushing their views, would have been much wiser had they carefully listened to China on this issue. China gives great emphasis to masks. You need to wear them outside. And they have good reasons, as do their neighboring nations, for urging or requiring mask use. What a shame that so many Americans and Europeans could have been helped with that simple measure. But now you now: DIY masks are legit and a smart thing to do if you don't have something better.

Update 3 (April 3, 2020): Hold on, the issue of DIY cloth masks or bandanas might be more complicated than I thought. While it seems logical that some barrier is better than none, if you don't keep it clean, it can be a problem. Apparently there's only one academic study that directly examined this issue, and while they missed a lot and their results can be interpreted in various ways, the authors leaned toward cloth possibly being worse than nothing. The complex and unresolved issues are thoughtfully discussed by in a post by Scott Alexander on his State Star Codex blog. Scott is a psychiatrist who is very good a skeptically digging into data. Kudos to a very bright reader for kindly sharing Scott's post with me. I would suggest if you make your own masks, use multiple layers and wash them thoroughly after use in hot water.