June 12, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

This is The New York Times’ list of bestselling books Friday:

(Screenshot, The New York Times)

Jump over to Amazon and see a similar trend, which goes even deeper down the list:

(Screenshot, Amazon)

Penguin Young Readers had planned to print 50,000 copies of “Antiracist Baby,” but after seeing preorders, upped its first printing to 100,000. The New York Times reported:

“These numbers are extraordinary for any children’s book, and in particular one that is in the board book format aimed at readers 0-3,” Elyse Marshall, executive director of publicity at Penguin Young Readers, said in an email. “It’s rare to see a board book hit and stay on a best-seller list weeks before it goes on sale, and the sustained presence reflects the moment that we are in.”

The Times story also said:

These titles are dominating audiobook sales as well. Libro.fm is a company that partners with 1,200 bookstores in the United States and Canada to sell audiobooks, and on Friday, every one of its Top 10 best sellers was about race. The company said its Top 10 list on the first day of June, again consisting entirely of books about race, had sold 500% more than the Top 10 list did on the first day of May.

Sometimes I want to know what people are searching for, and Google Trends can tell us a lot. Look at the spike in Google searches for “book racism.”

(Google Trends, June 11, 2020)

Then look at the states where these searches come from.

(Google Trends, June 11, 2020)

Some related searches show that people are searching for books to talk to children about racism.

(Google Trends, June 11, 2020)

Netflix is marketing a ‘Black Lives Matter collection’

AdWeek reports:

Netflix users who search the name “George Floyd” on the streaming service will be served up a collection of shows and movies centered on racial injustice.

Food price inflation is soaring

New government data helps to explain why you are paying a lot more at the grocery store. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said food prices are up for the second month in a row. In fact, the 4% increase in food costs is one of the largest single-month increases ever recorded.

Meat prices were a big reason for the increase. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said those prices may level out soon as meat processing plants, hit hard by COVID-19, are now producing more meat.

There is one other thing to consider. We are eating at home more rather than going to restaurants. While we are paying more for groceries, eating at home costs less than eating out. In the end, families will probably spend less on food than we did a year ago.

Can a COVID-19 vaccine be made without using animals?

There is a central friction at work behind the scenes in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. To what extent are you willing to allow animals to be used in the research?

Groups like Americans for Medical Progress said to be sure a vaccine is safe, they must be able to use it on lab animals. AMP is a nonprofit that is funded by medical schools and research institutions that use animals in their research. Its board of directors includes drug company executives. AMP said on its 990 tax form that its mission is “to protect society’s investment in biomedical research through advocacy programs to build public appreciation for necessary and humane animal research.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals encouraged the National Institutes of Health to test vaccines on humans and to use computer models and not “waste time” on animal research:

PETA and compassionate people everywhere were heartened to learn that, in order to speed up the development of a potential coronavirus vaccine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) quickly began testing directly on humans without waiting for the results of the typical, lengthy animal-testing phase, showing that the results yielded by tests on animals are not necessary and are slowing down the development of medicines that will help humans.

But a closer look at Moderna, one of the front-runners developing what it hopes will be a viable vaccine, shows the company did not skip animal trials and jump right to humans. In a March 16 news release that stirred a lot of optimism, Moderna said, “The mRNA-1273 vaccine has shown promise in animal models, and this is the first trial to examine it in humans.”

And AMP said that as good as some computer models are in helping to understand how medications including vaccines might affect humans, they are not enough:

Because research consistently seeks answers to unknowns, a computer is unable to simulate how a particular cell might interact or react with a medical compound, or how a complex biological system such as the circulatory system will react to a new drug directed to improve organ function.

A single living cell is many times more complex than even the most sophisticated computer program. There are an estimated 50-100 trillion cells in the human body, all of which communicate and interact using a complicated biochemical language — a language researchers have only just begun to learn. Studies using isolated cells or tissues almost always precede animal-based research, but researchers must study whole living systems to understand the effectiveness of treatments and their potential benefits and dangers.

U.S. law requires that all new drugs, medical devices and procedures first be evaluated in animals for safety and efficacy before clinical (human) trials can begin.

PETA said another reason to skip animal tests and use humans is that human antibodies work better in research than animal antibodies. PETA quoted a statistic that it pinned on the NIH, which funds about $12 billion worth of research that involves animals. PETA said:

NIH reports that 95 out of every 100 new drugs that pass animal tests fail in humans, because they are either unsafe or ineffective. Mice — who have to be genetically engineered just to be susceptible to the disease — show only mild symptoms of COVID-19. Dr. Stanley Perlman, a coronavirologist at the University of Iowa, notes that infecting mice “doesn’t really tell you much about how the virus causes disease.”

But NIH has repeatedly defended using animals in bioresearch. In this 2017 memo to PETA, NIH’s Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research, wrote that animal-based lab research led to penicillin, insulin, blood transfusion and cancer therapies. Animals have been used to advance organ transplantation and treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

AMP said:

It’s estimated that rodents and fish comprise well over 95% of all animals used in research. The number of mice, rats and zebrafish involved due to the ongoing development of genetic research tools. These methods allow researchers to modify the genome in animals to model common diseases in order to study potential cures.

The conversation about whether to use animals in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine arose just as Congress took interest in how monkeys were being used in non-COVID-19 testing, and members of Congress started asking questions about how tax dollars were being spent.

The Trump administration recently cut millions of dollars that the president and his supporters said went to a testing facility in China that used animals in their research. But a fact-check showed a fraction of that grant money went to the Chinese lab for collection and analysis of viral samples — most of the money went to a U.S. research facility.

The anti-animal-experiment group White Coat Waste Project claimed “victory” for President Donald Trump’s response. White Coat Waste has taken an unusual tactic fighting the use of animals in lab testing by calling it a “waste of tax dollars,” not focusing its advocacy solely on animal rights as the central issue. Tax waste became a more unifying way to attract attention to the same endgame.

Recently, PETA sent letters to dozens of universities pushing them to end animal-involved studies after school research labs made decisions to euthanize large collections of lab animals during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. The labs could not maintain their animals because of the stay-at-home orders. PETA is trying to keep the labs from restocking their collections when they open.

But even in the face of controversy and uncertainty, pharmaceutical researchers say lab animals are essential to the production of safe and effective vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci has spoken to how “animal models” give researchers a “good feel” for how vaccines will work in humans.

There are a range of stories for you to consider. Ask local research labs, usually based at universities and research hospitals, how they are thinking about the animal experiments, especially with the threat of further COVID-19-caused interruptions.

The COVID-19-caused death of a historic flea market

For 50 years, there has been a place here in St. Petersburg, Florida, where you could find animal treats, fresh vegetables, Barbie dolls, rusty old tools, comic books, boots and funnel cakes all in one place. But this week, the Wagon Wheel Flea Market said it is closing. 1,200 vendor stalls on 125 acres will be vacant by the end of June.

I have seen similar stories around the country of big flea markets and farmers markets that are on hold because of COVID-19. These markets are crowded spaces and attract a lot of seniors, to be sure.

Other big markets, like this one in Indiana, are opening this week with lots of precautions.

I can’t help but think of the vendors, the thousands and thousands of them, who relied on these venues. Where do you sell vintage pocket knives, cute wooden birdhouses or a garage full of hair products that you have sold at the flea market for decades?

eBay and such, of course, are one avenue, but they involve shipping and international competition. Is there an opportunity here for local classified advertising, radio station swap meets and other old-fashioned ideas?

Maybe newspapers and radio and TV news organizations should start online classified sites just for the local vendors who got displaced?

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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  • We do not need to test on animals in order to develop a safe and effective vaccine to Covid-19. Some institutions and companies working on the vaccine have skipped cruel experiments on animals and gone straight to human trials because animals’ physiology differs from ours and they react differently to disease.

  • We cannot afford to waste time, money, and lives testing COVID-19 and other vaccines on animals, who are poor models for human diseases. 95% of new drugs that test safe and effective in animal trials fail in humans.