Expert Medical Advice Often Flip-Flops

(p. D6) A History of Medical Flip-Flops

Shifting medical advice is surprisingly common, and it tends to fall into three categories: emerging guidance, replacement advice and reversals.

Emerging guidance comes during times of crisis — like pandemics — and is destined to change quickly. In the past several months, guidance about the best way to treat Covid patients, masks to prevent transmission and the limits of vaccine protection have all shifted as knowledge of the coronavirus and its variants has evolved.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between replacement advice, which is issued when research improves on advice that came before it, and a full reversal, which comes about because a common medical practice got ahead of the science and never actually worked or even caused harm. Here are some examples of true medical flip-flops in recent years.

MENOPAUSE HORMONES TO PROTECT THE HEART: In 2002, decades of advice about the heart benefits of menopause hormones seemed to change overnight when a major study called the Women’s Health Initiative was halted after researchers detected more heart attacks in the women taking hormones. In hindsight, doctors had misinterpreted data from observational research. The current advice: Hormones can relieve menopause symptoms but shouldn’t be used for chronic disease prevention.

VIOXX AS A LOWER-RISK ARTHRITIS TREATMENT: In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration approved Vioxx as a breakthrough pain reliever because it lowered the risk of gastrointestinal problems. But by 2004, Merck had withdrawn the drug because studies showed it significantly raised the risk of heart attack.

ARTHROSCOPIC SURGERY ON AGING KNEES: For years, the partial removal of torn meniscus tissue was the most common orthopedic procedure in the United States, with about 700,000 performed a year. In 2013, a researcher in Finland compared the operation to a “sham” procedure and found there was no benefit. Most doctors now recommend physical therapy instead.

VITAMIN MEGADOSES TO LOWER CANCER AND HEART RISK: For years, doctors believed various vitamins could lower risk for cancer and heart disease, but a number of studies showed just the opposite. A study of beta carotene and vitamin A found that the supplements actually increased the risk of lung cancer in male smokers. A study of vitamin E and selenium, thought to protect against prostate cancer, increased risk for the disease.

STENTS FOR STABLE HEART DISEASE: Doctors used to insert stents — tiny wire mesh tubes that prop open arteries — in millions of otherwise stable patients with heart disease. A study found that the surgical procedure was no better than drug therapy for preventing heart attacks.

Dr. Vinay Prasad, associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, and Dr. Adam S. Cifu, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Department of Medicine, coined the term “medical reversal” and concluded that about 40 percent of common medical practices that they reviewed turned out to be useless or harmful. In their book, “Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives,” they noted that most of these failed treatments were initially embraced because they were based on logical reasoning.

“The thing that’s often behind reversal: All of these things have a good story, they have good pathophysiological rationale,” Dr. Cifu said. “They should work. But things only work if they’ve been shown in people to work, and people are so complicated.”

For the full story, see:

Tara Parker-Pope. “Shifting Medical Advice Is a Feature, Not a Bug.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 2, 2021): D6.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Oct. 24, 2021, and has the title “Is the New Aspirin Advice a Medical Flip-Flop, or Just Science?” The paragraphs on menopause hormones to protect the heart and on vitamin megadoses to lower cancer and heart risk appear in the online version, but not in the print version.)

The book co-authored by Prasad and mentioned above is:

Prasad, Vinayak K., and Adam S. Cifu. Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

The Internet of Things Enables Better Indoor Air Measurement and Customization

(p. A1) “Indoor air quality is not a nice-to-have anymore—people have realized it’s essential,” says Arjun Kaicker, an architect at Zaha Hadid Architects, a London-based firm that has designed buildings around the world.

Many of the technologies bringing about this transformation are part of the oft-touted “Internet of Things.” It’s a combination of wireless, internet-connected sensors and automation, tied together by the cloud and millions of lines of code and sold as a service to solve a particular problem—in this case, the spread of communicable diseases and other air pollutants indoors.

As with other applications of the Internet of Things, such as in factories, much of the technology involved is about tying together existing systems so they can respond more dynamically to information their sensors are gathering, says Bobby George, chief digital officer of Carrier, which manufactures heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

The goal is relatively simple: In more than 95% of buildings, air-conditioning systems are set on a schedule that remains largely untouched. Smart-building systems can pump more clean air into parts of an office as occupancy or other factors change throughout the day, adds Mr. George.

Wireless, battery-powered air-quality and occupancy sensors that can handle continuous monitoring are rapidly falling in price. They can be peppered throughout a building and don’t require opening up walls to connect to data and power.

. . .

In a May [2021] letter in the journal Science, 39 researchers and experts in public health, indoor air quality and engineering asserted that our understanding of transmission of respiratory infections, especially Covid-19, has progressed so rapidly that it should spur a “paradigm shift” for those responsible for the health and safety of office workers.

No longer, they continued, should people accept the idea that there is little we can do to prevent the spread of airborne infections at work. Just as we take pains to eliminate the spread of waterborne and foodborne disease, we now have the knowledge and tools to reduce the spread of germs in the air. And we should start demanding employers do something about it, they said.

To make that happen, businesses and schools should follow guidelines like those offered by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, says William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Pennsylvania State University and the head of the committee that created these standards. Those guidelines include ensuring the right mix of fresh outdoor air and filtered indoor air, and using air filters that meet a higher standard of effectiveness.

Employees can use these types of published guidelines to inform their questions when talking to employers about returning to the office, Dr. Bahnfleth says. Similar guidelines are offered by the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the full story, see:

Christopher Mims. “KEYWORDS; Breath of Fresh Air.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 4, 2021): B2.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “KEYWORDS; The Pandemic Could Help Us Breathe Easier at the Office.”)

High Viral Load Increases Odds of Long Covid

(p. 18) It is one of many mysteries about long Covid: Who is more prone to developing it? Are some people more likely than others to experience physical, neurological or cognitive symptoms that can emerge, or linger for, months after their coronavirus infections have cleared?

Now, a team of researchers who followed more than 200 patients for two to three months after their Covid diagnoses report that they have identified biological factors that might help predict if a person will develop long Covid.

The study, published Tuesday [January 25, 2022] by the journal Cell, found four factors that could be identified early in a person’s coronavirus infection that appeared to correlate with increased risk of having lasting symptoms weeks later.

. . .

One of the four factors researchers identified is the level of coronavirus RNA in the blood early in the infection, an indicator of viral load. Another is the presence of certain autoantibodies — antibodies that mistakenly attack tissues in the body as they do in conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. A third factor is the reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, a virus that infects most people, often when they are young, and then usually becomes dormant.

The final factor is having Type 2 diabetes, although the researchers and other experts said that in studies involving larger numbers of patients, it might turn out that diabetes is only one of several medical conditions that increase the risk of long Covid.

. . .

One persuasive conclusion, several experts said, was the suggestion that because patients with high viral loads early on often developed long Covid, giving people antivirals soon after diagnosis might help prevent long-term symptoms.

“The quicker one can eliminate the virus, the less likelihood of developing persistent virus or autoimmunity, which may drive long Covid,” Dr. Iwasaki said.

For the full story, see:

Pam Belluck. “New Research Hints at 4 Factors That May Increase Chances of Long Covid.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, January 30, 2022): 18.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 25, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

The “Gold Standard” of Randomized Clinical Trials “Has Its Own Issues”

(p. R2) . . ., closely held Epic Systems Corp., maker of one of the most widely used electronic health record systems, searched a segment of its database in the spring of 2020 to find that routine breast, colon and cervical cancer screenings in the U.S. had each dropped by more than 85% during the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report helped spur efforts to persuade people to make up for missed screenings.

But researchers have a much more ambitious vision for this data: to help guide how doctors treat individual patients in real time.

“The evidence from real-world data is a different and exciting new path,” says Jackie Gerhart, a physician who works with the informatics team at Epic. “You can get a lot of outcomes information from medical records that can help change care for individual patients.”

. . .

To be sure, patient records are observational, and thus subject to confounders and other shortcomings that can undercut their reliability in pointing to treatment options.

But the gold standard has its own issues. Randomized clinical trials, which control for differences in patient health status and other variables, are the preferred evidence to inform patient care. Yet such trials generally exclude an especially common group of patients—those with multiple ailments. Moreover, the elderly, children, women, minority groups and people who live far from medical research centers have long been underrepresented in such studies.

As a result, the highest-quality evidence that medicine produces doesn’t apply to most patients doctors see in daily practice. “There are so many clinical situations where the evidence that is needed does not exist,” says Nigam Shah, professor of medicine and biomedical data science at Stanford University Medical School.

Researchers have believed for at least a half-century that data in patient medical records could help fill the gaps.

. . .

The struggles of International Business Machines Corp.’s Watson raises [a] . . . yellow flag. It had ambitions to develop a tool for cancer doctors that would mine patient health records and thousands of pages of research from the peer-reviewed medical literature for treatment advice. But it hit walls, including accuracy and the complexity of combining data from electronic health records, billing claims and published research to provide a cohesive product. Doctors who used the service rarely changed treatment plans. IBM says it discontinued Watson for Oncology at the end of 2020.

For the full story, see:

Ron Winslow. “Mining the Gold in Patient Records.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, December 9, 2021): R2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 3, 2021, and has the title “Medical Records Data Offers Doctors Hope of Better Patient Care.” In a couple of passages there are a few extra words in the online version, which is the version quoted above.)

Johan Hultin Self-Funded Trip to Find 1918 Flu Virus in the Permafrost

(p. B9) Dr. Hultin’s quest to find victims of the 1918 flu was sparked in 1950 by an offhand remark over lunch with a University of Iowa microbiologist, William Hale. Dr. Hale mentioned that there was just one way to figure out what caused the 1918 pandemic: finding victims buried in permafrost and isolating the virus from lungs that might be still frozen and preserved.

Dr. Hultin, a medical student in Sweden who was spending six months at the university, immediately realized that he was uniquely positioned to do just that. The previous summer, he and his first wife, Gunvor, spent weeks assisting a German paleontologist, Otto Geist, on a dig in Alaska. Dr. Geist could help him find villages in areas of permafrost that also had good records of deaths from the 1918 flu.

After persuading the university to provide him with a $10,000 stipend, Dr. Hultin set off for Alaska. It was early June 1951.

. . .

He removed still-frozen lung tissue from the victims, closed the grave and took the tissue back to Iowa, keeping it frozen on dry ice in the passenger compartment of a small plane.

Back in the lab, Dr. Hultin tried to grow the virus by injecting the lung tissue into fertilized chicken eggs — the standard way to grow flu viruses. He was caught up in the excitement of his experiment, he said, and had not thought about the possible danger of introducing a deadly virus into the world.

“I remember the sleepless nights,” he said. “I couldn’t wait for morning to come to charge into my lab and look at the eggs.”

But the virus was not growing.

He tried squirting lung tissue into the nostrils of guinea pigs, white mice and ferrets, but again he failed to revive the virus.

“The virus was dead,” he said.

Dr. Hultin never published his results but bided his time, working as a pathologist in private practice in San Francisco and hoping for another opportunity to resurrect that virus.

His chance came in 1997, when, sitting by a pool on vacation with his wife in Costa Rica, he noticed a paper published in Science by Dr. Jeffery K. Taubenberger, now chief of the viral pathogenesis and evolution section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

It reported a remarkable discovery. Dr. Taubenberger had searched a federal repository of pathology samples dating to the 1860s and found fragments of the 1918 virus in snippets of lung tissue from two soldiers who had died in that pandemic. The tissue had been removed at autopsy, wrapped in paraffin and stored in the warehouse.

Dr. Hultin immediately wrote to Dr. Taubenberger, telling him about his trip to Alaska. He offered to return to Brevig to see if he could find more flu victims.

“I remember getting that letter and thinking: ‘Gosh. This is really incredible. This is amazing,’” Dr. Taubenberger said in an interview this week. He thought the next step would be to apply for a grant for Dr. Hultin to return to Brevig. If all went well, Dr. Hultin might go back in a year or two.

Dr. Hultin had a different idea.

“I can’t go this week, but maybe I can go next week,” he told Dr. Taubenberger.

He added that he would go alone and pay for the trip himself so that there would be no objections from funding agencies, no delays, no ethics committees and no publicity.

. . .

Using the tissue Dr. Hultin provided, Dr. Taubenberger’s group published a paper that provided the genetic sequence of a crucial gene, hemagglutinin, which the virus had used to enter cells. The group subsequently used that tissue to determine the complete sequence of all eight of the virus’s genes.

. . .

Before results from the study of the Brevig woman’s virus were published, Dr. Hultin asked the villagers if they wanted the village to be identified in a news release and a journal article. They might be besieged by media. “Maybe you won’t like that,” he warned them.

The Brevig residents came to a consensus: Publish the paper and identify the village. Dr. Hultin was listed as a co-author.

For the full obituary, see:

Gina Kolata. “Dr. Johan Hultin, 97, Whose Work Helped Map 1918 Pandemic, Dies.” The New York Times (Friday, January 28, 2022): B9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated January 28, 2022, and has the title “Johan Hultin, Who Found Frozen Clues to 1918 Virus, Dies at 97.”)

Gina Kolata devotes a chapter to Hultin’s search for the 1918 flu virus in her book:

Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1999.

IBM Sells Failed Watson Artificial Intelligence Health Unit

(p. B3) International Business Machines Corp. agreed to sell the data and analytics assets from its Watson Health business to investment firm Francisco Partners, the companies said Friday [January 21, 2022].

. . .

The Watson Health business uses artificial intelligence to analyze diagnostic tests and other health data and to manage care.

IBM had big aspirations for its Watson artificial intelligence to help in medical research and improve patient outcomes, but the technology’s impact has fallen short of early hopes. Partners and clients have moved away from projects that were built around Watson technology in recent years, although IBM had spent billions of dollars making acquisitions to bolster the business.

“IBM took a risk of becoming a disrupter in the complex health care industry but was only able to garner limited success,” UBS analyst David Vogt said in a note Friday.

For the full story, see:

Matt Grossman. “IBM Sells Its Watson Health Assets To Investment Firm as It Refocuses.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, January 22, 2022): B3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. 21, 2022, and has the title “IBM Sells Watson Health Assets to Investment Firm.”)

Calcutta Commuters Avoid Slow Unreliable Trams Because “People Want to Move Fast”

(p. A4) “You get all the flavors of Calcutta here, so it’s the best way to travel,” said a medical student, Megha Roy, riding the tram with two friends. She used the Anglicized version of Kolkata, which residents deploy interchangeably with its current spelling and pronunciation.

The three friends had jumped onboard spontaneously, with no clear idea of where the tram was going, or when it was scheduled to get there. But it didn’t really matter. The ride itself was an unexpected treat.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” Ms. Roy said.

. . .

. . . the authorities say that while trams should remain a part of the transit mix, buses and the city’s metro system better serve 21st-century riders in the city of some 15 million people.

. . .

“Scientifically, economically, environmentally, there is no reason to convert the tramways for buses,” said Debasish Bhattacharyya, president of the Calcutta Tram Users’ Association.

But the scene at one tram stop suggested commuters may feel differently. Fewer than half a dozen people were waiting for the tram, while nearby, hundreds were piling onto buses that sagged under the weight of so many passengers, belching black plumes of diesel exhaust as they careened over the tram’s tracks and onto the street.

Admittedly, neither speed nor punctuality are hallmarks of the trams, which must contend with a mélange of traffic on their routes: trucks, buses, cars, vintage yellow Ambassador taxis, rickshaws manual and electric, pedestrians, herds of goats and the occasional cow.

“Nobody knows when the next car will come,” Mr. Bhattacharyya said. “They say this is the control room, but nothing is controlled, everything is scattered,” he said, gesturing to a hub of the tram system in central Kolkata.

. . .

Aboard a tram crawling along Lenin Sarani, one of central Kolkata’s main thoroughfares and named in honor of the Russian revolutionary, Sumit Chandra Banerjee, a ticket taker, said he looked forward to mandatory retirement when he turned 60 in October [2021].

. . .

Many of Kolkata’s urban landmarks — from cinemas and bookstores to museums and hospitals — were built near the tracks. One of those institutions was Das Gupta Books, founded in 1886.

Aranda Das Gupta, the shop’s fourth-generation managing director, called the tram a “beautiful journey,” while acknowledging that it takes “maximum time.”

“Nowadays,” he said, “people want to move fast.”

For the full story, see:

Emily Schmall. “INDIA DISPATCH; Kolkata Is Letting Its ‘Fairy Tale’ Trams Waste Away.” The New York Times (Friday, September 3, 2021): A4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 2, 2021, and has the title “INDIA DISPATCH; Kolkata’s ‘Fairy Tale’ Trams, Once Essential, Are Now a Neglected Relic.”)

Feds Impede Consumer Choice by Going Back to Incandescent Ban

(p. A16) In 2019, the Trump administration blocked a rule designed to phase out older incandescent bulbs, calling it unnecessary and an impediment to consumer choice.

With the move, the administration heeded to both industry demands as well as free market proponents who have long railed against tougher efficiency regulations for consumer appliances and goods, like energy-saving bulbs or water-saving dishwashers, as governmental overreach.

“The new bulb is many times more expensive, and I hate to say it, it doesn’t make you look as good,” Donald J. Trump, the former president, quipped at a White House meeting in 2019, referring to an early common complaint that LEDs emit a harsher light, though recent LED lights come in warmer hues. “We’re bringing back the old light bulb,” he later told a rally in Michigan.

The Biden administration has moved to reinstate the standards. But in a letter to the Department of Energy last year, NEMA, the industry group, urged federal rules to allow companies to manufacture and import inefficient bulbs for at least another year, followed by another year or more to sell out stockpiled inventory.

For the full story, see:

Hiroko Tabuchi. “Obsolete Bulbs Fill the Shelves At Dollar Stores.” The New York Times (Monday, January 24, 2022): A1 & A16.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 23, 2022, and has the title “Old-Fashioned, Inefficient Light Bulbs Live On at the Nation’s Dollar Stores.”)

Even in Old Age Miner George Hearst Retained His “Tenacity, Demon Energy and Genius”

(p. A15) George Hearst was famous for discovering metals—copper, silver, gold—but he liked any mineral he could pull out of the earth. New Year’s Eve 1889 found him far from his San Francisco home, in West Virginia’s coal country. “We found the coal veins all right,” said Hearst’s traveling companion, T.J. Clunie, a young California state senator. “The samples were fine, the price was low, and I expected to see Hearst snap at the offer.” But Hearst was hesitant. “I don’t like to buy a pig in a poke,” he said. “We had better crawl up and see that coal for ourselves before we discuss the price.” That meant scaling a 3,000-foot hill.

At the summit Hearst found a vein of coal, hacked out a chunk, and set it on fire. The flame sputtered and died in seconds. He tossed the lump aside and went looking for another. He found a different vein, hacked out another piece and ignited it. This one burned steadily for 10 minutes, Clunie recalled, while Hearst watched it “as a mother does her first-born.” Hearst scrambled back down the hill and bought the vein. He was 69 years old.

Stomach cancer would claim Hearst barely a year later, but as Matthew Bernstein demonstrates in “George Hearst: Silver King of the Gilded Age,” the old miner went about his work right to the end with the same tenacity, demon energy and genius for finding what he was after that had made him one of the richest men in the American West.

. . .

Hearst did occasionally interrupt his prospecting. On a visit home to Missouri, the 40-year-old prospector fell for an 18-year-old named Phoebe Apperson, and married her in 1862. It was a happy match—he certainly wasn’t around enough to get on her nerves—and they produced one child, William Randolph Hearst, who would embed himself in the national memory even more deeply than his father.

. . .

. . ., there is a warmth to the man that makes him good company throughout the book, and charm in his downright language, as when he said, “When I was young I had very strong religious views, and was brought up to a thoroughly orthodox way; but after leaving home my ideas got broader, and on studying these things for myself, without any influence from parents, or ministers, I came to the conclusion that I knew just about as much about it as anybody, and I knew nothing.”

For the full review, see:

Richard Snow. “BOOKSHELF; A Head For Metals.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Dec. 13, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 12, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘George Hearst’ Review: A Head for Metals.”)

The book under review is:

Bernstein, Matthew. George Hearst: Silver King of the Gilded Age. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021.

Instead of Centralizing With C.D.C., the Need for Speed Requires “Clinical and Commercial Labs to Create and Deploy Tests”

(p. A22) The faulty coronavirus testing kits developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the early weeks of the pandemic were not only contaminated but had a basic design flaw, according to an internal review by the agency.

Health officials had already acknowledged that the test kits were contaminated, but the internal report, whose findings were published in PLOS ONE on Wednesday, also documented a design error that caused false positives.

. . .

The C.D.C.’s test was designed to detect three distinct regions, or target sequences, of the virus’s genetic material. The test kits contain a set of what are known as primers, which bind to and make copies of the target sequences, and probes, which produce a fluorescent signal when these copies are made, indicating that genetic material from the virus is present.

The primers and probes need to be carefully designed so that they bind to the target sequences and not to each other. In this case, that did not happen. One of the probes in the kit sometimes bound to one of the primers, producing the fluorescent signal and generating a false positive.

“It’s something that should have been caught in the design phase,” said Susan Butler-Wu, a clinical microbiologist at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. “That’s one thing that you check for.”

. . .

The bigger lesson, Dr. Butler-Wu said, is that the responsibility for developing diagnostic tests should be distributed more widely during a public health emergency. Rather than relying on the C.D.C. to be the sole test developer, officials could also enlist clinical and commercial labs to create and deploy tests.

“It’s great that there’s all these additional checks in place, but what are you going to do when there’s a new emerging pathogen and we need to respond quickly?” she said. “I don’t think that’s a viable model for responding to a pandemic.”

For the full story, see:

Emily Anthes. “C.D.C. Finds Design Error In Testing Kits It Distributed.” The New York Times Thursday, December 16, 2021): A22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 15, 2021, and has the title “C.D.C. Virus Tests Were Contaminated and Poorly Designed, Agency Says.”)

The PLOS ONE article mentioned above is:

Lee, Justin S., Jason M. Goldstein, Jonathan L. Moon, Owen Herzegh, Dennis A. Bagarozzi, Jr., M. Steven Oberste, Heather Hughes, Kanwar Bedi, Dorothie Gerard, Brenique Cameron, Christopher Benton, Asiya Chida, Ausaf Ahmad, David J. Petway, Jr., Xiaoling Tang, Nicky Sulaiman, Dawit Teklu, Dhwani Batra, Dakota Howard, Mili Sheth, Wendi Kuhnert, Stephanie R. Bialek, Christina L. Hutson, Jan Pohl, and Darin S. Carroll. “Analysis of the Initial Lot of the CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel.” PLOS ONE 16, no. 12 (Dec. 15, 2021). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0260487.

“Unprecedented” and “Huge” Serendipitous Discovery of 60 Million Icefish Nests

(p. D3) As soon as the remotely operated camera glimpsed the bottom of the Weddell Sea, more than a thousand feet below the icy ceiling at the surface, Lilian Boehringer, a student researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, saw the icefish nests. The sandy craters dimpled the seafloor, each the size of a hula hoop and less than a foot apart. Each crater held a single, stolid icefish, dark pectoral fins outspread like bat wings over a clutch of eggs.

Aptly named icefishes thrive in waters just above freezing with enormous hearts and blood that runs clear as vodka. . . .

The sighting occurred in February 2021 in the camera room aboard a research ship, the Polarstern, which had come to the Weddell Sea to study other things, not icefish. It was 3 a.m. near Antarctica, meaning the sun was out but most of the ship was asleep. To Ms. Boehringer’s surprise, the camera kept transmitting pictures as it moved with the ship, revealing an uninterrupted horizon of icefish nests every 20 seconds.

. . .

The nests persisted for the entire four-hour dive, with a total of 16,160 recorded on camera. After two more dives by the camera, the scientists estimated the colony of Neopagetopsis ionah icefish stretched across 92 square miles of the serene Antarctic sea, totaling 60 million active nests. The researchers described the site — the largest fish breeding colony ever discovered — in a paper published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

“Holy cow,” said C.-H. Christina Cheng, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved with the research. “This is really unprecedented,” she said. “It is crazy dense. It is a major discovery.”

. . .

“The seafloor is not just barren and boring,” Dr. Purser said. “Such huge discoveries are still there to be made, even today in the 21st century.”

For the full story, see:

Sabrina Imbler. “Deep in Frigid Waters, Icefish Colonies Thrive.” The New York Times (Tuesday, January 18, 2022): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 13, 2022, and has the title “‘Major Discovery’ Beneath Antarctic Seas: A Giant Icefish Breeding Colony.”)