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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • ‘Every minute counts.’ This immunologist rapidly reshaped her lab to tackle COVID-19

    Akiko Iwasaki illustration

    “Having to adapt to different situations throughout my life prepared me [for] a different virus,” says Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University.

    KATTY HUERTAS

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Until this year, Akiko Iwasaki had never had tubes of human blood delivered to her lab. “We were mostly working with mouse models,” says the Yale University immunologist, who speaks precisely and thoughtfully. “We used to look at the data and contemplate it.” Then COVID-19 struck, and such unhurried musings flew out the window. In a matter of weeks, Iwasaki overhauled her research to launch a slew of studies on how the new virus, SARS-CoV-2, takes its toll on patients. She and her nearly two dozen lab members know their discoveries could impact people falling sick right now. “Every minute counts.”

    In the months since, she has produced a string of high-profile papers in which she has redirected her expertise in the immune system, honed in mice, to questions such as why men are more likely than women to fare poorly if infected and how immune responses in hospitalized patients can help predict their prognosis. Now, she is turning her attention to long-haulers, people who suffer a bout with the virus and don’t fully recover.

  • As U.S. election nears, researchers are following the trail of fake news

    conceptual illustration of wifi signal, online use, and pinocchio lying nose
    SÉBASTIEN THIBAULT

    It started with a tweet from a conservative media personality, accompanied by photos, claiming that more than 1000 mail-in ballots had been discovered in a dumpster in Sonoma county in California. Within hours on the morning of 25 September, a popular far-right news website ran the photos with an “exclusive” story suggesting thousands of uncounted ballots had been dumped by the county and workers had tried to cover it up.

    In fact, according to Sonoma county officals, the photos showed empty envelopes from the 2018 election that had been gathered for recycling. Ballots for this year’s general election had not yet been mailed. Even so, within a single day, more than 25,000 Twitter users had shared a version of the false ballot-dumping story, including Donald Trump Jr., who has 5.7 million followers.

    This election season, understanding how misinformation—and intentionally propagated disinformation—spreads has become a major goal of some social scientists. They are using a variety of approaches, including ethnographic research and quantitative analyses of internet-based social networks, to investigate where election disinformation originates, who spreads it, and how many people see it. Some are helping media firms figure out ways to block it, while others are probing how it might influence voting patterns.

  • ‘There’s only one chance to do this right’—FDA panel wrestles with COVID-19 vaccine issues

    A patient receives an injection in their upper arm.

    This COVID-19 vaccine trial in Florida and others could be disrupted if the Food and Drug Administration authorizes one vaccine before others.

    Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Concerns raised yesterday by an advisory group to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may once again tap the brakes on Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government’s $10.8 billion push to rapidly move candidate COVID-19 vaccines from concept to communities.

    As new U.S. cases of the pandemic coronavirus set a daily high of more than 75,000, FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) held a 9-hour virtual meeting to discuss a regulatory pathway that could permit the widescale use of a COVID-19 vaccine that has only minimal evidence of safety and efficacy. A so-called emergency use authorization (EUA) could use preliminary data from vaccine efficacy trials now underway to shave many months off the standard approval process, and FDA wanted VRBPAC to weigh in about the wisdom of taking this shortcut. The hearing, live-streamed on YouTube, drew intense interest, and some of the committee members—a mix of academics, consumer representatives, and government scientists—had an unsettling but clear message to FDA: Hold your horses.

  • U.S. cities struggling to meet lofty climate goals

    Tuscon, Arizona

    Tuscon, Arizona, has seen greenhouse gas emissions grow by 39% since 1990, the biggest increase among the 100 largest U.S. cities, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.

    toddtaulman/iStock

    Originally published in E&E News

    Most major U.S. cities that have signed on to the climate fight with pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions are failing to meet their goals or haven't even started to track local progress, according to a survey by the Brookings Institution.

    The report, "Pledges and Progress," looked for climate policy and actions in the nation's 100 most populous cities, finding that two-thirds have made commitments to address citywide emissions.

  • Troubles escalate at Ecuador’s dream research university

    Campus of Yachay Tech in Ecuador

    Yachay Tech University, launched in 2014, drew faculty from around the world to its brand new campus.

    MEDIOS PÚBLICOS EP/FLICKR CC BY-SA

    It was supposed to become Ecuador’s dream research university—an international hub for science and higher education, able to recruit top talent from around the world. Instead, 6-year-old Yachay Tech University, nestled in the mountains 2 hours north of Quito, has long been mired in conflicts. Now, Ecuador’s economic woes and shifting politics have stirred new turmoil that threatens the university’s drive for “independent” status, which would allow it to run its own affairs.

    The past year, dozens of professors were fired or left because of salary reductions or alleged mistreatment, and those who remain have had to work extra shifts. The departures have left students struggling to enroll in courses or find thesis advisers, they say. On 13 October, Ecuador’s Higher Education Council (CES) ordered the university to file a “clear and accurate report” within 10 days answering complaints and inquiries from two professors and a group of students. They allege the university’s administration has violated professors’ rights and made long-term decisions with little transparency.

    The turmoil—which follows a previous spate of firings in 2017—comes at a sensitive time. In Ecuador, new universities are established by the government but must go through a process called institutionalization, which includes awarding tenure to some faculty and democratically electing university leadership. Given the current chaos, Yachay Tech will almost certainly miss the 31 December deadline for doing so, sources say.

  • Strict biodiversity laws prevent Indian scientists from sharing new microbes with the world

    Electron microscopy photo of Klebsiella indica bacteria

    Klebsiella indica, isolated from the surface of a tomato, is one of the few microbial species reported by Indian researchers this year.

    National Centre for Cell Science

    Praveen Rahi spent the better part of the past 3 years identifying and describing a new species of a nitrogen-fixing bacteria he discovered on peas cultivated in the mountains of northern India. But it could take years for Rahi, a microbial ecologist at India’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), to get the new species validated and officially named—if he doesn’t get scooped.

    Syed Dastager, a microbiologist at the country’s National Chemical Laboratory, faces a similar problem. He says he has discovered 30 new microbial species over the past several years, but they all sit in his laboratory freezer, unknown to the world, because he can’t publish about them.

    These scientists, like many others, are caught in a strange bureaucratic limbo between India’s stringent biodiversity protection laws and the rules of the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes (ICSP), which validates newly discovered microbes. “As a country, we now face the prospect of losing the claim to document bacterial diversity from India,” Yogesh Shouche, a microbial taxonomist at NCCS, wrote in an editorial in Current Science last month that called attention to the problem.

  • U.S. climate report moves ahead after complaints about delays

    White House at night
    JTSorrell/iStock.com

    Originally published by E&E News

    President Donald Trump’s administration has quietly restarted the National Climate Assessment after public outcry over its delay.

    A key step in the progress of the National Climate Assessment—the solicitation for authors to work on the project—was delayed for months, E&E News has reported (Climatewire, 5 October). After public outcry, NASA restarted the process, publishing a Federal Register notice Thursday on behalf of the U.S. Global Change Research Program that it was seeking lead authors and researchers for the assessment.

  • Stem cell research, clinical use of ‘magic mushrooms’ among issues on state ballots this year

    Voters in line in Fairfax VA

    Voters lined up last month in Fairfax, Virginia, to cast their ballots in this year’s elections.

    SARAH SILBIGER/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

    Election Day is 3 November, but U.S. voters have already started to mail in or drop off their ballots. In addition to selecting candidates for local, state, and federal positions, voters in many states will be weighing in on more than 100 initiatives and referenda.

    The measures often deal with mundane financial matters. But voters will also get to vote on a number of hot-button issues, including marijuana legalization, abortion, and health care.

    There are also a few science-related initiatives that the research community is watching. Here are examples from four states: California, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada.

  • In new strategy, Wellcome Trust will take on global health challenges

    The Wellcome Trust headquarters

    With an endowment worth £28 billion, the Wellcome Trust is taking on goal-oriented global health challenges.

    Arcaid Images/Alamy Stock Photo

    One of the world’s largest nongovernmental funders of science, the Wellcome Trust, is enlarging its focus to include goal-oriented, as well as basic research. The London-based philanthropy, which spends more than £1 billion per year, said today it will boost funding for research on infectious diseases, the health effects of global warming, and mental health. The new strategy moves it closer to philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on public health challenges around the world. “It’s a big shift,” says Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who leads the charity. “It’s not just about discovering stuff, it’s also about making sure that changes come to peoples’ lives.”

    Wellcome already supports significant research in infectious disease. But outbreaks are “becoming larger, more frequent, and more complex,” a Wellcome spokesperson says, and so it will spend more money on researching neglected tropical diseases and pushing for “clinical trials with greater participant diversity.” It also hopes to make an impact in new areas. The spokesperson argues that there has been “little scientific progress in 30 years” on mental health or on the health impacts of global warming, which include the spread of infectious diseases and heat-related sickness and death.

    Adding mental health is a particularly big step, says Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at the University of Edinburgh who receives some funding from Wellcome and who consulted on a review that led to the new strategy. “We haven’t really seen a charity take on the mental health agenda,” she says. 

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