ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Ebola outbreak still accelerating

    Health workers take blood samples for Ebola virus testing at a hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, in June.

    Health workers take blood samples for Ebola virus testing at a hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, in June.

    REUTERS/Tommy Trenchard

    The Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa is still picking up speed, according to new case and fatality numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO) today. More than 3069 cases have been reported, and at least 1552 had died as of 26 August—but the real numbers may be two to four times higher, the agency says. WHO now says that the outbreak will likely continue for at least 6 to 9 more months, and as many as 20,000 people could ultimately be infected. A “road map” for bringing the situation under control estimates the cost at $490 million. That includes, for example, nearly 8000 personnel in Liberia alone to staff isolation and treatment centers, trace contacts, safely bury the dead, and coordinate logistics. The budget estimate includes $6 million for safe burials of up to 13,500 victims.

    More than 40% of the total cases have been identified in the last 3 weeks, WHO says—a clear sign that the epidemic is gathering speed instead of declining. In Liberia, where Ebola is spreading in densely populated Monrovia, there are at least 694 cases, an increase of 296 since the last report from 20 August. There are also new cases in Nigeria, where a traveler from Liberia infected medical personnel and other contacts. The new cases are connected to a diplomat who eluded official surveillance and traveled to Port Harcourt, where he sought medical treatment. The diplomat recovered, but the doctor who treated him died, and 70 contacts of the patient and the doctor are now under surveillance. So far at least 17 people have been infected in Nigeria, six of whom have died.

  • Japan's budget proposals bode well for science

    The Thirty Meter Telescope is one science project that does well in Japan’s new budget request.

    The Thirty Meter Telescope is one science project that does well in Japan’s new budget request.

    TMT Observatory Corporation

    TOKYO—Japan's ministry of education gave the country's researchers something to cheer about today, announcing it was asking for a healthy 18% increase, to $11.1 billion, for science and technology spending in its proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

    "At least part of the increase is due to [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's] administration's support for innovation," says Yoshiaki Ando, an official with the ministry's research promotion bureau.

    The requested increase in spending goes virtually across the board. But in line with the innovation mantra, the proposal calls for a 53% increase, to $494 million, for a collection of new and continuing programs intended to help turn laboratory discoveries into new products and industries. 

  • Dengue emerges in Japan for first time in decades

    The Aedes aegypti mosquito (shown), which is not found in Japan, is dengue's principal vector.

    The Aedes aegypti mosquito (shown), which is not found in Japan, is dengue's principal vector.

    James Gathany/Wikimedia Commons

    TOKYO—After reporting the country's first domestically acquired case of dengue fever in nearly 70 years yesterday, Japan's health ministry today confirmed finding two more patients. The initial patient, a girl in her teens, had a sudden onset of high fever on 20 August and was hospitalized in Saitama City, near Tokyo. Hospital staff, suspecting dengue, on 26 August sent blood samples to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Tokyo, which confirmed the diagnosis.

    An epidemiological investigation turned up two more patients. All three are students at the same school in Tokyo and are members of a dance group that regularly practices in a city park, leading the ministry to conclude that students were infected in the park.

  • Update: U.S. pathogen inventory request won't include research pause

    Anthrax bacteria

    CDC

    In the wake of several high-profile laboratory safety incidents involving smallpox, anthrax, and dangerous flu strains, the U.S. government will ask federally funded laboratories to inventory pathogens and review safety practices. But officials will not ask labs to suspend research for any specific period of time, or focus only on studies involving "high-consequence" pathogens, a source familiar with the matter tells ScienceInsider.

    Earlier today, a memo distributed by groups that represent research universities reported that White House officials would call for a 24-hour pause in government-funded research involving the most dangerous agents. The memo was based on conversations between officials from the university groups and officials within the Obama administration, the memo said.

    But some of the memo is incorrect, the source says. The request, which will come from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Security Council, will not use the word “suspend,” the source says. In addition, it will cover studies involving any kind of pathogen, not just the most dangerous agents. It will ask for an inventory and scrutiny of safety practices. The idea, the source says, is to provide flexibility and acknowledge that researchers know best how to address biosafety issues within their labs.

  • Know where your anthrax is? U.S. to ask labs to pause risky research for pathogen inventory

    Anthrax bacteria

    Anthrax bacteria

    CDC

    In the wake of several high-profile laboratory safety incidents involving smallpox, anthrax, and dangerous flu strains, the U.S. government is planning to ask federally funded laboratories to pause all work involving “high-consequence” pathogens for 24 hours in order to inventory stocks, according to groups that represent research universities. (Update, 27 August: This is partly incorrect, a source familiar with the matter informed ScienceInsider after this story had been posted; click here for an update.)

    “Essentially, what the government will request is a short term on the order of 24 hours suspension of research involving high-consequence pathogens in order to allow institutional lab personnel to take stock of what pathogens they have stored in freezers, cold rooms, etc.,” reads a memo distributed to universities today and signed by Carol Blum of the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR) in Washington, D.C.

    Also, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that September will be “National Biosafety Stewardship Month.”

    The stand-down directive is expected to come soon from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the memo states, and be delivered to labs through funding agencies. The exact language of the OSTP memo is not yet known. Several agencies, including the Department of Veteran Affairs, appear to have already begun the process. 

  • WHO reports Ebola deaths in DRC

    Bushmeat can spread the Ebola virus.

    Bushmeat can spread the Ebola virus.

    Wikiseal/Wikimedia Commons

    International aid organizations, already stretched to the limit by the biggest Ebola outbreak on record, are facing a second, probably unrelated cluster of cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). DRC’s Ministry of Health yesterday notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the outbreak in the north of the country. It said 13 of the 24 people suspected to have contracted Ebola have died.

    “At this time, it is believed that the outbreak in DRC is unrelated to the ongoing outbreak in West Africa,” says a WHO statement issued today. None of the patients had traveled to the regions in West Africa where Ebola is now spreading or had contact with persons from those regions. Early results from a lab in DRC also indicate that the disease was not caused by Ebola-Zaire, the virus species causing the outbreak in West Africa. Since December, Ebola-Zaire has sickened at least 2615 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria and killed 1427 them. It is the biggest Ebola outbreak on record.

    While that outbreak is the first in that region, the new outbreak in DRC comes in a region more used to dealing with the virus. “This is the country that has the most experience of dealing with the virus and that gives me some hope,” says Stephan Günther, a virologist at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, who is currently working in a mobile lab in Nigeria. DRC (formerly Zaire) has seen seven outbreaks including the first one on record in 1976.

  • In Japan, official effort to replicate STAP stem cells comes up empty

    RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori announced plans to restructure the institute at the center of a stem cell controversy.

    RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori announced plans to restructure the institute at the center of a stem cell controversy.

    Dennis Normile/Science

    TOKYO—A team of researchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, reported today that they have been unable to reproduce a simple method of creating stem cells that was reported in two Nature papers by CDB scientists earlier this year. "But these are just interim results, not a final conclusion,” said Shinichi Aizawa, a RIKEN developmental biologist, at a press conference.

    RIKEN, which operates a network of nationally funded research institutes, also announced today that CDB will be downsized, renamed, and relaunched in November under new management. 

    In two papers, published online in Nature on 29 January, CDB's Haruko Obokata and others reported that simply subjecting mature mouse cells to a mild acid bath could produce stem cells, which are capable of developing into all the cell types in a body. Stem cells are likely to be at the heart of a wide range of future medical treatments. The stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) method, as the researchers named it, was far simpler than all other known methods of creating stem cells. Co-authors of the paper include researchers at CDB, at other institutions in Japan, and at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

  • As Iceland volcano rumbles, scientists plan for aviation alerts

    Nicarnica Aviation successfully tested its airborne ash detection system (inset), mounted on an Airbus A340 airplane, last October. The sensor identified silicate particles in volcanic ash released over France’s Bay of Biscay from 60 kilometers away, enou

    Nicarnica Aviation successfully tested its airborne ash detection system (inset), mounted on an Airbus A340 airplane, last October. The sensor identified silicate particles in volcanic ash released over France’s Bay of Biscay from 60 kilometers awa

    Nicarnica Aviation/P. Masclet

    Iceland's Bárðarbunga volcano, buried under the giant Vatnajökull glacier, has been holding scientists in suspense over the last 2 weeks, producing frequent seismic rumbles but no signs yet of an actual eruption. But scientists at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) in Reykjavík are now seasoned by back-to-back eruptions at Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Grímsvötn in 2011 that produced large ash clouds and caused costly air traffic snarls.

  • Time to focus on committed, not current, carbon emissions, study argues

    Existing energy infrastructure, such as this coal-fired power plant in Texas, will be emitting greenhouse gases for decades to come.

    Existing energy infrastructure, such as this coal-fired power plant in Texas, will be emitting greenhouse gases for decades to come.

    Wikimedia

    When it comes to thinking about greenhouse gases, scientists and policymakers often focus on annual carbon emissions. They are missing a more important fundamental measure, however, a new study argues. Tracking how much energy infrastructure we’ve already built and tallying the emissions it is likely to produce—so-called committed emissions—is a better way to illuminate the global climate challenge, a research team writes today in Environmental Research Letters.

    By their tally, committed emissions—the carbon emissions expected if existing energy infrastructure, such as coal-fired power plants, runs for its forecasted lifetime—have nearly tripled since 1980. In that year, the study says, carbon emissions from new and existing power infrastructure were 107 billion tons. In 2012, the total rose to 307 billion tons, assuming existing plants keep running for a 40-year lifetime. China has played a dominant role in the growth: That nation’s infrastructure accounted for a whopping 42% of global committed emissions as of 2012.

    The paper's first author, energy scientist Steven Davis of the University of California, Irvine, co-authored an earlier paper in 2010 that quantified the committed emissions from infrastructure that existed in a single previous year, 2009. The new analysis, built off data from existing commercial and government databases, shows how committed emissions have shifted as nations have added new infrastructure and retired old facilities.

  • Is ecology explaining less and less?

    The world is complicated: Diagram illustrating ecological linkages in a coral reef ecosystem.

    The world is complicated: Diagram illustrating ecological linkages in a coral reef ecosystem.

    National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Ecologists are testing more and more hypotheses, but their studies are explaining less of the world. That’s the striking conclusion of a new study that analyzes 8 decades of research papers. What exactly is driving these trends isn’t clear, but researchers fear it could undermine confidence in ecological research.

    Since it gained momentum as a formal field of study in the 1800s, ecology has focused on understanding interactions among organisms and their environments. Ecologists have made major contributions to shaping modern views of how the natural world works, from documenting competition and cooperation in nature to clarifying the valuable services that ecosystems can provide to humans, such as purifying water or buffering storms and floods. As in many sciences, however, the field has become less descriptive and more quantitative as it matured.

    The idea for the new study came during a lab retreat by graduate students at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Many felt frustrated. When students submitted research papers to journals, they were always asked by reviewers to provide more P values, a measure of statistical confidence that a result is not due to chance.  “Our supervisors said, ‘It wasn’t always like this,’ ” recalls ecologist Etienne Low-Décarie, who is now at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. 

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