Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • WHO unexpectedly declines, again, to call Ebola outbreak a global emergency

    women washing their hands on the Uganda DRC border

    A woman at the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda washes her hands with chlorinated water, one of the measures used to stop the spread of Ebola.

    Ronald Kabuubi/AP Photo

    In a controversial decision, the World Health Organization (WHO) has again decided not to declare Africa’s latest Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 1400 people and just crossed into a new country, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). “It was the view of the committee that the outbreak is a health emergency in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] and the region, but it does not meet all [the PHEIC] criteria,” Preben Aavitsland, acting chair of an expert committee convened by WHO, said at a press conference on Friday evening in Geneva, Switzerland.

    The committee gathered for the third time after news emerged this week that the virus had spread from the DRC to neighboring Uganda, so far killing two people there—a 5-year-old boy and his grandmother—who had crossed the border. Many infectious disease experts and public officials had expected, and called for, WHO to declare a PHEIC when Ebola broke out of the DRC. “I’m baffled and deeply troubled by this decision,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., tells ScienceInsider. “The status quo is no longer tenable. It is time to sound a global alert.”

    Gostin and others say declaring a PHEIC would focus global attention on the ongoing health crisis. More than 2400 people have been sickened since the outbreak started in August 2018—the largest outbreak of Ebola other than when it ravaged West Africa 5 years ago. “If I look back to a similar time in West Africa in 2014, prime ministers and presidents were talking about Ebola,” says infectious disease researcher Jeremy Farrar, who runs the Wellcome Trust in London. “Frankly, that has not happened in this outbreak.”

  • NIH should ask both institutions and investigators to report sexual harassment findings, advisory group says

    National Institutes of Health headquarters building
    Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

    To combat sexual harassment in biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should ask grant applicants directly whether they have been found guilty of sexual harassment and require institutions to tell NIH about any such findings, as well as investigations. Those recommendations were released today by a working group advising NIH about how to bolster its policies in this hot-button area.

    The group also urged NIH to help victims of sexual harassment rebuild their careers, and it called for the Bethesda, Maryland–based agency to give trainees more independence from their mentors. NIH Director Francis Collins welcomed the advice. “I’m happy the recommendations are quite bold,” he said after a presentation to his Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). But, he added, much remains to be fleshed out, including what legal constraints the agency faces in following through.

    Mounting concerns about sexual harassment in science have prompted research agencies to examine their policies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) last fall began to require that institutions report when a principal investigator (PI) has been found guilty of sexual harassment. But although NIH has expressed concern, apologized to victims, and added a new way to report allegations, it has held off on new policies—instead appointing a working group in February to explore possible changes.

  • Russian geneticist answers challenges to his plan to make gene-edited babies

    In vitro fertilization

    A Russian biologist wants to use the in vitro fertilization clinic he works at to create more gene-edited babies.

    CC STUDIO/Science Source

    In a bold rejection of the widespread sentiment—and regulations in many countries—that no one should alter the genome of a human embryo and transfer it to a woman, Russian geneticist Denis Rebrikov last week went public with his plans to become the second researcher to cross this red line. “We can’t stop progress with words on paper,” Rebrikov told ScienceInsider yesterday, when asked about international efforts to ban such research.

    Rebrikov, who is at the Kulakov National Medical Research Center of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology in Moscow, does not yet have Russian approval to do the experiment. But, as Nature first reported on 10 June, he would like to use the genome editor CRISPR to modify the CCR5 gene in embryos so they would be highly resistant to infection with HIV.

    This is the strategy that Chinese researcher He Jiankui attempted in a widely condemned experiment that led to the birth of twin girls. Jiankui, who did not publicly discuss his trial until news stories revealed details of it in November 2018, triggered an international push to step up oversight of human embryo studies that create heritable, DNA changes. Concerns about this so-called “germline editing” have led some prominent scientists to call for a moratorium. An expert committee at the World Health Organization and, separately, an international commission organized by academies of sciences have been convened to wrestle with the thorny question about how to create a framework that will responsibly move germline editing from the lab to the clinic.

  • Brazilian government accused of suppressing data that would call its war on drugs into question

    two Brazilian soldiers on patrol

    Brazilian soldiers conduct an operation against drug traffickers in a favela in Rio de Janeiro.


    SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—Is Brazil experiencing a drug epidemic? The answer to that question has spiraled into a legal battle between scientists and government officials over the release of a national drug use survey done by the renowned Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Researchers familiar with the study accuse government officials of suppressing publication of the survey because it contradicts a political assertion that drug abuse is a growing and widespread problem in Brazil.

    Commissioned in 2014 by the National Secretariat for Drug Policies (SENAD), the third National Survey on Drug Use by the Brazilian Population interviewed 16,000 people in more than 350 cities about their consumption of legal and illegal substances. FIOCRUZ concluded the study in late 2017, but SENAD never authorized public release of the results, leaving scientists and public health officials in the dark about the current landscape of substance abuse in Brazil. The previous national survey is from 2005. SENAD’s official justification for withholding the data is that FIOCRUZ didn’t follow the sampling methodology specified in the funding call, making the results incomparable with previous surveys—a claim that FIOCRUZ strongly contests.

    The dispute started during the administration of Brazil’s previous, very conservative president, Michel Temer, and has continued under current, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, a fierce defender of the “war on drugs” and the criminalization of drug use.

  • House Democrats move to block part of Trump’s fetal tissue policy

    Dome of the U.S. Capitol, with an American flag in front of it.
    Shawn Clover/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives moved today to block part of President Donald Trump’s recent policy to restrict federal funding for studies that use human fetal tissue donated after elective abortions. But their effort faces an uncertain road ahead.

    On a largely party line vote, lawmakers voted 225 to 193 in favor of an amendment to a 2020 spending bill that would bar the Trump administration from convening ethics advisory boards to review grant applications at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for studies that use fetal tissue. Three Democrats and all Republicans voted against the amendment.

    The Trump administration’s new policy, released 5 June, includes a requirement that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convene a 14- to 20-member ethics advisory board to review each and every NIH application that has been found worthy of funding by reviewers and involves human fetal tissue from elective abortions. The board would have up to 5 months to make a funding recommendation to the HHS secretary, who can accept or reject the advice.

  • University of California CRISPR researchers form drug discovery alliance with pharma giant


    A new university-pharma alliance will use the genome editor CRISPR (red) to edit DNA (blue and yellow strands) in order to identify drug targets.


    Top CRISPR researchers at two University of California (UC) campuses have teamed up with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to form a new laboratory in San Francisco that will exploit the genome editor to screen for new drugs.

    Drawing on a GSK commitment of $67 million over 5 years, UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the powerful CRISPR tool, and UC San Francisco’s Jonathan Weissman will select the academic talent to work in the new Laboratory for Genomics Research (LGR). “This is really, for us as academics, kind of a dream come true,” Doudna says.

    Although Doudna has already co-founded two CRISPR-related companies and co-runs the Innovative Genomics Institute with Weissman, she says the LGR “takes the not very interesting parts of the screening efforts out of the picture.” A friend who visited her lab a few years ago described it as “artisanal,” she recalls and wondered why they weren’t using more automation. “It was a nice way of saying that it seems really fusty,” Doudna says. She hopes the LGR will allow them to use “genome editing and CRISPR, in particular, as a tool to understand the causes of disease in a way that had really never been possible in the past.”

  • Nearly one in five NIH employees say they experienced gender harassment in the past year

    The National Institutes of Health Building
    National Cancer Institute

    Nearly one in five employees of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) who responded to a recent survey say they experienced gender harassment while at work during the previous 12 months, according to an interim report the biomedical agency has just posted online. A large number also reported being targets of unwelcome sexual attention. The survey, which elicited responses from about 16,000 NIH employees, was conducted between January and March.

    The Interim Executive Report on the NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey will be presented and discussed at tomorrow’s semiannual meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH, Francis Collins. The final analysis of the survey data, the most ambitious of its kind that the agency has conducted, isn’t expected until late this year at the earliest.

    The report is part of a larger NIH effort to address sexual harassment and other forms of harassment both on its Bethesda, Maryland, campus and among its thousands of university-based grantees.

  • Keep Landsat data free, panel urges Department of the Interior

    aerial picture of snow melt in Kluane National Park

    This false-color photo taken by Landsat-8 on 26 July 2018 captured the rapid development of a “snow swamp” at Kluane National Park in Canada’s Yukon territory.

    Joshua Stevens/U.S. Geological Survey/European Space Agency/NASA

    A federal advisory panel today called on the Department of the Interior (DOI) to keep access to the imagery from its long-running Landsat satellite program free and open. Any effort to collect fees for such data would generate little money and would actively damage the U.S. remote sensing industry, the panel said in a report.

    The Landsat program, which began in 1972 and is managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has produced the world’s longest-running series of satellite images, documenting the vast global changes caused by humanity over the past 47 years. Two Landsat satellites are now in orbit, taking 1200 images a day at a 30-meter resolution. In 2008, USGS stopped charging for use of Landsat images, creating a surge of academic research, along with users in government and industry. The move created about $2 billion in annual economic benefits, according to estimates from earlier this decade. The Landsat annual budget, meanwhile, is about $80 million.

    In 2017, DOI asked its National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) to evaluate the possibility of once again imposing charges for using Landsat data, among other approaches to raising revenue. The move, when reported last year, was met with an outcry from scientists in the United States and abroad, along with federal and state agencies and nonprofits running a diverse range from the Wyoming state engineer to the Global Forest Observations Initiative. “The community was very vocal regarding the value of a free and open data policy,” said Frank Avila, a remote-sensing scientist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Virginia, who leads the NGAC subcommittee that authored the report approved today.

  • Emory scientist was told to vacate his office. He says move is reprisal for activism on Asian ties

    campus of Emory University

    The Emory University campus in Atlanta

    A tenured professor of anesthesiology at Emory University in Atlanta says he is being targeted by school administrators because of a letter he and other faculty members sent its president urging her to defend foreign scientists on campus and the value of international collaborations.

    Shan Ping Yu says his department chair told him on 31 May that he must vacate his office by the end of June. Officials said nothing about finding him another office on campus, Yu says, adding that he was told at a follow-up meeting that “if I don’t move out, they will send people to do it.”

    In an 11 June email after that second meeting, the dean of Emory’s medical school, Vikas Sukhatme, told Yu that “your lab space is being adjusted” but wrote that the decision “was in no way influenced by either the letter you signed or your own ethnicity or nationality.” The letter did not mention the plan to take away Yu’s office, which he shares with three students and a postdoc working in his lab.

  • Ebola makes much-feared jump into Uganda

    health workers screening people

    Despite surveillance efforts like these at the border of the two countries, Ebola has jumped from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Uganda.

    Matt Taylor/World Health Organization

    Update (12 June, 2019, 2 P.M.: The young boy has died and two of his relatives have been diagnosed with Ebola as well.)

    The Ebola virus that has stubbornly lingered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since August 2018 has finally jumped the border, sickening a 5-year-old boy in Uganda. The Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe confirmed the infection, which the World Health Organization (WHO) announced this afternoon.

    WHO has long feared that the lingering Ebola outbreak in the DRC, which has sickened more than 2000 people there and killed about two-thirds of the identified cases, would spread to neighboring countries. Health care workers have widely deployed an effective Ebola vaccine in the affected DRC areas and intensively worked to contain cases, but their response has repeatedly been hampered by violence from the many insurgency groups, including attacks on health care workers and facilities.

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