Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Radical shift in COVID-19 testing strategy needed to reopen schools and businesses, researchers say

    a researcher organizes biohazard samples

    This fall, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, plans to test all 60,000 students and faculty members multiples times per week.

    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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

    Even as the United States ramped up coronavirus testing from about 100,000 per week in mid-March to more than 5 million per week in late July, the country fell further behind in stemming the spread of the virus. Now, diagnostics experts, public health officials, and epidemiologists are calling for a radical shift in testing strategy: away from diagnosing people who have symptoms or were exposed and toward screening whole populations using faster, cheaper, sometimes less accurate tests. By making it possible to identify and isolate infected individuals more quickly, proponents say, the shift would slow the virus’ spread, key to safely reopening schools, factories, and offices.

    “America faces an impending disaster,” says Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Testing, he says, needs to focus on “massively increasing availability of fast, inexpensive screening tests to identify asymptomatic Americans who carry the virus. Today, we are conducting too few of these types of tests.” Rebecca Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), agrees. To stop outbreaks from overwhelming communities, she says, “we need fast, frequent testing,” which could mean faster versions of existing RNA tests or new kinds of tests aimed at detecting viral proteins. But researchers say the federal government will need to provide major financial backing for the push.

  • Twitter account of embattled #MeTooSTEM founder suspended

    BethAnn McLaughlin

    The Twitterverse responded angrily to alleged deception by #MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin.

    Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

    Twitter has suspended the account of MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin after allegations emerged that the former Vanderbilt University neuroscientist fabricated the Twitter account of an apparently nonexistent female Native American anthropologist at Arizona State University (ASU) who had claimed to be an anonymous victim of sexual harassment by a Harvard professor. McLaughlin announced on 31 July that Alepo, the woman supposedly behind the @Sciencing_Bi account, had died after a COVID-19 infection. The company has also suspended that pseudonymous account.

    A detailed accounting of McLaughlin’s recent actions was published by The episode began when McLaughlin issued a series of tweets on Friday memorializing @Sciencing_Bi, including: “She was a fierce protector of people” and “I wanted to go out there so bad when she went back in the hospital.”

    ​At first, the tweets prompted expressions of sadness and sympathy, including a Zoom memorial service for @Sciencing_Bi on Saturday night, says Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was on that call. The account had claimed @Sciencing_Bi was a victim of sexual harassment by archaeologist Gary Urton at Harvard University. (A number of real women have also made that claim, as Science has reported.) But during the Zoom memorial service, Eisen and several others began to doubt that Alepo was real. After they learned new details about the supposed ASU professor during the service but could not find any evidence of her existence or death—or evidence that anyone on the Zoom call had ever met her—their grief turned to protests of anger and betrayal. Twitter denizens, including Peruvian-Australian sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos and the University of Maine, Orono, climate scientist Jacquelyn Gill, were among many who posted stinging comments; some, in particular, noted how hurtful it was that the account purported to be an Indigenous female scientist who was then said to have died.

  • Groups protest exclusion of HIV-infected people from coronavirus vaccine trials

    A nurse gives a volunteer an injection as the world's biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine

    A volunteer in a new COVID-19 vaccine trial just launched by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health receives her immunization on 27 July.

    AP Photo/Hans Pennink

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

    As large trials get underway to test the vaccines needed to stop the global coronavirus pandemic, one group has realized it is being left out and is not happy: people living with HIV.

    Several companies pursuing a COVID-19 vaccine—including Moderna, which began to give its candidate to volunteers in a planned 30,000-person efficacy trial on Monday—plan to exclude HIV-positive people because of fears their infection would impair an immunization response. But AIDS activists and researchers argue that most HIV-infected people on antiviral treatment don’t have suppressed immune systems and that leaving them out of tests of the experimental vaccines would be wrong.

  • Antiabortion ethicists and scientists dominate Trump’s fetal tissue review board

    Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and U.S. President Donald Trump

    Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (right) is carrying out President Donald Trumps fetal tissue policy.

    REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    Last summer, the Trump administration clamped down on federally funded fetal tissue research by requiring that such projects go through an ethics review by a new advisory board. Research advocates were eager to learn who Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar would appoint to the board and to see its ideological makeup. Today they got their first look as it gathered online for a one-time meeting run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    Although the 1-hour public portion of the meeting was perfunctory—limited to introductions and public comments—it offered a glimpse of the opposition that may greet proposals to work with fetal tissue donated after elective abortions. At least 10 of the 15 members of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board oppose abortion, and several have publicly stated positions against the funding of fetal tissue research.

    “The board is stacked with people who are known to oppose use of tissue from induced abortions, regardless of the scientific necessity and regardless of the fact that using such tissue does not in any way affect whether an abortion will take place,” says R. Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Charo concedes that the board includes “real scientists who understand the research importance of this tissue.” But because it does not need to reach unanimity in order to reject a proposal, their presence “will not stand in the way of a majority dismissing it out of hand.”

  • The pandemic is hitting scientist parents hard, and some solutions may backfire

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    When COVID-19 hit the United Kingdom in March, Michele Veldsman—a postdoc at the University of Oxford—took her 2-year-old daughter out of day care. She and her husband split child care responsibilities so they could each work half days. However, by the time she responded to urgent emails and questions from students in her lab, she had little time left to dive into the data analyses and writing she’d hoped to make progress on. “A lot of the scientific work I’m doing really needs sustained time to be able to focus,” she says—time that was sorely missing.

    Veldsman, a cognitive neuroscientist, also saw lost opportunities for career development. Many of her colleagues participated in virtual conferences, training courses, and journal clubs, but she didn’t have time for anything that didn’t have an immediate deadline. She also postponed collaborations that could bolster her career—she’s currently 4 years into a second postdoc, hoping to land a faculty position. “I really need to be going to the stage of independence,” she says. “Collaborations … show that independence, which I don’t have time to do now.”

    For months, stories such as Veldman’s have flooded social media. “All it takes is 5 minutes on Twitter to see how much people are struggling right now,” says Michelle Cardel, an assistant professor of nutritional science at the University of Florida. But until recently, the reports from scientist parents had been largely anecdotal, she adds.

  • From ‘brain fog’ to heart damage, COVID-19’s lingering problems alarm scientists

    Athena Akrami resting on the couch

    Neuroscientist Athena Akrami has had debilitating symptoms since her coronavirus infection more than 4 months ago.

    Ryan Low

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

    Athena Akrami’s neuroscience lab reopened last month without her. Life for the 38-year-old is a pale shadow of what it was before 17 March, the day she first experienced symptoms of the novel coronavirus. At University College London (UCL), Akrami’s students probe how the brain organizes memories to support learning, but at home, she struggles to think clearly and battles joint and muscle pain. “I used to go to the gym three times a week,” Akrami says. Now, “My physical activity is bed to couch, maybe couch to kitchen.”

    Her early symptoms were textbook for COVID-19: a fever and cough, followed by shortness of breath, chest pain, and extreme fatigue. For weeks, she struggled to heal at home. But rather than ebb with time, Akrami’s symptoms waxed and waned without ever going away. She’s had just 3 weeks since March when her body temperature was normal.

  • Census director dodges legislators’ questions about Trump memo on undocumented residents

    Steven Dillingham wears a mask with the words "2020 Census"

    Steven Dillingham appeared before Congress yesterday wearing a special “2020 census” mask.

    AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

    Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham spent 2 hours yesterday trying not to take sides in a fiercely partisan debate over how the 2020 U.S. census will be used to determine representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. He largely succeeded, but some Democrats worried the nation’s largest statistical agency might pay a high price for his neutrality.

    Dillingham was the star witness at a congressional hearing whose tone was set by its title: Counting Every Person: Safeguarding the 2020 Census Against the Trump administration’s Unconstitutional Attacks. But he demurred when asked repeatedly for his thoughts on a 21 July memo from President Donald Trump that orders the Census Bureau to exclude undocumented residents from its overall tally of each state’s population.

    Democrats hoped Dillingham would agree with them that the memo violated the U.S. Constitution’s requirement to count every resident, regardless of their immigration status. Republicans wanted him to endorse their argument that House seats should be allocated only among those who can influence the political process, by which they meant U.S. citizens. But Dillingham didn’t endorse either stance.

  • An Olympian-turned-scientist helped a $1 million basketball tournament tip off amid COVID-19

    a person sprays disinfectant on a rack of holding basketballs

    A staff member with a high-stakes sports contest known as The Basketball Tournament sprays equipment with disinfectant between play.

    Ben Solomon

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

    It may not be as fraught as the debate over reopening schools, but trying to reboot sports of any type during a pandemic also presents a heady challenge. In Europe, where the coronavirus has mostly subsided, resuming professional sports has been relatively straightforward: Several major professional soccer leagues, including the Bundesliga and the Premier League, have wrapped up seasons with few incidents. But in countries such as the United States, where COVID-19 remains ubiquitous, restarting massive professional sports leagues has been an uphill battle.

    Take Major League Baseball’s (MLB’s) faltering start last week to its abbreviated season. Hours before the league’s first game, one of the star players on the reigning world champion Washington Nationals tested positive for COVID-19 and was pulled from the lineup. Less than 1 week later, MLB games are already being canceled or postponed. On the Miami Marlins, almost half of the players have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

  • ‘Vaccine nationalism’ threatens global plan to distribute COVID-19 shots fairly

    A lab tech works on COVID-19 tests in Kigali, Rwanda

    A lab technician works on COVID-19 tests in Kigali, Rwanda. Health care workers should be first in line for pandemic vaccines, global health experts say.


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

    As soon as the first COVID-19 vaccines get approved, a staggering global need will confront limited supplies. Many health experts say it’s clear who should get the first shots: health care workers around the world, then people at a higher risk of severe disease, then those in areas where the disease is spreading rapidly, and finally, the rest of us. Such a strategy “saves the most lives and slows transmission the fastest,” says Christopher Elias, who heads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Division. “It would be ludicrous if low-risk people in rich countries get the vaccine when health care workers in South Africa don’t,” adds Ellen ‘t Hoen, a Dutch lawyer and public health activist.

    Yet money and national interest may win out. The United States and Europe are placing advance orders for hundreds of millions of doses of successful vaccines, potentially leaving little for poorer parts of the world. “I’m very concerned,” says John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Siberia’s ‘gateway to the underworld’ grows as record heat wave thaws permafrost

    aerial view of the Batagaika Crater

    In half a century, global warming has widened the Batagay megaslump from a small gully to a yawning pit more than 900 meters wide.


    On a spring day in 2019, Alexander Kizyakov rappelled down the 60-meter headwall of the Batagay megaslump in eastern Siberia, pausing to chisel out chunks of ice-rich soil that had been frozen for eons. “One of my hobbies is rock climbing,” says Kizyakov, a permafrost scientist at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Colleagues below sampled the most ancient soil along the base of the cliff. Such work is too dangerous in summertime, when the constant crackling of melting ice is punctuated by groans as slabs of permafrost, some as big as cars, shear off the headwall.

    Known to locals as the “gateway to the underworld,” Batagay is the largest thaw slump on the planet. Once just a gully on a slope logged in the 1960s, the scar has expanded year by year, as the permafrost thaws and meltwater carries off the sediment. Now more than 900 meters wide, it epitomizes the vulnerability of permafrost in the Arctic, where temperatures have shot up twice as fast as the global average over the past 30 years.

    But it is also a time capsule that is seducing scientists with its snapshots of ancient climates and ecosystems. “It’s a mind-blowing place,” says Thomas Opel, a paleoclimatologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute. Dates from ice and soil gathered at Batagay show it holds the oldest exposed permafrost in Eurasia, spanning the past 650,000 years, Opel and colleagues reported in May at the European Geosciences Union’s online general assembly. That record could reveal how permafrost and surface vegetation responded to past warm climates. “It gives us a window into times when permafrost was stable, and times when it was eroding,” Opel says.

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