Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • After criticism, federal officials to revisit policy for reviewing risky virus experiments

    H5N1 avian influenza virus particles

    Some scientists are calling for more transparency about government reviews of research that could make the H5N1 influenza virus more risky to humans.

    NIBSC/Science Source

    A long-running debate over U.S. government-funded research that tweaks risky pathogens in ways that could make them more dangerous to humans is flaring up again. This time, at issue is whether officials should make public the work of a closed-door federal committee that weighs the risks and benefits of experiments proposed for funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and in the past 2 years has greenlighted two controversial avian influenza studies.

    That panel should make public the names of its members, as well as the reviews it writes, some scientists argued yesterday at a 2-day meeting of an expert panel that advises the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But doing so could breach NIH’s confidentiality rules for grant reviews, U.S. officials noted.

    HHS and NIH officials, however, say they are open to some change to the review process, noting that the current emergence of a new virus in China underscores the importance of a smooth process for approving such studies. “If [the policy] needs to be fixed, we’ll fix it,” said Christian Hassell, senior science adviser to the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

  • Industry says voluntary plan to curb antibiotic pollution is working, but critics want regulation

    antibiotic capsule pills in blister packs

    Manufacturing facilities that produce antibiotics can release the compounds into nearby waterways.


    Two years into its work, a voluntary, industry-led effort to reduce pollution from antibiotic manufacturing facilities is drawing mixed reviews from outside analysts. A new report from a pharmaceutical industry group says it is making substantial progress toward curbing leaks of antibiotic compounds into the environment. But critics say the report highlights the need for governments to enact binding rules.

    Studies have found that many antibiotic manufacturing facilities release the compounds they are making into the environment, often via wastewater, contributing to the deadly problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). (Overuse and improper disposal of drugs also contribute to AMR.) In 2017, after global leaders committed to tackling AMR, more than 100 drug companies and industry associations formed a group—the AMR Industry Alliance—in part to police manufacturing discharges. Alliance members account for roughly one-third of the world’s antibiotic sales.

    Since then, the alliance has developed an industry framework for improving antibiotic manufacturing and has set voluntary targets for safe levels of antibiotics in the environment—known as predicted no-effect concentrations (PNECs). In a progress report released last week, the alliance said nearly 15 of the 18 member companies that manufacture antibiotics have assessed their production sites; 82% reported meeting, wholly or in part, the framework standards, which include a commitment to end discharges of untreated wastewater. Just over half of all the products made at sites owned by the 18 companies will meet the PNEC targets in 3 years, and 88% of products will meet the targets in 7 years, the report says.

  • Doomsday Clock is reset to 100 seconds until midnight, closest ever

    Uncovering of new time on the Doomsday Clock

    Former California Governor Jerry Brown (left), former Irish President Mary Robinson (middle), and former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reveal the 2020 Doomsday Clock.

    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    Information warfare and a looming space arms race are among the emerging threats that led a group of scientists today to reset their iconic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been since the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started the annual exercise in 1947. Midnight on the clock marks the symbolic moment when humankind could annihilate itself.

    A failure to confront nuclear tensions and climate change also influenced the decision to advance the clock 20 seconds from last year’s position, members of the group announced at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

    “Wake up, America! Wake up, world!” exhorted Jerry Brown, former governor of California, who became executive chair of the Bulletin in 2018. “We have to do more. … But we’re not there [to midnight] yet. We can still pull back from the brink.”

  • WHO says no need—yet—to declare spread of novel virus is an international emergency

    A Chinese couple wearing protective masks while kissing

    Amid travel restrictions and canceled public gatherings, millions of Chinese people, like this couple at a Beijing rail station, are now traveling to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

    Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

    Because a novel coronavirus has spread throughout China and jumped to a dozen other countries, the world is on red alert. But the World Health Organization (WHO) today, to the surprise of many global health experts, decided the outbreak does not merit the loudest siren it can sound, a declaration called a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). “It has not yet become a global health emergency,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference in Geneva this evening. “It may yet become one.”

    The decision by Tedros reflected a recommendation from an emergency committee, which over the past 2 days carefully reviewed information about the outbreak. The committee expected to issue a recommendation yesterday but it was so evenly divided on whether to declare a PHEIC that it requested this second day to review the most current data. Today, its chair, Didier Houssin, said opinions remained split. Those against a PHEIC declaration, Houssin said, contended that too few cases have surfaced outside of China—nine of 584 confirmed infections—and also rejected the declaration “because of the efforts presently made by Chinese authorities in order to contain the disease.”

    According to an update that Chinese health officials gave to the emergency committee, 25% of the cases to date have had life-threatening disease and 17 people have died. But critical questions still remain about the severity of the infection with what’s now dubbed 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Researchers suspect that 2019-nCoV jumped from an animal to a human, but no animal source has been identified. Tedros also stressed that human-to-human transmission has occurred, but only within China.

  • NASA infrared telescope says goodbye after 16-year run

    infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy

    The Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the stars in the swirling core of our Milky Way Galaxy that would otherwise be blocked by surrounding dust. Old, cool stars are colored blue, dust lit up by hot stars appears red, and the central bright patch holds a supermassive black hole.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy/Spitzer Science Center

    The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, considered one of NASA’s four “great observatories,” will be switched off on 31 January after a 16-year career. It probed some of the earliest galaxies ever seen, charted how they evolved and formed stars, and picked apart the constituents of exoplanet atmospheres. And in a late tour-de-force, it discovered a clutch of Earth-size planets around a nearby star. “It’s going out on a high note, producing great science to the end,” says Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, who worked on the mission for 20 years and now directs the Las Cumbres Observatory.

    Spitzer is sensitive to infrared light, the photons emitted by the glow of warm objects. Stars do not dominate in Spitzer images. Instead, the telescope sees the glow of galaxies and the clouds of gas that coalesce into stars. It is also suited to finding the universe’s most distant objects, those whose light has been stretched to infrared wavelengths by the expansion of the universe. Earth’s atmosphere blocks most infrared light, so space telescopes are essential. A couple of infrared satellites preceded it, but Spitzer had the biggest mirror (85 centimeters), more sophisticated instruments, and state-of-the-art infrared sensors.

    It didn’t have an easy journey into orbit, however. Originally, the Space Shuttle was supposed to carry it aloft for monthlong observing campaigns, before the 1986 Challenger disaster prompted a rethink. After several redesigns, it was finally launched in 2003 on a Delta II rocket. It was the last of the great observatories to launch, following the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory.

  • U.S. geoengineering research gets a lift with $4 million from Congress

    A U.S. Senate spending panel wants the Department of Energy to study ways of increasing the amount of sunlight reflected from Earth, in order to combat global warming.
    NASA/ISS Crew/Johnson Space Center

    Originally published by E&E News

    BOULDER, COLORADO—The top climate change scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said he has received $4 million from Congress and permission from his agency to study two emergency—and controversial—methods to cool the Earth if the U.S. and other nations fail to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

    David Fahey, director of the Chemical Sciences Division of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, told his staff yesterday that the federal government is ready to examine the science behind "geoengineering"—or what he dubbed a "Plan B" for climate change.

  • WHO panel puts off decision on whether to sound alarm on rapid spread of new virus

    Travelers wear protective masks while waiting for transport

    Many travelers wore protective face masks at Shanghai’s high-speed railway station today. Hundreds of millions of people are traveling this week to attend Lunar New Year celebrations.

    Bloomberg/Getty Images

    An emergency committee for the World Health Organization (WHO) today had a tie vote on whether to recommend sounding the loudest alarm available in response to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus that has spread from Wuhan, China, throughout that nation and to at least four other countries.

    At a late evening press conference in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chair of the committee, and other WHO officials explained that half the committee decided there were still too many unknowns to a declare Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a designation that can affect travel and the movement of goods. The decision came hours after Wuhan authorities revealed that the city will shut down all transportation from the city of 11 million people on 10 a.m. local time on Thursday.

    Didier Houssin, an adviser to France’s top health agency and chair of the committee, said half the committee still had questions about whether the patterns of transmission of the disease and its severity warranted a PHEIC. “The committee felt it was a little too unprecise to very clearly state that it was time” to recommend declaring a PHEIC, Houssin said. The committee, which advises WHO’s director-general, will meet again tomorrow to review whether fresh data tip the scales one way or another.

  • WHO warning on vaping draws harsh response from U.K. researchers

    close up of a man smoking an E-Cigarette

    The spread of vaping has sparked a debate over its risks and benefits.


    New warnings about vaping issued this week by the World Health Organization have prompted strong pushback from public health experts in the United Kingdom, who charged that WHO was spreading “blatant misinformation” about the potential risks and benefits of e-cigarettes.

    The pointed exchange comes amid growing controversy over the value of e-cigarettes, and how to weigh their role as a smoking cessation tool against their potential harms, especially among young people for whom vaping has soared in popularity. The statements align with others made by U.K. public health officials in recent months, which have generally supported vaping as a useful alternative to traditional cigarettes. In contrast, WHO’s cautions about vaping echo those voiced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some U.S. scientists, who are expressing alarm over both known and still-uncertain hazards from vaping. After an outbreak of severe lung disease that’s still being investigated and is linked to THC-containing e-cigarettes, CDC now recommends that e-cigarettes of all kinds “never be used by youths.”

    In a document released Monday, WHO expressed reservations about the value of e-cigarettes and grave concerns about their risks. The organization stated “there is no doubt” that e-cigarettes “are harmful to health and are not safe, but it is too early to provide a clear answer on the long-term impact of using them or being exposed to them.” WHO also suggested “there is not enough evidence to support the use of these products for smoking cessation,” and urged smokers looking to quit to try nicotine patches or gum, or other tools such as hotlines that counsel smokers.

  • Arrival of new SARS-like virus in U.S. heightens concerns about global spread

    People wearing masks walk through an underground passage

    Passengers wear face masks in a subway station in Beijing, one of several cities in China that have reported cases of a new coronavirus.

    REUTERS/Jason Lee TPX

    It’s hard to keep up with the outbreak of the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan last month, but one thing seems increasingly clear: The virus isn’t going away anytime soon. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just reported the first case in the United States, a patient who returned from Wuhan on 15 January and sought treatment in Washington after developing symptoms. Taiwan also confirmed its first infection today, and a boy in the Philippines reportedly tested positive for the virus. (Thailand, Japan, and South Korea have all previously reported cases.) The total number of confirmed cases again shot up today, to more than 300, including six deaths.

    Meanwhile, a panel of Chinese health experts confirmed yesterday what many scientists suspected or feared for a while: The new virus is able to spread between people, which means it could be a lot harder to control. The panel also said health care workers have become infected.

    The rapid spread heightened fears of a rerun of the severe acute respiratory syndrome episode in 2003, when a related coronavirus spread from China to more than 30 countries. “This outbreak is extremely concerning,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement today. “The urgent focus must be on evidence-based interventions. We do not have proven treatments or vaccines,” says Farrar, who added that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which Wellcome supports, is “working with global partners to accelerate vaccine research for this new virus.”

  • China reports more than 200 infections with new coronavirus from Wuhan

    Science insider logo

    The outbreak of a new virus that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan last month appears to be far from over. Today, Chinese health authorities reported that more than 130 new pneumonia cases caused by the virus were identified over the weekend, bringing the total in China alone to 201, including three outside of Wuhan. There has also been a third death from the infection, and South Korea has now reported a case as well—the third country outside China to do so.

    Meanwhile, the pattern of spread makes it increasingly likely that the virus can transmit between people, some experts say. “Uncertainty and gaps remain, but it’s clear that there is some level of person-to-person transmission,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement today.

    “The sudden spike in cases is disconcerting, but not entirely unexpected,” says Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Sydney. As more people learn about the disease, more will go to doctors, Kamradt-Scott says, even with mild symptoms, whereas previously they might have just stayed home. And doctors are now on the lookout for the new disease. “The result is that you see a sudden surge in cases,” he says. But, “If we continue to see this trend continue over the next week where there are 50 to 100 new cases every day, then that would be cause for further concern.”

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