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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • ‘This gives hope’: A third COVID-19 vaccine dose can boost protection for organ transplant recipients

    Illustration of three syringes on orange background
    RLT Illustrations/iStock

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    A few months ago, transplant surgeon Dorry Segev was despondent about how COVID-19 vaccines were performing in patients like his, who have a donated organ and take powerful drugs to suppress their immune system. After one dose of a highly effective messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, for example, just 17% of those patients churned out protective antibodies against the pandemic coronavirus, and after the standard two doses, only 54% did. The very medications his patients took to protect their transplanted organ precluded them from mounting a healthy immune response after the vaccine. Even people who did make the antiviral antibodies often had very low levels, raising questions about how well they were shielded from COVID-19.

    But now Segev, at Johns Hopkins University, has become cautiously optimistic. He and his colleagues have found that a third dose of vaccine may help: Among 24 organ transplant patients who had no antibodies after two doses, eight people generated protective antibodies after they sought out a third on their own. Six people who had few antibodies against the coronavirus after two doses all wound up with high levels after a third shot, the researchers reported today in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Although Segev didn’t conduct a systematic study—the 30 patients got combinations of different vaccines at different time intervals—“this gives hope, which is critical right now,” he says. “There is some encouraging evidence that we will be able to help the immune system do what it needs to do.”

  • Genome researchers question security provisions in new U.S. Senate bill

    Conceptual illustration of a lock over DNA sequence
    Turtle Rock Scientific/Science Source

    Buried in a 2400-page bill approved last week by the U.S. Senate to help the United States compete with China is language that is drawing fire from human genome researchers. It would require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop new security protocols aimed at preventing the misuse of U.S.-funded genomic data by China and other nations.

    The provision is not based on any substantiated security risks, and “could slow biomedical advances and impose unintended burdens,” the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) warned last week in a letter to lawmakers. The Association of American Medical Colleges cautioned in a statement that “any additional protections or restrictions … should be commensurate with the actual risk.”

    Research advocates are applauding many provisions of the massive Senate bill, the United States Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260). It calls for ramping up federal research spending, as well as creating a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation.

  • Okinawans seek return of forebears’ remains, collected decades ago for research

    Visitors Mamajuana tomb.

    Kyoto University possesses remains taken from the Momojyana tomb in Okinawa, Japan, where members of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom are believed to be buried.

    Yasukatsu Matushima

    In the late 1920s and early ’30s, researchers from Kyoto Imperial University collected 200- to 600-year-old remains of several hundred people from burial caves in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, which has its own culture and language. Now, in an echo of requests from Indigenous people around the world for repatriation of the remains of their ancestors, five Okinawans are demanding that Kyoto University return the bones and pay compensation.

    The plaintiffs say Kyoto University rebuffed requests to discuss the issue, so in 2018 they took the matter to court. The case is slowly making its way through the legal system, further delayed by the pandemic. To put pressure on the university, last month the plaintiffs pleaded for international support at a briefing for foreign correspondents in Japan.

    Holding the remains violates the constitutional right to freedom of religion, because the Okinawans don’t have the opportunity to venerate their ancestors, says Yasukatsu Matsushima, an economist at Ryukoku University who is one of the plaintiffs. He adds that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for the repatriation of indigenous human remains. The bones taken from one of the sites, the Momojyana tomb, are believed to include those of members of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was based on Okinawa Island. Japan absorbed the kingdom into its empire in 1872 and dissolved it 7 years later.

  • Powerful new COVID-19 vaccine shows 90% efficacy, could boost world’s supply

    a participant in a clinical trial receives a shot in the arm

    A participant in Plano, Texas, is injected during Novavax’s North American COVID-19 vaccine trial this spring. The company reported its results today.

    Novavax

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    The dark horse vaccine company Novavax announced strong results today from a pivotal, 30,000-person trial of its pandemic coronavirus vaccine in the United States and Mexico. The vaccine uses a protein of SARS-CoV-2, a different technology from the COVID-19 vaccines authorized so far, and delivered 90.4% overall efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 infections, and 100% protection against moderate and severe disease. Against eight viral variants of interest and concern, its efficacy was 93.2%. And the vaccine appeared safe and well-tolerated.

    “This vaccine looks phenomenal. I am thrilled about these results,” says Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. She notes that the clinical trial was highly diverse, with 44% nonwhite participants, and that the vaccine’s straightforward storage requirements could speed access to it in remote communities around the globe.

  • More than 70 lab heads removed from NIH grants after harassment findings

    ILLUSTRATION OF PROFILE VIEW OF FACES AT A MICROPHONE
    DARIA KIRPACH/SALZMAN ART

    Since early 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has received more than 300 complaints of sexual and other harassment and approved removing 75 principal investigators (PIs) from grants as a result, the agency reported this week. That’s the eye-opening result of an update NIH provided on its efforts to address professional misconduct by agency-funded investigators.

    About two-thirds of the complaints involved sexual harassment allegations; 54 PIs were removed as a result. Before 2018, a PI had never been stripped of a grant for that reason, but in response to the #MeTooSTEM movement, NIH began to encourage sexual harassment victims to file complaints.

    The agency’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) also looks into other forms of professional misconduct—including bullying and racial discrimination, which have recently made up a greater share of the complaints (see first table, below), OER Deputy Director Michael Lauer says. He presented the data on the 314 total complaints on 10 June at a meeting of NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), noting that some cases involve a combination of these concerns. 

  • Europe picks categories for three flagship space missions

    An artist’s impression depicts thermal plumes venting from the southern polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

    Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with its geysers of water (artist’s illustration), could be the target for a future European flagship mission.

    European Space Agency/Science Office

    The biggest space missions gestate for the longest time. Today, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed the three broad science themes it wants to pursue for large-scale missions of €1 billion or more that would launch between 2035 and 2050. They include a close look at icy moons around Jupiter and Saturn, dissecting the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets, and new ways to study the formation of the universe’s first stars, galaxies, and black holes. “We must start planning the science and the technology we’ll need for the missions we want to launch decades from now,” Günther Hasinger, ESA’s director of science, said in a statement.

    ESA refreshes its slate of science missions roughly every decade or two. The current program, called Cosmic Vision, has three flagship missions that will launch before 2034: a spacecraft to study Jupiter’s moons, an x-ray telescope, and a gravitational wave detector. 

    The next round, dubbed Voyage 2050, kicked off in 2019 with almost 100 suggested missions or themes from teams of researchers. Those ideas that could achieve breakthrough science were whittled down into three broad categories by 75 researchers split into six committees. ESA’s Science Programme Committee approved the categories this week. Although the themes do not explicitly call for missions, some translate into fairly specific mission possibilities.

  • Harvard bans former anthropology chair after finding persistent sexual harassment

    Gary Urton

    Last year, Gary Urton retired from Harvard University with emeritus status, which has now been revoked.

    As a result of findings of sexual harassment, Harvard University today stripped prominent anthropological archaeologist Gary Urton of his emeritus status and banned him from all events on campus. A yearlong investigation found that Urton, who specializes in Andean culture, engaged in “persistent” sexual harassment and unwelcome sexual conduct, and abused his power with students and employees he supervised in the past 2 decades, according to a searing university statement released today.

    The statement from Claudine Gay, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, read in part: “Dr. Urton is no longer welcome on any part of the FAS campus.” He will not be allowed to teach any classes, advise students, have library privileges, use office space, or attend any lectures, faculty meetings, or Harvard events. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow also imposed the sanctions against Urton across the entire Harvard campus and at all university-sponsored events.

    The statement also accused Urton of hampering Harvard’s Title IX investigation by providing “materially misleading information.”

  • Research on ocean plastic surging, U.N. report finds

    Microplastics found in Arctic waters

    Plastic is increasingly ubiquitous, even in remote ocean waters. These microscopic pieces were found in the Arctic Ocean.

    ELISA MARTI and ANDRES CÓZAR/University of Cádiz

    Plastic winds up everywhere—from the top of Mount Everest to remote corners of Antarctica. Every year, millions of tons of discarded plastic also wash into the ocean. Some of it floats in giant garbage patches, whereas other bits drop to the sea floor, even turning up in the hindguts of crustaceans in deep ocean trenches.

    Research about ocean plastic is swelling, too, from just 46 papers in 2011 to 853 in 2019, according to a U.N. report published today on the state of global science. This year’s edition of the report, which UNESCO publishes every 5 years, found that the growth in ocean plastic research outstripped that of the other 55 development-related topics it tracked (see chart, below). “It has really skyrocketed in recent years,” says Erik Van Sebille, an oceanographer and climate scientist at Utrecht University who uses plastic particles as tracers to study the ocean’s dynamics.

    Carmen Morales, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Cádiz’s Marine Litter Lab, says plastic is more conspicuous than contaminants such as metals or organic compounds, and it draws more attention from the public and policymakers. “It’s an eyesore to have all this plastic on beaches,” adds Bart Koelmans, an aquatic ecologist at Wageningen University. “For many people, that is enough to be concerned.” Scientists are delving into where the plastic comes from, where it goes, and how it affects the environment and human health.

  • Europe announces mission to study volcanoes on Venus

    Artist impression of ESA's EnVision mission at Venus

    EnVision will peer through Venus’s thick clouds with radars and spectrometers.

    ESA/VR2Planets/DamiaBouic

    Mars is so last year. After NASA announced on 2 June that it will launch two probes to Venus before the end of the decade, the European Space Agency (ESA) today joined the party by selecting EnVision, another orbiter mission to our cloud-wrapped twin, for launch in 2031. The €610 million EnVision is the latest medium-class mission in ESA’s science program.

    Compared with Mars, Venus has seen fewer visits from robotic spacecraft, but increased interest in climate change and Earth-like exoplanets has prompted researchers to ask why Venus is now a scalding hot greenhouse oven with a sulfuric acid atmosphere, after starting out so similarly to Earth. ESA’s Venus Express, which operated from 2006 to 2014, helped find hinds of ancient oceans and active volcanoes on the planet. Firming up that evidence is a key aim for EnVision, says lead scientist Richard Ghail of Royal Holloway, University of London. “The pattern of volcanoes tells us how the planet works,” he says.

    Although there is some overlap in the aims and instruments of the NASA and ESA missions, Ghail says, “They do all fit together and in a sense, they are in the right order.” NASA’s VERITAS will provide a detailed global map of the planet’s topography, whereas DAVINCI+ will establish compositional “ground truth” by parachuting a probe through the atmosphere. EnVision will follow up by zooming in to understand how surface activity affects atmospheric dynamics, Ghail says.

  • Russian climate scientists upset by ministry’s call for ‘alternative’ research

    Pipelines in a natural gas field in Russia.

    Russia’s natural gas producers would benefit from a call by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “alternative” climate research that would “not necessarily imply abandoning fossil fuels.”

    Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Russia is a signatory to the Paris climate agreement, and dozens of its scientists have contributed to the consensus reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that detail the causes and consequences of global warming. This month, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament passed the country’s first climate bill, setting a course for carbon neutrality through emissions reductions and limits on deforestation. Just last week, speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, President Vladimir Putin said Russia is concerned about climate change, and any claims that it is not are “nonsense, a myth, and sometimes outright distortion.”

    But not everyone in Putin’s government seems to have gotten the message. Last month, in a document reviewed by ScienceInsider, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended funding studies that would allow Russia to promote “alternative” viewpoints on climate change that “would not necessarily imply abandoning fossil fuels and limiting industrial growth.”

    The document, signed on 21 May by the head of the ministry’s department of international organizations, also says the United Nations and IPCC “have been aggressively forcing the consensus on the causes of climate change. … For a long time, a ‘scientific basis for climate change’ has been forming that is not always favorable to Russia.” And it asserts that “Isolated alternative research is not developed further nor discussed by the international scientific community (it is basically blocked or silenced).”

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