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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • COVID-19 worries douse plans for fire experiments

    a firefighter uses a drip torch to light a controlled fire

    Intentionally set fires, such as this prescribed burn in Colorado in 2017, are an important tool for fire scientists and land managers. But the COVID-19 pandemic has created new obstacles to obtaining the permits needed to legally set the landscape on fire.

    Jason Houston/Redux

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

    In October, if Roger Ottmar gets his wish, workers will set fire to nearly 500 hectares of dense woodland in southwestern Utah. But COVID-19 may get in the way.

    Ottmar, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, is lead investigator for the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment (FASMEE). The experiment is an ambitious effort involving dozens of scientists from across the country. Equipped with light detection and ranging sensors, radar, satellites, and drones—along with flamethrowers to kindle blazes—they study how wildfires are born and evolve. These are increasingly urgent questions given the historic fires now sweeping across the western United States that have charred millions of hectares, killed more than a dozen people, and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

  • Why COVID-19 is more deadly in people with obesity—even if they’re young

    person in ICU bed

    Many very sick COVID-19 patients, like some in this Brazilian intensive care unit, have obesity.

    Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto/Getty Images

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

    This spring, after days of flulike symptoms and fever, a man arrived at the emergency room at the University of Vermont Medical Center. He was young—in his late 30s—and adored his wife and small children. And he had been healthy, logging endless hours running his own small business, except for one thing: He had severe obesity. Now, he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was increasingly short of breath.

    He was admitted directly to the intensive care unit (ICU) and was on a ventilator within hours. Two weeks later, he died.

  • Dozens of scientific journals have vanished from the internet, and no one preserved them

     a magnified glass leans on a stack of papers

    Most open-access journals lack the technical means and plans to preserve their articles, despite a mandate from some funders that they do so. 

    Sezeryadigar/iStock.com

    Eighty-four online-only, open-access (OA) journals in the sciences, and nearly 100 more in the social sciences and humanities, have disappeared from the internet over the past 2 decades as publishers stopped maintaining them, potentially depriving scholars of useful research findings, a study has found.

    An additional 900 journals published only online also may be at risk of vanishing because they are inactive, says a preprint posted on 3 September on the arXiv server. The number of OA journals tripled from 2009 to 2019, and on average the vanished titles operated for nearly 10 years before going dark, which “might imply that a large number … is yet to vanish,” the authors write.

    The study didn’t identify examples of prominent journals or articles that were lost, nor collect data on the journals’ impact factors and citation rates to the articles. About half of the journals were published by research institutions or scholarly societies; none of the societies are large players in the natural sciences. None of the now-dark journals was produced by a large commercial publisher.

  • How German military scientists likely identified the nerve agent used to attack Alexei Navalny

    Alexei Navalny

    Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny fell ill on 20 August after drinking a cup of tea at a Siberian airport. The German government says he was poisoned using a Novichok.

    Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik via AP

    On 2 September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel revealed that Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition politician, had been poisoned with a nerve agent “identified unequivocally in tests” as a Novichok—one of a family of exotic Soviet-era chemical weapons. Merkel, a chemist by training, did not reveal the nature of the tests, conducted in a military lab in Munich. But scientists familiar with Novichoks have a good idea how the toxicological sleuths went about it—and are impressed by how fast the culprit was unmasked.

    Navalny fell ill on 20 August after drinking a cup of tea at a Siberian airport. He lapsed into a coma and was flown to Berlin 2 days later; in a statement yesterday, the hospital treating him said he is out of the coma and “responding to verbal stimuli.” Navalny’s supporters have accused Russian operatives of slipping poison into the tea—a charge that seems credible in light of Russia’s recent record of using toxic substances to silence critics.

    Novichok A234 was the weapon of choice for settling a score with a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury in the United Kingdom in March 2018. In a botched operation, two Russian intelligence officers left a trail of evidence in the attempted assassination of Skripal, whose daughter Yulia also fell ill after exposure to A234. They survived, but a woman who later came across a perfume bottle containing the substance died.

  • Can you catch COVID-19 from your neighbor’s toilet?

    Central Guangzhou skyline in China

    Apartment buildings in Guangzhou, China, where toilet waste pipes may have carried the novel coronavirus from one infected family's bathroom to people living above them.

    Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

    Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    Coronaviruses wafting through a Chinese apartment building’s plumbing may have infected some residents, according to a new study, raising fears of yet another way that COVID-19 could spread. The case echoes a 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that spread through the pipes of a Hong Kong apartment building—and some worry that transmission via toilets might have contributed to the COVID-19 outbreak that shut down New York City early in the pandemic.

    The study adds to months of warnings that SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 and is thought to spread mainly through respiratory droplets and aerosols, could also infect via feces. “It’s not something that people like to talk about,” buildings expert Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week.  

  • ‘Absolutely horrendous.’ Scientists discuss Beirut’s blast and how they are coping with its aftermath

    People clean up after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020

    Beirut residents began to clean up their city soon after a 4 August explosion. Researchers are testing air and dust samples for toxic compounds.

    AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

    One month ago, today, 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people, wounding 5000 others, and leaving 300,000 residents temporarily homeless. The explosion, which left Lebanon’s main port and surrounding homes and businesses in ruins, has exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic in a country that’s also grappling with inept leadership, a worsening economic crisis, and a 55% poverty rate.

    Armed with brooms and shovels, Beirut residents soon took to the streets to clean up their city, and now, reconstruction has begun. ScienceInsider spoke with three scientists who lived through the blast and are now studying its aftermath.

    This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Leader of U.S. vaccine push says he‘ll quit if politics trumps science

    Moncef Slaoui

    Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, spent 29 years making vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline.

    Stuart Isett CC 2.0

    Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    On a nice day in early May, Moncef Slaoui was sitting by his pool when he received a phone call that would dramatically change his life—converting him from a retired executive of a big pharmaceutical company to the scientific leader of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, a multibillion-dollar crash program to develop a vaccine in record time.

    What do you think about staging a Manhattan Project to make a COVID-19 vaccine? asked the caller, a person Slaoui would only describe to ScienceInsider as a former congressman who once headed the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, biotech’s powerful trade group. (James Greenwood is the only person with that resume.) Could we make a vaccine in 10, 8, or even 6 months, or is it impossible? the caller pressed him. Slaoui, an immunologist who formerly headed vaccine development at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), gladly shared his thoughts. “I’m very passionate about preventing pandemics,” says Slaoui, who led a failed attempt to build a biopreparedness organization that explicitly aimed to rapidly make vaccines against emerging pathogens like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

  • Commission charts narrow path for editing human embryos

    He Jiankui presented a slide at a Hong Kong, China, genome-editing summit that showed DNA sequences from the edited CCR5 genes in the twin girls

    He Jiankui shocked the world when he described the implantation of edited embryos that led to the birth of twin girls, Lulu and Nana.

    NATIONAL ACADEMIES/FLICKR/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    No recent biomedical experiment has caused more consternation than He Jiankui’s creation of the first gene-edited babies, in 2018, which was widely seen as dangerous, unethical, and premature—and which led to his incarceration by China. Now, an international committee has concluded that gene-editing methods, despite substantial improvements, are still far from mature enough to safely introduce heritable DNA modifications into human embryos.

    But they might be one day, in rare circumstances, adds the panel, calling for the formation of a global scientific body that would review proposals for what it calls “heritable human genome editing” (HHGE) and try to influence whether countries decide to allow its use. The group, which today released one of the most in-depth reports on the topic yet, spells out in great detail genetic situations that HHGE could address and the strict oversight that clinicians in the future must meet before again creating humans with modified DNA that they can pass on to offspring.

    For more than 1 year, the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing reviewed the scientific literature on CRISPR and other ways to modify DNA, held public meetings and webinars, and consulted scientists, physicians, ethicists, and patient groups. The 18 members of the commission—who come from 10 countries and, as the report notes, include “experts in science, medicine, genetics, ethics, psychology, regulation, and law”—agreed with earlier groups that concluded no one should follow in He’s footsteps anytime soon. CRISPR—the genome editor He used, and refined versions of it—they concluded, still cannot “efficiently and reliably” make precise changes without causing “undesired changes in human embryos.”

  • Poisoning of Putin opponent renews spotlight on deadly Russian chemical weapon

    U.K. investigators at the site where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Novichok agent in March 2018.

    Investigators examine the site in the United Kingdom where a former Russian spy was poisoned with a Novichok agent in 2018. German officials today said a similar agent was used to poison a prominent Russian opposition leader.

    ANDREW MATTHEWS/PRESS ASSOCIATION VIA AP IMAGES

    A notorious nerve poison is back in the news. The German government said today that Alexei Navalny, a prominent opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned with a chemical similar to Novichok, a deadly nerve agent implicated in other attacks on Russians who have crossed the current regime.

    A German military laboratory has found “unequivocal evidence of a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group” in biological samples taken from Navalny, who was flown to Germany for treatment after being hospitalized in Siberia on 20 August, government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said. Navalny had fallen ill not long after drinking tea, which his family has suggested was poisoned. Novichok agents, which were developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, disrupt the brain’s chemical pathways by binding to the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. Without rapid medical intervention, those exposed to the poisons lose control of muscles that control breathing and blood pressure. Novichok agents came to wide public notice in 2018 after one was used in an assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. The attack made Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and four others seriously ill; Skirpal and his daughter survived but one of the bystanders died. The attack prompted many nations to push for a global ban on Novichok agents, and last year they were added to the list of chemicals regulated under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

    Russian government officials have suggested that Navalny, an opposition leader known for his investigations of corruption, fell ill from a metabolic disorder or diet-related condition. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly disputed such claims today and demanded an explanation from the Russian government. “The world,” she said, “is expecting answers.”

  • Can Europe tame the pandemic’s next wave?

    People on a beach in Spain

    Vacationers on the beach in Tamariu, on Spain’s Costa Brava, on 17 August.

    Joan Valls/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto/AP

    Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    "We’re at risk of gambling away our success,” virologist Christian Drosten warned in the German newspaper Die Zeit last month. His message referred to Germany, but it could have been addressed to all of Europe. After beating back COVID-19 in the spring, most of Europe is seeing a resurgence. Spain is reporting close to 10,000 cases a day, more than it had at the height of the outbreak in the spring. France is back to reporting thousands of cases a day. In Germany, numbers are still low, but rising steadily. The pandemic is affecting countries that saw few cases in the spring, such as Greece and Malta, but is also rebounding in places that suffered terribly, including the cities of Madrid and Barcelona.

    Drosten, of the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, is one of many calling for renewed vigilance, and he and others are urging a new control strategy that trades blanket lockdowns for measures specifically targeting clusters of cases, which play a key role in spreading the coronavirus. “We successfully aborted the [first] wave and now we should make sure that no new wave builds,” says epidemiologist Christian Althaus of the University of Bern.

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