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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Dutch research funding agency, paralyzed by ransomware attack, refuses to pay up

    Hands rest on a computer keyboard
    Poravute/iStock

    Hackers published a batch of internal documents from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) on the dark web yesterday, after the agency refused to pay up in a ransomware attack. The attack, which began on 8 February, has completely knocked out the agency’s grant application and review process and cut off NWO’s communication with applicants, grantees, and universities.

    Ransomware attacks on organizations, companies, and even hospitals have become increasingly common, and some institutions have decided that paying is the easiest way to get computer systems back up or prevent the release of confidential data. NWO refused to do so. “On fundamental grounds, NWO, as part of the Dutch governmental institutions, isn’t willing to pay ransom,” the agency said in a statement yesterday. “Although NWO highly regrets the unfortunate situation of sensitive personnel documents being spread … NWO will not alter its position.” The funder says more stolen documents may end up in public “in the near future.”

    NWO, whose nearly €1 billion budget makes it the main Dutch funding agency, disclosed the hack on 14 February. The agency can no longer use email, other apps, or its telephone lines; neither can a number of organizations affiliated with or hosted by NWO, including the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research and the European Polar Board. NWO has canceled many meetings until at least 15 March and says it can’t receive or pay bills; the best way for applicants and grantees to get in touch, the organization says, is via a frequently asked questions page. (The agency’s website was not affected by the attack.) “We’re very sorry for the inconvenience that this causes to our applicants,” a spokesperson says.

  • Journals singled out for favoritism

    Didier Raoult

    French doctor Didier Raoult is an author on one-third of the papers in a single journal.

    Alain Apaydin/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images

    When Didier Raoult published several studies last year purporting to show the promise of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, critics quickly denounced his methods. Raoult, a microbiologist at Aix-Marseille University, now faces disciplinary action by a French medical regulator, and the drug has largely been discredited as a COVID-19 treatment.

    But some researchers had another concern: Raoult’s astonishingly prolific publication in the journal New Microbes and New Infections, where some of Raoult’s collaborators serve as associate editors and editor-in-chief. Since the journal’s creation in 2013, Raoult’s name appeared on one-third of its 728 papers. Florian Naudet, a metascientist at the University of Rennes, wondered how common the pattern was. He and his colleagues teamed up with University of Oxford psychologist Dorothy Bishop, who had developed a method to identify prolific authorship, to explore its extent in the biomedical research literature.

    The group extracted data on nearly 5 million papers published between 2015 and 2019 in more than 5000 biomedical journals indexed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Broad Subject Terms, which catalogs journals’ subject focus. This method didn’t capture journals that aren’t registered in the catalog with these subject terms—among them, less established journals such as New Microbes and New Infections, Naudet says. The researchers then counted the number of articles each author had published to identify the most prolific researcher at each journal.

  • As trials ramp up, doctors stress need to vaccinate kids against COVID-19

    a health care worker giving a teenager a shot in the arm

    A teenager receives a shot in a clinical trial of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vacine.

    CINCINNATI CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL

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

    As older adults, health care workers, firefighters, and others roll up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccine, there’s a flurry of research to get shots to children, for whom no vaccine has yet been authorized. Even though young people are less likely to fall seriously ill, doctors and scientists agree that vaccinating them is crucial for their own protection and that of the broader population. And because companies already have solid data from adult trials, they are running smaller studies in children that focus on safety and immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines.

    The first two vaccines to receive emergency use authorization in the United States for adults are now in clinical trials for young people, with initial results expected by summer. Pfizer and BioNTech have completed enrollment of more than 2200 volunteers ages 12 to 15, and Moderna is wrapping up recruitment of a planned 3000 volunteers with the same minimum age. Both vaccines are based on messenger RNA coding for the coronavirus spike protein, which prompts production of protective antibodies. Another three vaccines, which use a harmless virus to deliver a gene for the same protein, are also taking steps toward pediatric authorization. On 12 February, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford announced they would begin to test their vaccine in 300 U.K. children ages 6 to 17. Johnson & Johnson, whose adult vaccine will be considered by U.S. regulators this week, says it’s moving toward testing in young people, and Sinovac Biotech is testing its product on children in China ages 3 to 17.

  • California coronavirus strain may be more infectious—and lethal

    two people wearing face masks walk the Golden Gate Overlook

    Masked pedestrians during a surge in coronavirus cases in the San Francisco Bay area in December 2020. A new study suggests a prevalent viral variant there may be more transmissible and lethal.

    AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

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

    A new strain of the pandemic coronavirus, first identified and now spreading in California, appears to be somewhat more transmissible and heighten patients’ risk of admission to the intensive care unit (ICU) and death, according to a preprint reporting lab studies and epidemiological data.

    The variant is also present in other states, but its prevalence among more than 2000 samples collected in California swelled from 0% to greater than 50% between September 2020 and late January, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “This variant is concerning because our data shows that it is more contagious, more likely to be associated with severe illness, and at least partially resistant to neutralizing antibodies,” says senior author Charles Chiu, an infectious diseases physician and sequencing expert at UCSF. The data suggest the new strain “should likely be designated a variant of concern warranting urgent follow-up investigation,” the authors write in their preprint, which has not been peer reviewed and which they say is expected to be posted online soon.

  • U.S. National Science Foundation could get $600 million in pandemic relief bill

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

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) could receive an additional $600 million as part of the massive coronavirus pandemic relief bill moving through Congress this week. 

    The money is not mentioned in the $1.9 trillion plan being taken up today by the budget committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. But ScienceInsider has learned it is expected to be added to the legislation before the full House votes on the package later this week. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would get a one-time budget increase of $150 million. The money comes from a $750 million allocation made available to the House science committee, led by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), for programs under its jurisdiction.

    Under the terms of the overall relief package, the two agencies would be required to use the one-time bonanza to help the nation recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic, including damage to its science and technology enterprise. At NSF, whose current budget is $8.2 billion, the new money is likely to be spent on more research on pandemic-related topics, as well as more support for educating the next generation of scientists and engineers. The funds for NIST, which now has a budget of $1 billion, are expected to bolster its network of manufacturing research institutes.

  • Road map to U.S. fusion power plant comes into clearer focus—sort of

    A concept image of a fusion power plant

    One concept for a fusion pilot plant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Alexander Creely

    Plans to build a prototype fusion power plant in the United States have come into tighter focus, as a new report lays out a rough timeline for building the multibillon-dollar plant and a strategy for developing its design. The United States should strive to start construction of the pilot by 2035 and to have it running by 2040, according to a report released this week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). To meet that tight schedule, the report calls for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help fund two to four teams that, in collaboration with private industry, would develop by 2028 different conceptual designs.

    “It’s credible and doable,” says William Madia, vice president emeritus at Stanford University, who has often been critical of DOE’s fusion efforts. However, Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes the report also points to numerous key technologies that are in a low state of technical readiness and questions whether they can be developed in time. “Reading between the lines, I didn’t feel that it gives you a lot of confidence that these time tables are realistic,” Lyman say.

    The schedule suggested by the 91-page report, released on 17 February, does not reflect a bottom-up assessment of how long it would take to complete the R&D for a particular design. Rather, it presents a top-down evaluation of when fusion power needs to be feasible if utilities want to include it as they shift toward carbon-free energy sources by 2050. “The timeline really was determined from input from utilities,” says Brian Wirth, a nuclear engineer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and one of the report’s 12 authors. Madia predicts that if fusion hasn’t shown itself feasible by 2035, it is “going to miss the train” and be left out of the future carbon-free energy mix.

  • New U.K. funding agency would tackle innovative research

    Kwasi Kwarteng exits 10 Downing Street.

    U.K. business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said this week that a new high-risk U.K. research agency would be located within his department.

    Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

    The U.K. government has released its plans for emulating the storied high-risk, high-reward U.S. funding agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). During the 2019 election campaign, the Conservative government promised to set up such an agency, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings pushed for it. Now, it has a name: the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), and a confirmed budget. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced today it would be funded by an initial £800 million over 4 years, and would begin to disburse grants by 2022.

    Unlike ARPA, now known as DARPA because it specializes in defense-related research, ARIA so far lacks a focus, which concerns some experts. “The fabric of an ARPA organization is its mission,” says Anna Goldstein, a science policy researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who provided evidence on ARPA to U.K. politicians. Without that, she says, “ARIA is a solution in search of a problem.”

    The government will soon introduce legislation in Parliament to enshrine the agency in law, aiming to give it more permanence than pet political projects sometimes enjoy. It will sit within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but remain independent from the main research funding agency, UK Research and Innovation. The new law may also allow ARIA to sidestep normal spending rules, audits, and even freedom of information requests. But those checks and balances don’t hinder risk taking, says James Wilsdon, a science policy researcher at the University of Sheffield. “You don’t have to be a scathing political critic of the government to raise a quizzical eyebrow about attempts to put chunks of the research budget in a place where they’re not subject to any of those checks and balances.”

  • ‘Touchdown confirmed!’ Perseverance landing marks new dawn for Mars science

    Illustration of Perseverance touching down on Mars.

    A sky crane gently lowered Perseverance to a safe landing before crashing itself at a far remove.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech

    It’s a new day on Mars. NASA’s $2.7 billion Perseverance rover has successfully landed in Jezero crater, alighting just 35 meters away from hazardous boulders it had identified during descent. At about 3:55 p.m. EST, confirmation came back of the rover safely touching its wheels down, resulting in exuberant but socially distanced applause from double-masked engineers at the mission’s control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

    “Touchdown confirmed,” said Swati Mohan, the JPL engineer narrating the landing attempt. “Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars!” Soon after, a camera returned the first image, showing dust, rocks, and the shadow of the rover looming over the black-and-white martian surface.

    The rover landed some 2 kilometers southeast of Jezero’s fossilized delta, locating a safe flat spot, tilting only 1.2°, and amid a field of hazards. (A map in the control room showed spots of safe green swarmed by dangerous red.) “We did successfully find that parking lot, and have a safe rover on the ground,” said Allen Chen, head of the rover’s landing team at JPL. The region is informally dubbed “Canyon de Chelly,” after a national monument in Navajo tribal lands.

  • Vaccine-wary France turns to citizens’ panel to boost trust in COVID-19 shots

    French vaccine protest sign taped to someone's back

    Some experts say citizen advice helped counter the effect of French protests of an infant vaccination law.

    SIPA/AP IMAGES

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

    All across Europe, coronavirus vaccines are in scarce supply. But in France, they are also surprisingly unwanted: Recent polls suggest just 57% of the country intends to get vaccinated, whereas in the United Kingdom, 89% wants to get a shot for COVID-19. With persistent, world-leading rates of vaccine skepticism, France is adopting a new tactic to boost trust. A 35-member citizens’ vaccine panel, built from a random but demographically representative slice of the country, met for the first time last month in an effort to steer government strategy on COVID-19 vaccinations. The panel is one of an increasing number of citizen assemblies that have been set up across Europe to grapple with thorny questions at the intersection of science and society.

    The panel’s first advice is due in a progress report on 23 February. Alain Fischer, a pediatric immunologist at the College of France and president of the government’s vaccine strategy board, hopes the group can identify the information the public wants and how it should be presented, so it can be “understood by everyone, regardless of their knowledge of vaccines.” He also expects the panel to provide practical tips, such as how to provide vaccinations in remote rural areas. “Citizen panelists usually have a good grasp of the issues,” he says. Some critics, however, say the government already receives plenty of citizens’ input, and they question the need for the new body.

  • To aid vaccine research, U.K. approves deliberate infections of volunteers with coronavirus

    A transmission electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2

    Researchers will try to deliberately infect healthy volunteers with SARS-CoV-2 (color) to test vaccines.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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

    An ethics board that oversees clinical trials in the United Kingdom today said a research team there can begin to intentionally infect volunteers with the virus that causes COVID-19, a world-first experiment intended to accelerate research into vaccines against the disease.

    The hotly debated “human challenge” experiment will, as a first step, determine the lowest level of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, needed to infect the healthy, young volunteers. The researchers then plan to vaccinate additional volunteers and expose them to that “challenge dose” to assess protection and the immune responses that correlate with it.

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