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  • Famed Arecibo telescope, on the brink of collapse, will be dismantled

    Arecibo Observatory dish

    A second cable break on 7 November tore through the Arecibo telescope’s dish panels and brought the suspended instrument platform to the verge of collapse.

    Arecibo Observatory/University of Central Florida

    The Arecibo telescope’s long and productive life has come to an end. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today it will decommission the iconic radio telescope in Puerto Rico following two cable breaks in recent months that have brought the structure to near collapse. The 57-year-old observatory, a survivor of numerous hurricanes and earthquakes, is now in such a fragile state that attempting repairs would put staff and workers in danger. “This decision was not an easy one to make,” Sean Jones, NSF’s assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences, said at a news briefing today. “We understand how much Arecibo means to [the research] community and to Puerto Rico.”

    Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s astronomy division, said at the briefing the agency wants to preserve other instruments at the site, as well as the visitor and outreach center. But they are under threat if the telescope structure collapses. That would bring the 900-ton instrument platform, suspended 137 meters above the 305-meter-wide dish, crashing down. Flailing cables could damage other buildings on the site, as could the three support towers if they fell, too. “There is a serious risk of an unexpected and uncontrolled collapse,” Gaume said. “A controlled decommissioning gives us the opportunity to preserve valuable assets that the observatory has.”

    Over the next few weeks, engineering firms will develop a plan for a controlled dismantling. It may involve releasing the platform from its cables explosively and letting it fall.

  • Fever, aches from Pfizer, Moderna jabs aren’t dangerous but may be intense for some

    Shingles vaccine reaction on adult female arm

    A shingles vaccine created this reaction at the injection site. Some people who received Moderna’s new COVID-19 vaccine also had local redness, swelling, or pain.

    The Photo Works/Alamy Stock Photo

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

    This summer, Luke Hutchison, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology–educated computational biologist, volunteered for a trial of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. After he got the second injection, his arm immediately swelled up to the size of a “goose egg,” Hutchison says. He can’t be sure he got the vaccine and not a placebo, but within a few hours, the healthy then-43-year-old was beset by bone and muscle aches and a 38.9°C fever that felt, he says, “unbearable.” “I started shaking. I had cold and hot rushes,” he says. “I was sitting by the phone all night long thinking: ‘Should I call 911?’”

    Hutchison’s symptoms resolved after 12 hours. But, he says, “Nobody prepared me for the severity of this.”

  • In blistering letter, Democrats demand answers on controversial appointee to U.S. standards agency

    NIST headquarters

    The headquarters of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland

    National Institute of Standards and Technology

    The new second-in-command at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is unfit for the job, say top Democrats on an influential congressional science panel.

    In a scalding letter yesterday to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees NIST, Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Haley Stevens (D–MI) assert that Jason Richwine holds “beliefs and actions [that] are plainly disqualifying from federal service.” The lawmakers, who chair the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and its research subcommittee, respectively, also argue that Richwine’s “educational and professional background are plainly inadequate for carrying out the responsibilities of senior leadership at NIST.” They ask Ross to answer a series of questions about the newly created position, including who authorized it, within 2 weeks.

    Richwine, an independent public policy scholar, began his new job as deputy undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology (DUS) on 9 November. The science committee’s opposition to the appointment is based on what it describes as his “anachronistic IQ-based ranking of races in order to support his anti-immigration beliefs, leaning on debunked pseudoscience that has been used for centuries to justify colonialism, slavery, and segregation.”

  • More people are getting COVID-19 twice, suggesting immunity wanes quickly in some

    Sanne de Jong, a nursing assistant

    “You’re kidding me!” Sanne de Jong, a nursing assistant, said when she was told she had COVID-19 again in July.

    MIRANDA DE JONG

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

    In late June, Sanne de Jong developed nausea, shortness of breath, sore muscles, and a runny nose. At first, she thought it might be lingering effects from her COVID-19 infection in the spring. De Jong, 22, had tested positive on 17 April and suffered mild symptoms for about 2 weeks. She tested negative on 2 May—just in time to say farewell to her dying grandmother—and returned to work as a nursing intern in a hospital in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

    But when her symptoms re-emerged, her doctor suggested she get tested again. “A reinfection this soon would be peculiar, but not impossible,” she told De Jong, who by then had again lost her sense of smell and had abdominal pains and diarrhea.

  • ‘Incredible milestone for science.’ Pfizer and BioNTech update their promising COVID-19 vaccine result

    Vaccine vial

    The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine candidate has 95% efficacy according to the latest analysis offered by the companies.

    BioNTech

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

    Not to be outdone by a rival with a similar product, Pfizer and BioNTech today provided an update on the previously announced success of their COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. pharma giant and its German biotech partner now report 95% efficacy for their vaccine candidate, drawing on the final analysis of a 43,000-person study. And don’t worry about the elderly not responding to the vaccine; the efficacy only drops to 94% in people older than 65, the companies said in a press release.

    As opposed to the vague initial report last week that their vaccine had greater than 90% efficacy, Pfizer and BioNTech are providing more specific data now that the study has reached enough COVID-19 cases to end. In all, the trial had 162 confirmed cases of symptomatic COVID-19 in the placebo group versus eight among those who received the two scheduled doses of the vaccine. The efficacy, which was measured 7 days after the second dose of the vaccine, was the same in different races and ethnicities, the companies say—although subgroup analyses always have more uncertainty. Nine of the 10 people who had severe cases of COVID-19 during the trial received the placebo, which indicates that even if the vaccine fails to prevent symptomatic disease, it still offers powerful protection from serious harm. No serious side effects surfaced, the companies report, although 3.7% of the vaccinated reported fatigue after the injections.

  • Potential signs of life on Venus are fading as astronomers downgrade their original claims

    The planet Venus

    Signs of phosphine on Venus can’t be easily explained without life. That’s why some astronomers believe the compound isn’t there.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech

    The announcement in September took the world by storm: Researchers using two radio telescopes found signs that the clouds of Venus were harboring phosphine, a toxic compound that on Earth is only made in significant quantities by microbes and chemists. The unexpectedly high levels detected on Venus could point to a floating microbial biosphere, the researchers suggested in a paper published in Nature Astronomy. But almost immediately, other astronomers began to criticize the results, with four independent studies pointing out questionable methods or failing to reproduce the results.

    Now, after reanalyzing their data, the original proponents are downgrading their claims. Even the most favorable interpretation of their data now suggests phosphine levels are at least seven times lower than first reported, making it a much more tentative finding, the authors reported in a preprint posted on 17 November to arXiv. But the team still believes the gas is there, with the possibility that local pockets rise to higher levels, said Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Cardiff University who led the work, in a talk today to NASA’s Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG). “We have again a phosphine line.”

    The observations used to support the initial paper were taken by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii in 2017, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile in 2019. The telescopes are sensitive to the cold radiation emitted by Venus’s atmosphere, and Greaves and her colleagues concluded that phosphine was responsible for one of the so-called absorption lines in the spectrum—dips where atmospheric chemicals block some of the radiation. But the ALMA data in particular were unusually noisy—confounding effects include absorption lines from Earth’s own atmosphere—and the researchers had to use a large number of variables to model and remove the noise. Critics pointed out that such an aggressive fix made the discovery of a false positive more likely

  • Temperature concerns could slow the rollout of new coronavirus vaccines

    A woman lowers a container into a cooling device.

    Arktek containers, which kept Ebola vaccines at –80°C in sub-Saharan Africa, could be used to transport COVID-19 vaccines that require similar temperatures.

    World Health Organization/S. Hawkey

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

    Today’s dramatic news that Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine might work as well as one made by Pfizer and BioNTech means the world could have two powerful weapons to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the next hot vaccine topic is, well, heat. Both vaccines use a novel technology—strands of messenger RNA (mRNA), held within lipid particles—that is vulnerable to degradation at room temperature and requires doses to be frozen for transportation, then thawed for use.

    That’s where the Moderna vaccine may have an edge: Unlike Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s offering, it does not have to be stored at –70°C, but can tolerate a much warmer –20°C, which is standard for most hospital and pharmacy freezers. That difference means Moderna’s vaccine should be easier to distribute and store, particularly in the rural United States and developing countries that lack ultracold freezers. Moderna says years of development work enabled its vaccine to be stored at higher temperatures, but last week another mRNA vaccine company announced it is testing a COVID-19 vaccine that early studies suggest can survive at the even warmer temperatures of 2°C to 8°C found in refrigerators.  

  • ‘Just beautiful’: Another COVID-19 vaccine, from newcomer Moderna, succeeds in large-scale trial

     A health care worker examines the upper arm of a woman sitting in a doctor’s office patient room.

    A Washington, D.C., participant in the Moderna efficacy trial is prepared for her COVID-19 vaccine shot.

    ERIN SCHAFF/The New York Times/Redux

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

    Now, there are two. Another COVID-19 vaccine using the same previously unproven technology as the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, the U.S. and German companies that reported success on 9 November, appears to work remarkably well. And this time, the maker, U.S. biotech Moderna, is releasing a bit more data to back its claim than the other two companies.

    An independent board monitoring Moderna’s 30,000-person vaccine trial met on Sunday and reported to the company and U.S. government health officials that only five people in the vaccinated group developed confirmed cases of COVID-19, whereas 90 people who received placebo shots became ill with the disease. That’s an efficacy of 94.5%, the company reported in a press release this morning. Although the clinical trial measurement may not translate into an equally high level of real-world protection, the success indicates the vaccine is Iikely more than effective enough to stop the pandemic if it can be widely distributed.

  • ‘It’s like politicizing toilet paper.’ A member of Biden’s COVID-19 panel surveys the task ahead

    headshot of Céline Gounder

    New York University physician and epidemiologist Céline Gounder serves on President-elect Joe Biden’s new coronavirus task force.

    Céline Gounder

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

    Céline Gounder has straddled the worlds of medicine, government, and the media: Now, the New York University epidemiologist and infectious disease expert is one of 13 people President-elect Joe Biden has named to a high-profile task force to help steer his response to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to her medical work, Gounder co-hosts a podcast about the pandemic with Ron Klain, Biden’s newly named chief of staff. Until recently she was also a CNN medical analyst.

    Gounder spoke with ScienceInsider 4 days after her appointment to the task force.

  • Russia’s claim of a successful COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t pass the ‘smell test,’ critics say

    A medic of the regional hospital receives Russia's "Sputnik-V" vaccine shot against the coronavirus disease

    Russia is vaccinating health care workers, including this medic in Tver, with an experimental COVID-19 vaccine even though its efficacy isn’t yet clear to outsiders.

    REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

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

    Another day, another promising COVID-19 vaccine? A Russian institute announced today that its vaccine candidate has had remarkable success in an efficacy trial, just 2 days after the widely celebrated news from Pfizer and BioNTech that their vaccine had greater than 90% efficacy. The Russian report, however, is being met with raised eyebrows—and some outright guffaws.

    In a press release, the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow said an interim analysis of a large-scale trial underway in Russia had found 92% efficacy for its “Sputnik V” vaccine. The release quoted the Russian minister of health saying the results demonstrate that Sputnik V “is an efficient solution to stop the spread of coronavirus infection.” Yet it also noted the review covered just 20 total COVID-19 cases in the vaccinated and placebo groups—far too few for the claim be convincing, experts inside and outside of Russia say.

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