Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Coronavirus antigen tests: quick and cheap, but too often wrong?

    Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles

    Cheap and easy antigen tests that detect proteins of the new coronavirus (yellow) in samples from a person are coming, but they aren’t perfect.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    After a painfully slow rollout of diagnostic testing for active coronavirus infections across the country, some 400,000 people a day in the United States may now receive such a test, estimates suggest. Yet a few public health experts say sending people back to work and school safely and identifying new outbreaks before they spread out of control could require testing much of the U.S. population of 330 million every day. Others suggest checking roughly 900,000 people per day would be enough.

    Either way, nearly all the current tests to diagnose infections work by identifying the genetic material of the virus, a technology that will be difficult to scale up much further. “There will never be the ability on a nucleic acid test to do 300 million tests a day or to test everybody before they go to work or to school” Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said at a press conference last month.

  • How Sweden wasted a ‘rare opportunity’ to study coronavirus in schools

    young children on a playground

    In Sweden, day care centers and most schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.

    Sipa USA via AP Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    There’s nearly universal agreement that widespread, long-lasting school closures harm children. Not only do children fall behind in learning, but isolation harms their mental health and leaves some vulnerable to abuse and neglect. But during this pandemic, does that harm outweigh the risk—to children, school staff, families, and the community at large—of keeping schools open and giving the coronavirus more chances to spread?

    The one country that could have definitively answered that question has apparently failed to collect any data. Bucking a global trend, Sweden has kept day care centers and schools through ninth grade open since COVID-19 emerged, without any major adjustments to class size, lunch policies, or recess rules. That made the country a perfect natural experiment about schools’ role in viral spread that many others could have learned from as they reopen schools or ponder when to do so. Yet Swedish officials have not tracked infections among school children—even when large outbreaks led to the closure of individual schools or staff members died of the disease.

  • ‘The house was on fire.’ Top Chinese virologist on how China and U.S. have met the pandemic

    Yiming Shao speaking on a panel

    Shao Yiming, chief AIDS expert at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, challenges controversial views about his country’s response to the novel coronavirus.

    AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Virologist Shao Yiming, chief expert on AIDS at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), sees the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of HIV. A stint at the global program on AIDS at the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1989 led him to help set up a network to track genetic variation in HIV, and the project grew into an international resource. He remembers well the conspiracy theories that for years swirled around the origin of the AIDS epidemic, with accusations hurled at everyone from top researchers to the U.S. military. As a vaccine researcher for more than 2 decades, he intimately understands the difficulty of transforming an idea into a product. And he has seen up close the high costs of misguided responses to HIV in China and other countries.

    That background has given Shao a broad perspective when it comes to seeing the similarities—and differences—in how nations, including China and the United States, have responded to the current pandemic. He is unabashedly proud of China’s response to COVID-19 and rejects many criticisms by outsiders. But he also recognizes the real tensions that have emerged both within and between nations over information sharing, transparency, and response tactics—as well as the cultural differences that might be fueling them. “Each country has a different culture,” he recently told ScienceInsider by phone from his Beijing office. “The Chinese do not like face-to-face confrontation. In Western countries, you do everything frank.”

  • Nobel laureates and science groups demand NIH review decision to kill coronavirus grant

    ScienceInsider logo

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Seventy-seven U.S. scientists who have won a Nobel Prize today asked Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, to “act urgently” to review a controversial NIH decision to terminate a grant that supported research into bat coronaviruses in China. NIH’s explanation for killing the grant was “preposterous,” the laureates write.

    Thirty-one scientific societies have also written to Collins, calling on NIH “to be transparent about their decision-making process on this matter. … The action taken by the NIH must be immediately reconsidered.

  • COVID-19 contact tracing apps are coming to a phone near you. How will we know whether they work?

    A man wearing a face mask checks his mobile phone

    Millions of people have downloaded apps designed to alert them to coronavirus exposure. Their effectiveness has yet to be proved.

    Minzayar Oo/Panos Pictures/Panos Pictures/Redux

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Last month, when the Australian government launched a smartphone app called COVIDSafe to find and alert the contacts of people infected with the coronavirus, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a hard sell to the public. “The more people who download this important public health app … the sooner we can safely lift restrictions and get back to business and do the things we love,” he said in a 26 April press release. Two million people downloaded it in the first 24 hours it was available.

    The idea is that such digital contact tracing will identify people potentially exposed to the coronavirus who should self-isolate—and that they’ll voluntarily do so. But so far, we only have epidemiological models to suggest such apps can help control an epidemic. Skeptics worry the apps will amount to a high-tech distraction. And even some advocates say they’re only as strong as a health system’s ability to follow up with notified users, test them, and offer support during quarantine.

  • Doctors race to understand rare inflammatory condition associated with coronavirus in young people

    A young girl stands still as a medical worker swabs her nose for a COVID-19 test.

    A girl in New Delhi gets a nasal swab to test for the new coronavirus. A rare Kawasaki disease–like illness linked to the virus is sickening young people.

    Amarjeet Kumar Singh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Three children at one London hospital in mid-April, followed the next day by three at another—for Elizabeth Whittaker, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Imperial College London, those first cases raised an alarm. The youngsters had fevers, rashes, stomach pain, and, in some cases, heart problems, along with blood markers that characterize COVID-19 in adults, including one associated with clotting. But in most, nasal swabs failed to reveal any virus.

    “I don’t understand—they look like they have coronavirus,” Whittaker recalls thinking. Doctors nonetheless suspected a link. Within days, a survey turned up 19 additional cases across England, and an alert on 27 April asked doctors to be on the lookout for such symptoms in children. Soon after, dozens more cases surfaced in New York along with smaller clusters elsewhere, bolstering a connection to the pandemic. Reports of children on life support and some deaths put parents on edge—and were especially disheartening after earlier signs that COVID-19 largely spares children from serious illness.

  • Will Trump White House tear down journal paywalls? Many anxiously await a decision

    Meeting of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy officials

    Kelvin Droegemeier (center), director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, meeting with publishers in February about public access to journal articles

    White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

    Scientific publishers, universities, librarians, and open-access (OA) advocates are waiting anxiously to see whether the Trump administration will end a long-standing policy and require that every scholarly article produced with U.S. funding be made immediately free to all.

    Such a mandate has long been fiercely opposed by some publishers and scientific societies that depend on subscription revenues from journals. But critics of paywalls argue they are expensive and outmoded, and that tearing them down is the best way to advance scientific research.

    On 6 May, the deadline passed on a request from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for public comments on ways to expand public access to the fruits of federally funded research, including published papers, data, and computer codes. In February, OSTP also asked for input on the benefits and challenges of making the roughly 220,000 papers produced annually by U.S.-funded researchers immediately free on publication, and on “effective approaches” to making that happen.

  • U.S. Department of Energy rushes to build advanced new nuclear reactors

    molten salt cooled reactor

    The Department of Energy will select industry partners to build two next-generation reactors, such as the molten salt cooled reactor being designed by Terrestrial Energy USA.

    Terrestrial Energy USA

    In the latest effort to revive the United States’s flagging nuclear industry, the Department of Energy (DOE) aims to select and help build two new prototype nuclear reactors within 7 years, the agency announced last week. The reactors would be the centerpiece of DOE’s new Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which will receive $230 million this fiscal year. Each would be built as a 50-50 collaboration with an industrial partner and ultimately could receive up to $4 billion in funding from DOE.

    “This can be a game changer,” says Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s time for the community to go from designing paper reactors to building demonstrations.”

    But even some proponents of nuclear power doubt the program will spur construction of new commercial reactors as long as natural gas and renewable energy remain relatively cheap. “New builds can’t compete with renewables,” says Robert Rosner, a physicist at the University of Chicago. “Certainly not now.”

  • A deadly virus is killing wild rabbits in North America

    a desert cottontail sitting on the ground

    Desert cottontails, like this healthy animal, are susceptible to a new virus.

    John J. Mosesso/U.S. Geological Survey

    A deadly virus is spreading quickly among wild rabbits in southwestern North America, threatening populations and possibly endangered species. Last week the virus, which causes a hemorrhagic disease, reached Southern California.

    “The outlook right now is so unbelievably bleak,” says Hayley Lanier, a mammologist at the University of Oklahoma. “We’re simply left to watch the wave spread out and worry about imperiled species in its path.”

    Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus first spread worldwide in the 1980s, devastating domestic rabbit populations in China and Europe. It raced through Australia, where feral rabbits had flourished after being introduced in the 18th century. Populations began to recover, but then a new strain emerged in France in 2010 that also kills wild species.

  • NIH Director Francis Collins honored for work to bridge science and religion

    Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C

    Francis Collins

    Jay Mallin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins has won the $1.3 million 2020 Templeton Prize for his work to reconcile science and religion.

    The prize, which was first awarded in 1973, was created by John Templeton, a successful investor who died in 2008. It honors those who have advanced Templeton’s vision of “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.”

    Collins wrote a bestselling book in 2006 that argues that scientific inquiry and Christianity are not incompatible, and that religious faith can inspire scientific discovery. He has continued to speak publicly about those ideas since he became NIH director in 2009, even as some researchers have criticized those activities as inappropriate for the leader of a federal science agency.

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