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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Guilherme Franco Netto, a prominent public health scientist in Brazil, was sound asleep in his Rio de Janeiro apartment when his daughter woke him early on 6 August. She looked alarmed. Three federal police officers were at the door.
Soon, Franco Netto found himself behind bars, under suspicion of aiding a scheme to defraud the government by manipulating the award of a funding contract for a public health research project.
News of his arrest sparked outrage among his colleagues. They collected thousands of signatures on a petition demanding his release, convinced that his imprisonment was the result of a misunderstanding, an abuse of power, or both. After Franco Netto had spent 3 days in custody, a justice on Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered him released. He now awaits trial on several charges of fraud.
Academic researchers in São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state, are warning that proposed legislation before the state assembly could cripple major universities and long-term research projects. The state is home to three of the most prestigious universities in Latin America and produces 40% of Brazil’s scientific publications.
The bill, which could be voted on as soon as this week, aims to avoid a forecast 10.4 billion reais ($1.9 billion) shortfall in São Paulo’s 2021 budget, caused in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic. One provision calls for the state’s three major academic institutions—the University of São Paulo (USP), the University of Campinas (Unicamp), and São Paulo State University—to transfer money in their long-term reserve accounts to the state government. The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), a state agency that funds research and fellowships, would also have to hand over its reserve funds. Together, researchers estimate the accounts hold more than 1 billion reais.
The move has sparked an outcry among researchers, who note the reserve funds have been key to helping the universities and the foundation cope with economic challenges and pay for long-term projects. If enacted in its current form, the bill “will paralyze all scientific activities in the state of São Paulo,” the Brazilian Academy of Sciences warned in a letter. And it would cause “irreversible damage” to ongoing research, said the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science in a statement. More than 110,000 people have signed an online petition issued by the São Paulo Science Academy opposing the bill.
An insecticide about to be widely deployed inside African homes to combat malaria-carrying mosquitoes is already losing its punch. Two years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave the green light for clothianidin, long used in agriculture to kill crop pests, to be added to the current mainstays of indoor mosquito control, which are losing their effectiveness as the insects develop resistance. Since then, many African countries have been laying plans to spray the walls of homes with the pesticide—it would represent the first new class of chemicals adopted for such use in decades—and looking anxiously for evidence of pre-existing resistance.
Now, scientists at Cameroon’s Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases (CRID) have found it. They recently sampled mosquitoes from rural and urban areas around Yaoundé, the capital, including two key malaria carriers. In one standard susceptibility assay, exposure to clothianidin for 1 hour killed 100% of Anopheles coluzzii. But in some A. gambiae samples as many as 55% of the mosquitoes survived, the group reported in a preprint posted 7 August on the bioRxiv preprint server.
Corine Ngufor, a medical entomologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says this appears to be the first report of clear resistance to clothianidin in malaria-carrying insects. “It may spread very quickly and make this new class of insecticide almost useless for malaria vector control within a few years,” she warns.
Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.
When President Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination for another term last night at the Republican National Convention, he pledged that the push by his administration’s Operation Warp Speed to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine would succeed “before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”
That promise concerns many vaccine veterans. They worry that political forces—the U.S. presidential election on 3 November, nationalistic pride to “win” a race, the need to resuscitate economies—could lead to premature and dangerous approvals under mechanisms such as the emergency use authorization (EUA), a pathway used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow rapid access to diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. Long a bastion of regulatory rigor that many other countries look to for guidance, FDA has been criticized for issuing EUAs for two COVID-19 treatments, convalescent plasma and hydroxychloroquine, based on scant data and apparent political pressure. (The hydroxychloroquine EUA has since been revoked.) Paul Offit, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who is a member of a group that advises FDA about its vaccine decisions, suspects the Trump administration might seek a COVID-19 vaccine EUA before the elections and say: “We Warp Speeded our way to a vaccine.”
Communities across Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas are still reeling from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Laura, one of the most powerful storms to strike the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in decades.
The storm, which made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, as a Category-4 hurricane in the early hours of 27 August, has killed at least seven people, destroyed countless structures, and left hundreds of thousands of residents without power. Several research facilities along the coast felt the storm’s sting, but appear to have avoided major damage. At the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium’s Marine Center in Chauvin, wind pushed floodwaters across parking lots and into structures; a damage assessment is underway, according to the center’s Twitter account.
For some scientists, Hurricane Laura catalyzed a scramble to deploy instruments and a chance to add fresh data to efforts to predict how hurricanes might behave in the future. ScienceInsider spoke with four researchers who are involved in such efforts in very different ways.