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  • The new coronavirus is finally slamming Russia. Is the country ready?

    Russian medical experts prepare to check passengers arriving from Italy at Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow

    Russian medical experts prepare to check passengers arriving from Italy at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport this month.

    Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

    For weeks, Russia seemed to have dodged a bullet. As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) raged just across the border in China, Russia was virtually untouched, reporting just seven confirmed infections as recently as 10 March. Since then, the number has risen fast: Russia has now reported 840 infections, about two-thirds of them in the Moscow region.

    Some health care providers have questioned whether Russia truly kept the novel coronavirus at bay. Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of Russia’s Alliance of Doctors trade union, has pointed out that pneumonia cases in Moscow spiked in January—they were 37% higher than in January 2019, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency. She asserts that COVID-19 must have accounted for at least part of the increase. Others attribute the increase to a greater number of pneumonia patients, anxious about the new coronavirus, seeking treatment.

    With COVID-19 cases now indisputably on the rise in Russia, authorities are moving fast to ramp up detection and hospital bed capacity. Russia’s federal coronavirus coordination council says 193,000 tests based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) have been done to date. Swabs initially had to be shipped to Siberia for analysis at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR. Russia’s Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor)—the country’s analog of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—has just expanded testing to its regional laboratories and the Anti-Plague Research Institute.

  • Mathematics of life and death: How disease models shape national shutdowns and other pandemic policies

    a patient is moved on a stretcher

    Dutch models of COVID-19 are designed to help prevent overloading of hospitals and the need to transfer patients.

    Thomas Angus/Imperial College London

    Jacco Wallinga’s computer simulations are about to face a high-stakes reality check. Wallinga is a mathematician and the chief epidemic modeler at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), which is advising the Dutch government on what actions, such as closing schools and businesses, will help control the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country.

    The Netherlands has so far chosen a softer set of measures than most Western European countries; it was late to close its schools and restaurants and hasn’t ordered a full lockdown. In a 16 March speech, Prime Minister Mark Rutte rejected “working endlessly to contain the virus” and “shutting down the country completely.” Instead, he opted for “controlled spread” of the virus among the groups least at risk of severe illness while making sure the health system isn’t swamped with COVID-19 patients. He called on the public to respect RIVM’s expertise on how to thread that needle. Wallinga’s models predict that the number of infected people needing hospitalization, his most important metric, will taper off by the end of the week. But if the models are wrong, the demand for intensive care beds could outstrip supply, as it has, tragically, in Italy and Spain.

    COVID-19 isn’t the first infectious disease scientists have modeled—Ebola and Zika are recent examples—but never has so much depended on their work. Entire cities and countries have been locked down based on hastily done forecasts that often haven’t been peer reviewed. “It has suddenly become very visible how much the response to infectious diseases is based on models,” Wallinga says. For the modelers, “it’s a huge responsibility,” says epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, who co-authored a report about the future of outbreak modeling in the United States that her center released yesterday.

  • Massive U.S. coronavirus stimulus includes research dollars and some aid to universities

    the US capitol
    iStock.com/uschools

    The $2 trillion stimulus package that the U.S. Senate is working to approve today is aimed at helping the country cope with the massive impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But it also includes at least $1.25 billion for federal research agencies to support scientists trying to better understand coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). In addition, it extends a financial hand to universities that have shut down because of the pandemic, some of which could go to support research that has been disrupted.

    Details of the legislation have yet to emerge after Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress worked out their differences in negotiations that ran into the early morning. But a 22-page summary released by the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning contains these highlights:

  • Researchers are tracking another pandemic, too—of coronavirus misinformation

    (left to right): Emma Spiro; Kate Starbird

    Emma Spiro (left) and Kate Starbird (right)

    (left to right): Doug Parry/Information School/University of Washington; Center for an Informed Public

    When five researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, launched the new Center for an Informed Public back in December 2019, they had no idea what was coming. The center aims to study how misinformation propagates and use the findings to “promote an informed society, and strengthen democratic discourse.” Now, just a few months later, the coronavirus pandemic is generating a tidal wave of information—some of it accurate, some not so much—that has saturated social and traditional media.

    Two of the center’s founders—sociologist Emma Spiro and crisis informatics researcher Kate Starbird—are watching closely. By monitoring news reports and scraping massive amounts of data from social media platforms, they are examining how misinformation is spreading during the pandemic, and how scientific expertise factors into public perceptions.

    “We’re trying to think about questions of how data and statistics are being used and debated in these conversations online, and what is the impact of that on public understanding and the way that people make decisions and take actions,” Spiro told ScienceInsider this week. 

  • ‘It’s heartbreaking.’ Labs are euthanizing thousands of mice in response to coronavirus pandemic

    Collaborative Cross mice

    Mice bred at the Jackson Laboratory

    Jennifer L. Torrance/Jackson Laboratory

    Faced with her lab’s imminent closure, Sunny Shin had already begun to fear she would have to euthanize large numbers of the mice she works on. Then, last Tuesday, the email came from her school’s vice provost of research. “In response to the public health crisis caused by COVID-19,” it read, “mouse/rodent users should cull their colonies as much as possible.”

    Shin, a microbial immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, had to deliver the bad news to her lab manager: Euthanize 200 mice—more than three-quarters of their research animals—as quickly as possible. Many of the rodents had come from Europe and Asia, and it had taken years to obtain them and breed them for the genotypes the lab needs to study how the immune system responds to bacterial invaders. “It was heartbreaking,” Shin says, “scientifically and emotionally.”

    Shin’s lab isn’t alone. Last week, confronting the possibility of extreme animal care shortages and disruptions to research, universities across the country asked labs to think hard about the mice they actually need, to freeze the embryos of valuable or unique strains, and—in many cases—to cull the rest.

  • Daniel Greenberg, science journalism pioneer who shaped Science’s News section, dies at 88

    Daniel Greenberg

    Daniel Greenberg during an appearance on C-SPAN in 2002

    C-SPAN

    Daniel Greenberg, a journalist who pioneered coverage of the intersection of science and politics and was an influential early leader of Science’s News section, died on 9 March at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 88. Greenberg had been in ill health since sustaining a fall in late December 2019, according to The New York Times.

    In 1961, Greenberg became the second journalist hired by Science to “cover political events that involved science,” he recalled during an interview in 1986. “I had never heard of Science magazine before that, and we decided we’d try each other out for a month and see how we liked it.” Howard Margolis, a journalist who had established the News section, left soon after Greenberg arrived. “So, I was there by myself,” he recalled. He became the section’s editor and lead reporter, and “stayed for 10 years.”

    During that period, Greenberg helped pioneer coverage of the federal government’s burgeoning research enterprise—especially the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—and the often fierce policy debates over funding priorities and regulation of emerging technologies, such as supersonic passenger aircraft. Greenberg, who had worked in Congress as a congressional fellow of the American Political Science Association, brought to his reporting a sophisticated understanding of congressional machinations, as well as a somewhat skeptical view of the research community’s pleadings for funding and promises of breakthroughs. His reporting differed markedly from the boosterish, “gee-whiz” tone that typified much mainstream coverage of science at the time. Journalists who covered science were often good at translating discoveries to the public, Greenberg said in 1986, but “they will not usually concern themselves … with the social, economic, or moral implications, or … if [a] treatment were generally available it would raise the health bill of the country such and such.”

  • Can a century-old TB vaccine steel the immune system against the new coronavirus?

    Vaccination reaction of Bacillus Calmette Guerin BCG vaccine on newborn baby shoulder.

    Vaccination with bacillus Calmette-Guérin leads to a small pustule that can develop into a scar.

    Kwangmoozaa/iStock

    Researchers in four countries will soon start a clinical trial of an unorthodox approach to the new coronavirus. They will test whether a century-old vaccine against tuberculosis (TB), a bacterial disease, can rev up the human immune system in a broad way, allowing it to better fight the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 and, perhaps, prevent infection with it altogether. The studies will be done in physicians and nurses, who are at higher risk of becoming infected with the respiratory disease than the general population, and in the elderly, who are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.

    A team in the Netherlands will kick off the first of the trials this week. They will recruit 1000 health care workers in eight Dutch hospitals who will either receive the vaccine, called bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), or a placebo.

    BCG contains a live, weakened strain of Mycobacterium bovis, a cousin of M. tuberculosis, the microbe that causes TB. (The vaccine is named after French microbiologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin, who developed it in the early 20th century.) The vaccine is given to children in their first year of life in most countries of the world, and is safe and cheap—but far from perfect: It prevents about 60% of TB cases in children on average, with large differences between countries.

  • ‘I’m going to keep pushing.’ Anthony Fauci tries to make the White House listen to facts of the pandemic

    Donald Trump speaking at a podium with Anthony Fauci and others behind him

    Anthony Fauci (far right) attends a recent White House press briefing on the pandemic.

    Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Anthony Fauci, who to many watching the now-regular White House press briefings on the pandemic has become the scientific voice of reason about how to respond to the new coronavirus, runs from place to place in normal times and works long hours. Now, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has even less time to sleep and travels at warp speed, typically racing daily from his office north of Washington, D.C., to his home in the capital, and then to the White House to gather with the Coronavirus Task Force in the Situation Room. He then usually flanks President Donald Trump addressing the media—and when he isn’t there, concerned tweets begin immediately. Shortly before he planned to head to the White House for a task force meeting today, he phoned ScienceInsider for a speedy chat. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Q: The first question everyone has is how are you?

    A: Well, I’m sort of exhausted. But other than that, I’m good. I mean, I’m not, to my knowledge, coronavirus infected. To my knowledge, I haven’t been fired [laughs].

  • WHO launches global megatrial of the four most promising coronavirus treatments

    Micrograph of the virus that causes COVID-19

    Transmission electron microscope image of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019, isolated from a patient in the United States

    National Institutes of Health

    A drug combo already used against HIV. A malaria treatment first tested during World War II. A new antiviral whose promise against Ebola fizzled last year.

    Could any of these drugs hold the key to saving coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) patients from serious harm or death? On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a large global trial, called SOLIDARITY, to find out whether any can treat infections with the new coronavirus for the dangerous respiratory disease. It’s an unprecedented effort—an all-out, coordinated push to collect robust scientific data rapidly during a pandemic. The study, which could include many thousands of patients in dozens of countries, has been designed to be as simple as possible so that even hospitals overwhelmed by an onslaught of COVID-19 patients can participate.

    With about 15% of COVID-19 patients suffering from severe disease and hospitals being overwhelmed, treatments are desperately needed. So rather than coming up with compounds from scratch that may take years to develop and test, researchers and public health agencies are looking to repurpose drugs already approved for other diseases and known to be largely safe. They’re also looking at unapproved drugs that have performed well in animal studies with the other two deadly coronaviruses, which cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

  • Cellphone tracking could help stem the spread of coronavirus. Is privacy the price?

    Four people sit spaced apart in a metro car using their phones while riding the metro in Washington, DC

    Phone apps promise to identify the recent contacts of people with COVID-19 more quickly and thoroughly.

    REUTERS/Tom Brenner

    “IT IS POSSIBLE TO STOP THE EPIDEMIC.” That’s the message splashed atop a website built by a University of Oxford team this week to share new research on the spread of the novel coronavirus. Below that hopeful statement comes a big caveat: To stop the virus’ spread, health officials need to find and isolate the contacts of infected people—lots of them—and fast. Such contact tracing is a mainstay of infectious disease control. But the Oxford team is one of several now advocating for a new approach: tapping into cellphone location data to track the spread of infection and warn people who may have been exposed.

    Several governments in Asia have tried that approach in ways that would run afoul of privacy laws in many other countries. China, for example, has reportedly relied on mass surveillance of phones to classify individuals by their health status and restrict their movements. Now, research teams in Europe and the United States are considering less invasive ways to collect and share data about infections, and some are already developing and testing coronavirus-specific phone apps. Governments, meanwhile, are scrambling to figure out how these potential pandemic-fighting tools could work within data privacy laws and without losing the support of an already wary public.

    “We don’t live in a culture of public trust when it comes to data,” says David Leslie, an ethicist at the Alan Turing Institute who studies the governance of data-driven technologies. “We live in this age that has been called the age of surveillance capitalism, where … our data is abused and exploited.” But, he adds, authorities and the public will have to weigh the value of privacy against the possibility that data collection could save millions of lives. “These are not normal times.”

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