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  • ‘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.”

  • The standard coronavirus test, if available, works well—but can new diagnostics help in this pandemic?

    a doctor wearing protective gear places a swab from a patient into a plastic bag

    A doctor in Germany prepares a swab to test for coronavirus infection.

    Daniel Reinhardt/picture alliance via Getty Images

    As the United States races to ramp up testing for the pandemic coronavirus using technology based on the tried-and-true polymerase chain reaction (PCR), alternative approaches are beginning to roll out that could make it easier and quicker for people to learn whether they have been infected. Some methods modify the standard PCR test, which amplifies tiny bits of genetic material to enable detection, whereas others sequence the virus directly or use the genome editor CRISPR.

    Faster and cheaper tests are coming, says Evan Jones, CEO of OpGen, a rapid diagnostics company. However, he adds, developing new kinds of tests is “going to take time.” Some of the new tests are coming online now, but others will likely take months to validate and ready for widespread distribution.

    “Testing, testing, testing” has been the mantra repeated again and again by World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Diagnostic assays that identify active infections in people are vitally important for public health efforts, not just for individuals’ health concerns. Widespread diagnostic testing, along with isolation of the infected, contact tracing, and quarantining of those contacts, seems to have been key in South Korea’s work to suppress virus spread.

  • The physician whose 1964 vaccine beat back rubella is working to defeat the new coronavirus

    a billboard about rubella

    U.S. scientists raced to develop a rubella vaccine ahead of an epidemic expected in 1970.

    March of Dimes

    In 1964, an unprecedented epidemic of rubella (German measles) swept the United States. The virus responsible is about twice as contagious as the novel coronavirus spreading around the world today seems to be; rubella infected some 12.5 million people, an estimated one in 15 people in the United States. Like the novel coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic, the virus that causes rubella usually produced mild disease—in the case of rubella, typically fever and a rash. In about one-third of people, it caused no symptoms at all. Although the coronavirus does kill some people, especially the elderly, rubella caused by far the most damage to fetuses, especially when a woman contracted the disease in early pregnancy. During the mid-1960s epidemic, some 20,000 U.S. babies were born with serious birth defects including blindness, deafness, heart defects, and intellectual disabilities. (There’s no evidence so far that this new coronavirus infects or hurts fetuses, but it’s an open question.)

    In 1964, working in his Wistar Institute laboratory, Stanley Plotkin invented the rubella vaccine—the “R” in MMR—that’s now used the world over. Since then, he has worked extensively on the development and application of other vaccines, including ones for anthrax, polio, and rabies. He also coinvented the rotavirus vaccine that’s part of today’s childhood vaccine schedule.

    Science reached Plotkin, now 87, at his home outside Philadelphia, where he consults for vaccine companies. In recent weeks, he has been advising six of them on the development of novel coronavirus vaccines. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Amid coronavirus shutdowns, some grad students feel pressure to report to their labs

    Science Careers logo

    As the coronavirus outbreak roils university campuses across the world, early-career scientists are facing several dilemmas. Many are worrying about the survival of cell cultures, laboratory animals, and other projects critical to their career success. And some are reporting feeling unwelcome pressure to report to their laboratories—even if they don’t think it’s a good idea, given that any gathering can increase the risk of spreading the virus.

    It’s unclear exactly how common these concerns are, but social media posts reveal numerous graduate students expressing stress and frustration at requests to come to work. “Just emailed advisor to say I am not comfortable breaking self isolation to come to lab this week. They emailed … saying I have to come in. What do I do?” tweeted an anonymous Ph.D. student on 16 March who doesn’t have essential lab work scheduled. “My health & safety should NOT be subject to the whims of 1 person. It should NOT be this scary/hard to stand up for myself.”

    Many universities, including Harvard, have moved to shut down all lab activities except for those that are deemed “essential,” such as maintaining costly cell lines, laboratory equipment, live animals, and in some cases, research relating to COVID-19. But others have yet to ban nonessential research entirely.

  • Universities urge U.S. leaders to boost science budgets by 15%, ease rules to cope with pandemic

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

    *Update, 20 March, 12:45 p.m.: Last night, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a new directive that gives universities the flexibility they are seeking to deal with disruptions to research caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s almost exactly what we asked for,” says Wendy Streitz of the Council on Governmental Relations, a nonprofit representing hundreds of research institutions.

    Now, it’s up to federal agencies to spell out exactly how those changes will affect tens of thousands of grantees. Look for that information on agency FAQs. And keep checking for updates.

    The U.S. research community is urgently asking the White House and Congress to take steps aimed at keeping academic research—as well as museums, botanic gardens, and zoos—afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

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