Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • A Kenyan health economist investigates the pandemic’s puzzling course in his country

    Edwine Barasa

    “We need scientists who are in Africa focusing on African problems,” says Edwine Barasa of the Kenya Medical Research Institute–Wellcome Trust.


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

    In 2007, Kenyan health economist Edwine Barasa had a long layover at Heath­row Airport. A fervent supporter of the London-based soccer club Arsenal, he saw a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream: visiting the club’s ancestral stadium in Highbury. Even though he didn’t have the right paperwork, he managed to con­vince an immigration officer to stamp his passport—with a warning that he abso­lutely had to be back in 12 hours or they would both be in trouble.

    The incident speaks to Barasa’s te­nacity and powers of persuasion, says his boss, Philip Bejon, who directs the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)–Wellcome Trust Research Programme. These traits, Bejon says, have served Barasa well in his role as director of the program’s office in Nai­robi, where he’s been a key player in Kenya’s response to the COVID-19 pan­demic. “Edwine always shows up as an authentic and sincere scientist who convinces his colleagues.”

  • Brexit deal secures U.K. access to European research funds

     British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a podium during a media briefing

    On 24 December, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a Brexit deal that would preserve access to several European research programs.

    Paul Grover AP

    U.K. researchers will remain eligible for European research funding despite the country having left the European Union, thanks to a long-term trade and cooperation agreement struck on 24 December.

    The deal was reached after negotiators finally agreed on fishing rights, which had stalled negotiations, and most of its 1246 pages set out the principles of the U.K.-EU relationship from January 2021 onward. But the deal and its accompanying declarations contain key passages about research: In exchange for a contribution to the EU budget, the United Kingdom will join the forthcoming Horizon Europe research program, which will spend €85 billion over the next 7 years.

    Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of anti-Brexit campaign group Scientists for EU and a visiting researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is pleased by the access to Horizon Europe funds. But he laments the loss of U.K. influence over the program and how the money is spent, because those decisions will only be made by EU countries.

  • Novavax launches pivotal U.S. trial of dark horse COVID-19 vaccine after manufacturing delays

    nurse Vash Deelchand gives a demonstration of the vaccine trial process as Kate Bingham, Chair of the Government's Vaccine Taskforce

    A volunteer receives a COVID-19 vaccine candidate or placebo in October in the phase III trial Novavax launched in the United Kingdom.

    Kirsty O'Connor/Press Association via AP Images

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

    Novavax, a once-struggling biotech company that was rescued by $2 billion in funding for its promising COVID-19 vaccine candidate from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the U.S. government, announced today the long-awaited start of its U.S. efficacy trial. Novavax has already fully enrolled an efficacy trial in the United Kingdom with more than 15,000 volunteers, whose data it plans to use to support its application for European regulatory approval. 

    But the U.K. trial hasn’t delivered its results yet and the company postponed the launch of its larger U.S. trial several times this fall as it struggled to scale up vaccine manufacturing. The results from the first human trial of the candidate, announced in August, were promising. Nonetheless, despite a nearly 30-year history making vaccines, Novavax has never won regulatory approval for one of its candidates, and whether the pandemic will finally change that remains to be seen.

  • Report finds holes in U.S. policies on foreign influence in research

    Aerial view of the Pentagon

    The U.S. Department of Defense is one of five research agencies faulted for gaps in monitoring foreign influences.


    A new report by a congressional watchdog says U.S. agencies need to flesh out and clarify their policies for monitoring the foreign ties of the researchers they fund.

    The report, by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), is likely to spur efforts in Congress aimed at preventing China and other nations from using funding and other connections to gain improper access to research funded by the U.S. government. But at least one of the agencies under scrutiny—the National Science Foundation (NSF)—is pushing back on the idea that its policies are lax. It is warning that tougher rules could hinder its ability to fund the best science.

    The GAO report was requested by Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, who in hearings has prodded research agencies to “pick up their game” when it comes to preventing improper foreign influence. It examines the practices of the government’s five biggest funders of academic research: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NSF, NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD). The report recommends they adopt explicit and uniform policies on what grantees need to do to comply with federal laws relating to three issues:

  • U.K. variant puts spotlight on immunocompromised patients’ role in the COVID-19 pandemic

    A large crowd of shoppers walk down Regent Street.

    Shoppers wear face masks on Regent Street in London on 19 December, the day the U.K. government imposed new restrictions to curb a rapidly spreading new SARS-CoV-2 variant.

    AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali

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

    In June, Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, heard about a cancer patient who had come into a local hospital the month before with COVID-19 and was still shedding virus. The patient was being treated for a lymphoma that had relapsed and had been given rituximab, a drug that depletes antibody-producing B cells. That made it hard for him to shake the infection with SARS-CoV-2.

    Gupta, who studies how resistance to HIV drugs arises, became interested in the case and helped treat the patient, who died in August, 101 days after his COVID-19 diagnosis, despite being given the antiviral drug remdesivir and two rounds of plasma from recovered patients, which contained antibodies against the virus. When Gupta studied genome sequences from the coronavirus that infected the patient, he discovered that SARS-CoV-2 had acquired several mutations that might have allowed it to elude the antibodies.

  • Massive 2021 U.S. spending bill leaves research advocates hoping for more

    President Donald Trump walking away from mics in press pool

    President Donald Trump will leave office next year having overseen robust growth in federal science spending over his 4 years in office, despite his administration’s repeated efforts to slash research budgets.

    Carlos Barria/Reuters

    The massive $1.4 trillion spending bill that the U.S. Congress finally agreed upon this week should once again reverse the deep cuts the President Donald Trump had proposed for most science agencies, although the outgoing politician has threatened not to sign the bill. Even if he does, the modest hikes for 2021 have left the research community wanting more.

    The final budget package includes increases of 3% for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 2.5% for the National Science Foundation (NSF), 2.3% for NASA science, and 0.4% for the Department of Energy (DOE’s) science office. Those numbers (see details below) put the cherry on top of 4 years of robust growth under Trump despite his persistent attempts to eviscerate federal science budgets.

    NIH’s budget now stands at $42.9 billion, a 33% rise over its 2016 level of $32.3 billion. Similarly, spending by DOE science tops $7 billion, compared with $5.4 billion in 2017, a boost of 30%. NASA science programs rose by 8% and 11% in 2018 and 2019, respectively, before slowing in 2020 and 2021. NSF’s budget, now nearly $8.5 billion, has grown the least among the four biggest federal science agencies. But even so, a 14% rise since 2017 compares favorably with an overall increase of only 4% during the second term of former President Barack Obama.

  • Liver tumor in gene therapy recipient raises concerns about virus widely used in treatment

    Scanning Eletron microscopy image of red blood cells trapped in fibrin.

    People receiving gene therapy for hemophilia often lack a protein called factor that stabilizes fibrin (yellow), a component of blood clots.


    It’s troubling news that gene therapy researchers have long anticipated: A hemophilia patient injected with a virus carrying a therapeutic gene in a clinical trial has developed a liver tumor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has halted the associated clinical trials, and uniQure, the Dutch firm behind the studies, is now investigating whether the virus itself caused the cancer.

    Gene therapy experts say that’s unlikely. The patient had underlying conditions that predisposed him to liver cancer. Still, scientists say it’s crucial to rule out any role for adeno-associated virus (AAV), the viral delivery system, or vector, that is used in hundreds of other gene therapy trials. “Everyone will want to know what happened,” says physician-scientist David Lillicrap of Queen’s University, a hemophilia researcher who was not involved with the uniQure study.

    Gene therapy for various forms of the blood-clotting disorder hemophilia has been one of the field’s latest success stories. UniQure’s hemophilia B treatment appears to be among the treatments working, with 52 of 54 patients no longer needing injections of factor IX after 6 months in its latest study.

  • Makers of successful COVID-19 vaccines wrestle with options for placebo recipients

    A clinical trial participant receives a vaccine in their arm

    Half the participants in the efficacy trial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine received a placebo, and whether—and how—the company should offer the now proven vaccine to those volunteers is a complex issue.

    Penn Medicine

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

    Now that regulators around the world have begun to issue emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for COVID-19 vaccines—the United States authorized a candidate vaccine from the biotech Moderna on Friday—a theoretical debate that has simmered for months has become a pressing reality: Should ongoing vaccine efficacy studies inform their tens of thousands of volunteers whether they were injected with a placebo or the vaccine, and also offer an already authorized vaccine to those who got the placebo?

    Vaccinemakers must now quickly decide how to handle this issue, called unblinding. And if they do choose to unblind, they will also need to get regulatory approval. Adding to the pressure: The choice arrives as many trial participants in the United States who are now eligible for an authorized COVID-19 vaccine are dropping out of studies in order to make sure they get immunized.

  • Suspicions grow that nanoparticles in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine trigger rare allergic reactions

    a gloved hand fills a syringe with the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

    Some people suspect polyethylene glycol may have triggered severe reactions in at least eight people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the past 2 weeks.

    CARLOS OSORIO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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

    Severe allergy-like reactions in at least eight people who received the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech over the past 2 weeks may be due to a compound in the packaging of the messenger RNA (mRNA) that forms the vaccine’s main ingredient, scientists say. A similar mRNA vaccine developed by Moderna, which was authorized for emergency use in the United States on Friday, also contains the compound, polyethylene glycol (PEG).

    PEG has never been used before in an approved vaccine, but it is found in many drugs that have occasionally triggered anaphylaxis—a potentially life-threatening reaction that can cause rashes, a plummeting blood pressure, shortness of breath, and a fast heartbeat. Some allergists and immunologists believe a small number of people previously exposed to PEG may have high levels of antibodies against PEG, putting them at risk of an anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine. 

  • Researchers retract controversial female mentorship paper

     illustration of a woman standing between two large silhouettes, one dark and stormy the other bright and sunny.
    Robert Neubecker

    The authors of a Nature Communications study that suggested female scientists who have female mentors have worse career outcomes, provoking social media outrage and criticism of their methods, have retracted the paper. The move comes 1 month after journal editors announced they were launching a “priority” investigation of that paper, Retraction Watch reports today.

    The study, published on 17 November by researchers from New York University, Abu Dhabi, combed through more than 200 million scientific papers to identify several million mentor-mentee pairs, then tracked their co-authorships and citation records to evaluate the impact of mentorship. Their conclusions, including a finding that “current diversity policies promoting female-female mentorships, as well-intended as they may be, could hinder the careers of women,” angered many researchers. Critics attacked both the study’s conclusions and the methods used to reach them.

    In a retraction notice published today, the authors wrote that they recognized the validity of some of the complaints, including concerns about “the use of co-authorship as a measure of mentorship.” The authors added that although they “believe that all the key findings of the paper with regards to co-authorship between junior and senior researchers are still valid,” they “feel deep regret that the publication of our research has both caused pain on an individual level and triggered such a profound response among many in the scientific community.”

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