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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • ‘A question of choices.’ Pfizer vaccine leader on confronting new coronavirus variants

    A health worker carries a tray of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine doses

    A health worker carries a tray of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine vials at a vaccination center in Naples, Italy, last week.

    Salvatore Laporta/IPA via ZUMA Press via Newscom

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

    Philip Dormitzer led Pfizer’s successful coronavirus vaccine research effort, which yielded a vaccine with a stunning 95% efficacy in interim results from a clinical trial last year. That vaccine, developed with the German firm BioNTech, relies on a new technology employing messenger RNA (mRNA). It was the first to win emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for use against COVID-19 in the United States.

    However, recent lab studies and new clinical trial results have suggested recently emerged variants of SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic coronavirus, have evolved resistance to vaccines, including Pfizer’s. The company’s vaccine, which requires two doses 3 weeks apart, is now being administered in more than 50 countries, including the United States. Pfizer says it is on track to supply 200 million doses to the United States by the end of May and aims to ship 2 billion doses globally this year.

  • Death of EPA’s controversial ‘censored science’ rule delights researchers

    Andrew Wheeler

    A federal judge rejected arguments made by Andrew Wheeler, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, that a new rule limiting the agency’s use of scientific evidence was just a “housekeeping” measure.

    Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP

    Science and environmental groups are celebrating triumph in their nearly decadelong battle against efforts to limit the kinds of scientific evidence that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can use in writing new regulations.

    A federal judge this week killed a controversial rule, issued late in former President Donald Trump’s administration, that would have allowed EPA to ignore or downplay data from human health studies resting on confidential medical information that is difficult to make public. The agency has long relied on such nonpublic data in developing new regulations to limit air and water pollution or reduce exposure to toxic substances such as workplace chemicals and cigarette smoke. Conservatives and some companies had long pushed to restrict the practice. But the Trump administration’s bid to do so violated procedural rules, ruled Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court of Montana in a lawsuit brought by three environmental groups.

    The 1 February ruling, which President Joe Biden’s administration has welcomed, “is fantastic news. … I think this puts a stake through the rule’s heart,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which helped lead the opposition to the rule. “It was a terrible, unjustified idea that never should have plagued us for so long, and the judge recognized that.”

  • Protect species? Curb warming? Save money? Biden’s big conservation goal means trade-offs

    A hiker looks over the landscape of the vernal pools at the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve

    Species-rich vernal pools, such as these in California, could be one target for greater protection under President Joe Biden’s bid to protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

    Anthony Arendt/Alamy Stock Photo

    President Joe Biden last week unveiled an ambitious conservation goal, unprecedented for the United States: conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, which would require more than doubling the area of public and private holdings under heightened protections.

    Conservation scientists welcomed the so-called 30-by-30 goal, announced in an executive order on climate released 27 January. “The ambition is fantastic,” says ecologist Joshua Tewksbury, interim executive director of the nonprofit Future Earth.

    But Biden’s order also raises a thorny practical question: Which swaths of land and sea should be the top targets for enhanced protection or management? The order says the effort should aim for a number of outcomes, including preserving biodiversity, curbing climate change, and even creating jobs and reducing social inequality. But researchers warn that difficult trade-offs lie ahead, because few chunks of territory are likely to provide all of the desired benefits. “The balancing act [will be] the hardest part of this work,” Tewksbury says.

  • End of Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ a relief to researchers, but obstacles remain

    Sara Mashhadi Nejad

    After being accepted into graduate school at the University of Toledo 2 years ago, visa woes stemming from a “Muslim ban” have stranded aspiring environmental engineer Sara Mashhadi Nejad in Tehran, Iran.

    Mostafa Mohammad Rezaee

    In the spring of 2019, Sara Mashhadi Nejad was ready to embark on a new chapter of her life. The aspiring environmental engineer in Iran had just been accepted to the University of Toledo, where she would conduct doctoral research on how Lake Erie pollutants harm children. But she became ensnared in a byzantine visa process that has left her marooned in Tehran—separated from her husband at Bowling Green State University and endangering her spot at Toledo.

    Now, Mashhadi Nejad has reason to hope her agonizing wait may have a happy ending. Last week, President Joe Biden revoked former President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, imposed in 2017, which barred citizens of Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States—leaving thousands of students and scientists in limbo. The Trump administration’s controversial policy “jeopardized our global network of alliances and partnerships” and was “a moral blight,” Biden wrote in a 20 January proclamation abolishing it.

    Many researchers from affected nations welcomed the news. “It’s a great development,” says Nasser Zawia, a Yemeni-born pharmacologist and naturalized U.S. citizen at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston. “It’s like life is back to normal.”

  • One-dose COVID-19 vaccine offers solid protection against severe disease

    gloved hands load vials into a system

    Vials are prepped to receive doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which the company says has strong efficacy against the disease.

    Johnson & Johnson

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

    For the first time, a single-dose COVID-19 vaccine has been shown to deliver solid protection against severe disease and death. The vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson (J&J), had 85% efficacy against COVID-19–related fatalities or severe symptoms in all age groups, regardless of a person’s other underlying medical conditions, the company announced today. Its efficacy against mild cases of the disease was lower, and dropped to 57% in South Africa, where a viral variant that can dodge immune responses now dominates. But when it came to severe disease, the vaccine appeared equally effective regardless of the viral strain, a result many vaccine experts hailed.

    “If you can prevent severe disease in a high percentage of individuals, that will alleviate so much of the stress in human suffering and death in this epidemic,” said Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a telephone press conference this morning. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease physician who is medical director of the special pathogens unit at Boston Medical Center, added that a single-dose vaccine could be a boon for people living in remote places and those who might have difficulty getting a second dose. Given the data against mild disease, “Someone is going to say that the [J&J] results are disappointing,” Bhadelia says, but they’re “a game changer.”

  • Novavax vaccine delivers 89% efficacy against COVID-19 in U.K.—but is less potent in South Africa

    A health care worker administers a shot into the arm of a trial volunteer

    A health care worker administers the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine into the arm of a trial volunteer in Soweto, South Africa.

    JOAO SILVA/The New York Times/​Redux

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

    The small biotech firm Novavax, once considered a dark horse in the COVID-19 vaccine race, announced today its candidate delivered high efficacy—89.3%—in a pivotal trial in the United Kingdom where a new, highly transmissible variant of the pandemic coronavirus accounted for more than half of the cases in people in the trial.

    “These are spectacular results,” Clive Dix, chair of the U.K. Vaccine Taskforce, said about the results from the trial, which enrolled more than 15,000 people. “This is an incredible achievement that will ensure we can protect individuals in the U.K. and the rest of the world from this virus.”

  • Parting Trump memo on U.S. research security seen as road map for Biden

    black and white photo of the White House
    JTSorrell/iStock

    A memo by outgoing President Donald Trump on how to prevent China and other U.S. adversaries from gaining improper access to research funded by the federal government is getting surprisingly positive reviews from research advocates.

    Issued on 14 January, National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM)-33 offers a list of directives to federal agencies, universities, and individual scientists on how protect national security without abandoning the hallmark openness of U.S. science. Officially, the memo is now just another archived document from a former president. But university officials say they wouldn’t mind seeing President Joe Biden draw from its recommendations in crafting his administration’s broader approach to dealing with China.

    “I don’t know how to read the political tea leaves, but right now I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Mary Millsaps, who oversees compliance with federal research rules at Purdue University. “I think it sets a common framework for the next round of discussions.”

  • Risk of being scooped drives scientists to shoddy methods

    A conceptual illustration of three researchers hold over-sized vaccines as they race down a track

    In the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, second place still offers glory—unlike some scientific fields.

    KORA_SUN/SHUTTERSTOCK, ADAPTED BY C. SMITH/SCIENCE

    Leonid Tiokhin, a metascientist at Eindhoven University of Technology, learned early on to fear being scooped. He recalls emails from his undergraduate adviser that stressed the importance of being first to publish: “We’d better hurry, we’d better rush.”

    A new analysis by Tiokhin and his colleagues demonstrates how risky that competition is for science. Rewarding researchers who publish first pushes them to cut corners, their model shows. And although some proposed reforms in science might help, the model suggests others could unintentionally exacerbate the problem.

    Tiokhin’s team is not the first to make the argument that competition poses risks to science, says Paul Smaldino, a cognitive scientist at the University of California (UC), Merced, who was not involved in the research. But the model is the first to use details that explore precisely how those risks play out, he says. “I think that’s very powerful.”

  • Biden orders sweeping review of government science integrity policies

    John Kerry and Kamala Harris listen as Joe Biden delivers remarks

    President Joe Biden (right) unveiled his new memorandum on scientific integrity today at a White House event attended by Vice President Kamala Harris (center) and climate envoy John Kerry.

    AP Photo/Evan Vucci

    President Joe Biden today created a task force that will conduct a 120-day review of scientific integrity policies across the U.S. government, including documenting instances in which “improper political interference” interfered with research or led to the suppression or distortion of data.

    The review is part of a lengthy memorandum from Biden on his plans for “restoring trust” in government by emphasizing scientific integrity and the use of evidence in policymaking. The memo also calls on federal research agencies to name chief scientific officers, and for all agencies to spend 90 days reviewing the role of dozens of panels that provide scientific advice to government. Agencies will also determine whether they want to re-create technical advisory panels dismantled under former President Donald Trump.

    “Scientific and technological information, data, and evidence are central to the development and iterative improvement of sound policies,” states the memo. “Improper political interference in the work of Federal scientists or other scientists who support the work of the Federal Government and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the Nation.”

  • Monoclonal antibodies protect against COVID-19 in a second study

    worker standing at a Regeneron bioreactors

    Regeneron’s bioreactors are producing antibodies to treat COVID-19, but they may also be able to prevent the disease.

    RANI LEVY/REGENERON

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

    A second company has provided preliminary evidence that proactively infusing healthy people with monoclonal antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 prevents them from developing noticeable symptoms of COVID-19 if they are exposed to the coronavirus. In a press release today, Regeneron revealed that when it gave a cocktail of two of those antibodies to 186 people living in a house with someone who had COVID-19, none developed symptomatic disease.

    The trial is ongoing, and the results have not yet posted as a preprint, let alone been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Yet the company says an analysis of nasal swabs from its study showed the people who received the antibodies and became infected had significantly lower levels of the virus in their nose and shed virus for a shorter time than those in the placebo group who contracted SARS-CoV-2.

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