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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • United States charges prominent Harvard chemist with failing to disclose China ties

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    The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced today it has charged Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and a prominent nanoscience researcher, with making a false statement to federal investigators about his financial ties to a university and foreign talent recruitment program in China.

    In unrelated cases, prosecutors simultaneously filed charges against two Chinese nationals, Yanqing Ye and Zaosong Zheng, who had been enrolled in scientific research programs at universities in Massachusetts.

    Lieber, 60, is one of the highest-profile researchers to be caught up in a wide-ranging U.S. government effort to crack down on what officials have alleged is a systematic effort by China to take unfair advantage of federally funded research. He "is one of the most distinguished scientists of our time," says chemist Omar Yaghi of the University of California, Berkeley. "He has made tremendous contributions to chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering.” Harvard has placed Lieber on “indefinite” paid administrative leave, according to the Harvard Crimson

  • Can an anti-HIV combination or other existing drugs outwit the new coronavirus?

    Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on January 25, 2020.

    A patient arrives at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in China on 25 January. Scientists in Wuhan have already set up a study to test existing antiviral drugs against a new virus, according to a paper in The Lancet.

    Hector RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

    When a frightening new virus emerges in humans, scientists spend many months, if not years, developing and testing a vaccine. Finding new treatments, too, takes a long time, but there is another option: Try existing drugs to see whether they have activity against the new virus.

    In the case of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), researchers are already trying antivirals widely used to treat HIV, in hopes they might be able to fight the coronavirus as well. Other, still experimental antivirals—including one that was unsuccessfully tested against Ebola last year—may also hold promise.

    The Jin Yintan Hospital in Wuhan, China, where the first 41 known patients were treated, has already launched a randomized, controlled trial of the anti-HIV drug combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, according to a 24 January report by a group of Chinese scientists in The Lancet. The combination targets protease, an enzyme used by both HIV and coronaviruses to cut up proteins when they make new copies of themselves. (A spokesperson for the biopharmaceutical company Abbvie tells ScienceInsider it has donated $2 million worth of the combo, which it markets under the brand name Aluvia, to the Chinese government.)

  • Massive effort to document the genetics of European forests bears fruit

    man using a power drill for coring

    A power drill helps a researcher extract a core from a tree included in the GenTree project.

    Mehdi Pringarbe/INRA Avignon

    Faced with deforestation, climate change, invasive pests, and new diseases, many trees are in trouble. Foresters and conservationists are scrambling to save them, but can’t protect every stand of woods. And prioritizing which places—and even which individual trees—warrant preservation has been a challenge. For example, “You want a lot of genetic diversity in a conservation area. … The higher the diversity, the more the chances that the population will survive,” says F. A. (Phil) Aravanopoulos, a forest geneticist at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. But robust data on the genetic diversity of trees can be scarce.

    Now, a 4-year, $7.7 million effort to document the genetic diversity of forests in Europe is helping fill that gap. In a project dubbed GenTree, researchers from 14 countries measured, cored, and took DNA samples from 12 important tree species across Europe. No other continent’s forests have been documented so broadly and so comprehensively, says Nathalie Isabel, a forest geneticist and forester with Natural Resources Canada. “The sampling is amazing.”

    The results, reported at a forest genetics conference this week in Avignon, France, could help conservationists, tree breeders, forest managers, and researchers trying to understand how forests will cope with climate change. The data trove will “provide a solid base for a better understanding of the links between genetic diversity and increased adaptation and resilience of the European forests,” says forest researcher Hernán Serrano-León, who worked at the recently disbanded European Forest Institute Planted Forests Facility.

  • Animal rights conflict prompts leading researcher to leave Germany for China

    Nikos Logothetis

    Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis will return to doing neuroscience research on monkeys at a new facility in China. 

    Marijan Murat/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    A prominent neuroscientist whose German lab was targeted by animal rights activists is heading to China, where he says he will be freer to pursue his work on macaques and other monkeys. Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, told colleagues last week that the first members of his lab would move in the coming months to a new International Center for Primate Brain Research (ICPBR) in Shanghai, which he will co-direct with neuroscientist Poo Mu-Ming, scientific director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology. 

    Logothetis says he will follow as soon as remaining lab members have finished their projects, likely by late 2020 or early 2021. The Chinese institute is building a new facility in Shanghai’s Songjiang district, which will house as many as 6000 nonhuman primates, including many transgenic monkeys. “Scientifically it’s incredible,” he says. “They have excellent groups working with CRISPR and genetic engineering.” And, he adds, the acceptance of nonhuman primate research by authorities and the public in China is much higher than in Europe. They “know that no other brain (besides that of humans themselves) can be a true help in making progress.”

    The move is another sign that China’s investment in neuroscience research, especially involving primates, is paying off, says Stefan Treue, a neuroscientist and director of the German Primate Center. “China has made incredible progress in an unbelievably short period of time. That is the positive side of a political system that is able to move very quickly,” he says. “The combination of political will and necessary resources mean that they have put together an impressive collection of neuroscientists.”

  • Scientists are moving at record speed to create new coronavirus vaccines—but they may come too late

    Staff sell face masks at a pharmacy

    Staff sell face masks at a pharmacy in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of a novel coronavirus outbreak, on 22 January.

    Drake Kang/AP

    In the stock pandemic movie, scientists are frantically working on concoctions to stop the spread of a newly emerging virus—and by the end, voila, they succeed and save the world. In the real world, vaccines played limited, if any, roles in slowing the Zika epidemic that walloped Latin America in 2016, the devastating 2014–16 West African Ebola epidemic, and the pandemic flu that began to circulate in 2009. The shots just weren’t ready in time.

    This time, with infections of a novel coronavirus exploding in China—case numbers soared to more than 2700 the past 24 hours—and racing around the world, scientists contend they are better prepared than ever to produce a vaccine at Hollywood speed. Of course, the 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), as it is now dubbed, has a solid lead in the race, and by the time a vaccine proves its worth in a clinical trial and manufacturers scale up production, it once again may be too late to make a significant dent in the course of the epidemic. But scientists hope they can make a difference.

    One sign of the breakneck pace was the announcement on 23 January by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) that it will give three companies a total of $12.5 million to develop 2019-CoV vaccines. A nonprofit formed in 2016 solely to fund and shepherd the development of new vaccines against emerging infectious diseases, CEPI is trying to have vaccines developed and tested faster than any previous effort, anywhere, ever. “This is what CEPI was created to do,” says CEO Richard Hatchett.

  • Wuhan seafood market may not be source of novel virus spreading globally

    A worker in a protective suit at the shuttered Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China.
    REUTERS

    As confirmed cases of a novel virus surge around the world with worrisome speed, all eyes have so far focused on a seafood market in Wuhan, China, as the origin of the outbreak. But a description of the first clinical cases published in The Lancet on Friday challenges that hypothesis.

    The paper, written by a large group of Chinese researchers from several institutions, offers details about the first 41 hospitalized patients who had confirmed infections with what has been dubbed 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). In the earliest case, the patient became ill on 1 December 2019 and had no reported link to the seafood market, the authors report. “No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases,” they state. Their data also show that, in total, 13 of the 41 cases had no link to the marketplace. “That’s a big number, 13, with no link,” says Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at Georgetown University.

    Earlier reports from Chinese health authorities and the World Health Organization had said the first patient had onset of symptoms on 8 December 2019—and those reports simply said “most” cases had links to the seafood market, which was closed on 1 January.

  • Brazil’s pick of a creationist to lead its higher education agency rattles scientists

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    SÃO PAULO—The appointment of a creationism advocate to lead the agency that oversees Brazil’s graduate study programs has scientists here concerned—yet again—about the encroachment of religion on science and education policy.

    President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration on Saturday named Benedito Guimarães Aguiar Neto to head the agency, known as CAPES. Aguiar Neto, an electrical engineer by training, previously served as the rector of Mackenzie Presbyterian University (MPU), a private religious school here. It advocates the teaching and study of intelligent design (ID), an outgrowth of biblical creationism that argues that life is too complex to have evolved by Darwinian evolution, and so required an intelligent designer.

    Researchers are decrying the move. “It is completely illogical to place someone who has promoted actions contrary to scientific consensus in a position to manage programs that are essentially of scientific training,” said evolutionary biologist Antonio Carlos Marques of the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences.

  • After criticism, federal officials to revisit policy for reviewing risky virus experiments

    H5N1 avian influenza virus particles

    Some scientists are calling for more transparency about government reviews of research that could make the H5N1 influenza virus more risky to humans.

    NIBSC/Science Source

    A long-running debate over U.S. government-funded research that tweaks risky pathogens in ways that could make them more dangerous to humans is flaring up again. This time, at issue is whether officials should make public the work of a closed-door federal committee that weighs the risks and benefits of experiments proposed for funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and in the past 2 years has greenlighted two controversial avian influenza studies.

    That panel should make public the names of its members, as well as the reviews it writes, some scientists argued yesterday at a 2-day meeting of an expert panel that advises the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But doing so could breach NIH’s confidentiality rules for grant reviews, U.S. officials noted.

    HHS and NIH officials, however, say they are open to some change to the review process, noting that the current emergence of a new virus in China underscores the importance of a smooth process for approving such studies. “If [the policy] needs to be fixed, we’ll fix it,” said Christian Hassell, senior science adviser to the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

  • Industry says voluntary plan to curb antibiotic pollution is working, but critics want regulation

    antibiotic capsule pills in blister packs

    Manufacturing facilities that produce antibiotics can release the compounds into nearby waterways.

    Fahroni/iStock.com

    Two years into its work, a voluntary, industry-led effort to reduce pollution from antibiotic manufacturing facilities is drawing mixed reviews from outside analysts. A new report from a pharmaceutical industry group says it is making substantial progress toward curbing leaks of antibiotic compounds into the environment. But critics say the report highlights the need for governments to enact binding rules.

    Studies have found that many antibiotic manufacturing facilities release the compounds they are making into the environment, often via wastewater, contributing to the deadly problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). (Overuse and improper disposal of drugs also contribute to AMR.) In 2017, after global leaders committed to tackling AMR, more than 100 drug companies and industry associations formed a group—the AMR Industry Alliance—in part to police manufacturing discharges. Alliance members account for roughly one-third of the world’s antibiotic sales.

    Since then, the alliance has developed an industry framework for improving antibiotic manufacturing and has set voluntary targets for safe levels of antibiotics in the environment—known as predicted no-effect concentrations (PNECs). In a progress report released last week, the alliance said nearly 15 of the 18 member companies that manufacture antibiotics have assessed their production sites; 82% reported meeting, wholly or in part, the framework standards, which include a commitment to end discharges of untreated wastewater. Just over half of all the products made at sites owned by the 18 companies will meet the PNEC targets in 3 years, and 88% of products will meet the targets in 7 years, the report says.

  • Doomsday Clock is reset to 100 seconds until midnight, closest ever

    Uncovering of new time on the Doomsday Clock

    Former California Governor Jerry Brown (left), former Irish President Mary Robinson (middle), and former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reveal the 2020 Doomsday Clock.

    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    Information warfare and a looming space arms race are among the emerging threats that led a group of scientists today to reset their iconic Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been since the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started the annual exercise in 1947. Midnight on the clock marks the symbolic moment when humankind could annihilate itself.

    A failure to confront nuclear tensions and climate change also influenced the decision to advance the clock 20 seconds from last year’s position, members of the group announced at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

    “Wake up, America! Wake up, world!” exhorted Jerry Brown, former governor of California, who became executive chair of the Bulletin in 2018. “We have to do more. … But we’re not there [to midnight] yet. We can still pull back from the brink.”

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