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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • COVID-19 is 10 times deadlier for people with Down syndrome, raising calls for early vaccination

    Amanda Ross

    Amanda Ross on the day of her hospital discharge.

    Catherine Ross

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

    When the COVID-19 pandemic descended last winter, Catherine Ross was filled with dread. Her 36-year-old sister, Amanda Ross, has Down syndrome (DS), which makes her especially vulnerable to respiratory viruses. Amanda Ross had been hospitalized repeatedly with pneumonia. In 2017, she ended up on a ventilator and nearly died.

    In April, she was back on a ventilator. She lives in a group home in Somers, New York and had been diagnosed with COVID-19 on 31 March. The doctor told her close-knit family that, given her history, they needed to prepare for the worst. “It shook us,” Catherine Ross says. Her sister and others with DS, also known as trisomy 21, “are dealing with a stacked deck against them in terms of dealing with the virus,” she says.

  • As COVID-19 vaccines emerge, a global waiting game begins

    Two UPS workers pull a large shipping container

    The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shipped out all around the United States this week, including this batch arriving in Louisville, Kentucky.

    Michael Clevenger/Pool/Getty Images

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

    In March, a Seattle tech worker named Jennifer Haller received an outpouring of gratitude from strangers following news reports that she had received an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, a first outside of China, to test its dosing and safety. “This was one of the few things happening that people could latch on to and say, ‘OK, we’ve got a vaccine coming, disregard that it’s going to take at least 18 months,’” she said at the time.

    Haller was overly skeptical about when an effective COVID-19 vaccine would arrive. But the 43-year-old woman, who received a very low dose of a candidate made by the biotech company Moderna and will therefore need to be vaccinated again, may be on target about when she, and billions of people globally, will finally get protection from the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Although several vaccines have now proved their worth and won emergency use authorizations in multiple nations, they will remain in short supply for many months—even in wealthy countries, and especially for relatively young, healthy people like Haller.

  • Geoengineers inch closer to Sun-dimming balloon test

     Earth’s atmosphere

    Solar geoengineers would combat climate change with a haze of Sun-blocking aerosols.

    BenzA IMG/Alamy Stock Photo

    For years, the controversial idea of solar geoengineering—lofting long-lived reflective particles into the upper atmosphere to block sunlight and diminish global warming—has been theoretical. It’s starting to get real: Today, after much technical and regulatory wrangling, Harvard University scientists are proposing a June 2021 test flight of a research balloon designed to drop small amounts of chalky dust and observe its effects. 

    This first flight would not inject the particles; it would only be a dry run of the steerable balloon and instruments needed to study chemical reactions in the stratosphere, the calm, cold layer more than 10 kilometers up. Even so, the project, called the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), must first win the approval of an independent advisory board, a decision that could come in February 2021.

    The need to study the real-world effects of releasing reflective particles is pressing, says David Keith, a Harvard energy and climate scientist and one of SCoPEx’s lead scientists. Solar geoengineering is no substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, he says, but it could ameliorate the worst damage of global warming, such as the extreme heat waves and storms that claim many lives today. “There is a real potential, maybe a significant potential, to reduce the risks of climate change this century—by a lot.”

  • North Korea is about to exhaust its tuberculosis drug supply, experts warn

    two patients sit in a dormitory room.

    Patients at the central tuberculosis hospital in Pyongyang, North Korea

    AP Photo/Eric Talmadge

    North Korea has yet to report a single case of COVID-19—a remarkable success that, if true, the nation achieved after severing links with the outside world. But that isolation could soon exact a steep toll in other areas of public health: Humanitarian groups warn the isolated country is facing eroding food security, and they are bracing for a rapid spread of tuberculosis (TB), as supplies of first-line drugs against more treatable strains are expected to run out this month.

    Even before the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea had one of the world’s highest TB prevalence rates outside sub-Saharan Africa. A government survey carried out in 2015 and 2016 pegged TB prevalence, or total cases, at 640 per 100,000 people, several times higher than neighboring South Korea’s. In February, as COVID-19 began to spread out of China, North Korea sealed its borders, allowing almost no one to enter or leave the country and greatly curtailing cargo shipments.

    “Every untreated TB patient could infect 10 to 15 other people. We could be looking at a much bigger epidemic,” says a U.S.-based humanitarian official who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of public health efforts in North Korea.

  • Researchers decry Trump picks for education sciences advisory board

    President Donald Trump

    President Donald Trump

    GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    One month before his term expires, President Donald Trump has revived a moribund federal education research advisory panel by appointing eight members who appear to have no expertise in the subject area.

    The National Board for Education Sciences (NBES) provides guidance to the director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. But the lack of a quorum on the 15-member presidentially appointed board has prevented it from meeting since the waning days of the Obama administration.

    That lengthy presidential snub of the panel was part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to shrink government that resulted in a reduced flow of scientific advice to various federal agencies. That effort has had a particularly dramatic impact at regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, where the administration dismantled or dramatically reshaped several science advisory panels. For education researchers, a mothballed NBES deprived them of a high-level conduit for using their methodological expertise to help shape federal policies meant to improve education outcomes for all students.

  • The Paris climate pact is 5 years old. Is it working?

    The Arc de Triomphe is illuminated green with text that reads “Accord DeParis c’est fait!”

    In 2015, lights on the Arc de Triomphe announced the signing of the Paris agreement to curb climate change. But the pact has produced mixed results.

    Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    When world leaders celebrated reaching a landmark climate change agreement in Paris in December 2015, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe were illuminated with green floodlights and the message “Accord de Paris c’est fait!” (the Paris agreement is done!). Now, five tumultuous years later, a new slogan might be “travail en cours” (work in progress).

    That will be the implicit message sent tomorrow when nations gather—virtually—to look back on what the Paris agreement has achieved in its first half-decade and, more importantly, to unveil new pledges to further cut planet-warming emissions. Although analysts say the pact has helped make progress toward its goal of preventing average global temperatures from increasing by 2°C above preindustrial levels, the effort is also shadowed by ample evidence that many countries aren’t living up to the promises they made in 2015. And even if nations had kept those promises, some researchers forecast that global temperatures would rise by 2.6°C by the end of the century, underlining the need for stronger action.

    If a grade is awarded to the Paris pact “based on whether we have any prospect of meeting a 2°C target, from that point of view, it’s probably a D or an F,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist and policy expert at Princeton University. But at the same time, he says, the pact has made a “real difference” by helping make climate change “a top concern of all countries.”

  • Development of unique Australian COVID-19 vaccine halted

     Structural model of the trimeric SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein

    For a potential COVID-19 vaccine, the spike protein (structural model pictured) of the pandemic coronavirus was stabilized by a bit of an HIV protein (red).

    P. R. Young, Microbiology Australia (2020) 41: 109-112 CC BY

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

    The backers of Australia’s homegrown COVID-19 vaccine candidate today announced a halt to its further development, after some of the first people to receive the vaccine in a safety trial generated antibodies to an unintended target, the AIDS virus. A small fragment of an HIV protein is a component of the vaccine used to add stability to the intended antibody target, the spike protein of the pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

    Although the added component didn’t represent an actual infection with HIV, the vaccine developers and the Australian government concluded a widespread rollout of the candidate would interfere with HIV diagnostic tests and decided not to proceed to larger clinical trials that would have measured its protection against COVID-19. Given the strong efficacy shown by several recent COVID-19 vaccines, it’s likely that other candidates still in development will now have a higher bar to clear to move forward.

  • FDA panel backs Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, paving way for emergency use in the United States

    In a clean room, a pharmacist attaches a label to a syringe

    A pharmacist at Mount Sinai Queens hospital labels syringes that will be used for COVID-19 vaccine doses, perhaps as soon as next week given the Food and Drug Administration advisory panel vote today.

    AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

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

    The preliminary report 1 month ago that an experimental COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech had 95% efficacy startled the world. But few surprises occurred today when the vaccine advisory committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly backed the companies’ request for an emergency use authorization (EUA) of their candidate for people 16 years of age and older. If FDA promptly accepts the recommendation, as is expected in the next few days, select groups of people in the United States could, for the first time, begin to receive COVID-19 vaccines outside of a clinical trial.

    Other scientists hailed the panel’s decision. “It’s great to know that we have efficacious products coming online and will soon be available to folks,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician who specializes in vaccines at the University of Florida. The vaccine’s level of efficacy, she says, “exceeded expectations.”

  • China launches gamma ray–hunting satellites to trace sources of gravitational waves

    An illustration of two very dense neutron stars merging and exploding as a kilonova

    A new Chinese space mission will watch for gamma ray bursts from merging neutron stars.

    UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK/MARK GARLICK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (CC BY 4.0)

    The China National Space Administration’s Chang’e-5 mission, set to return Moon rocks to Earth next week, has grabbed headlines around the world. But China’s other space agency, the science-focused National Space Science Center (NSSC) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is making news of its own: Just after 4 a.m. local time today it launched its Gravitational Wave High-energy Electromagnetic Counterpart All-sky Monitor (GECAM) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

    GECAM’s two small satellites—130 centimeters tall and weighing 150 kilograms—are now in identical 600-kilometer-high orbits, but on opposite sides of Earth. From these perches they will watch for the gamma ray bursts that emanate from the merger of ultradense objects, events that also generate gravitational waves, ripples in space-time. In 2017, astronomers witnessed this celestial light show, when a pair of neutron stars, dead cores leftover from supernova explosions, merged and spewed debris glowing at multiple wavelengths. A merger of a neutron star and a black hole are also thought to generate both light and gravitational waves. But whether a merger of two black holes should produce any sort of light is an open question, says Xiong Shaolin, an astrophysicist at CAS’s Institute of High Energy Physics and GECAM’s principal investigator. “Most theorists think the answer is no, but more and more people believe that in some circumstances it may produce electromagnetic emissions, including gamma ray bursts,” he says.

    Working together, the two satellites can monitor the whole sky, tracing the source of a gamma ray burst to a particular location. Existing gamma ray observatories, such as NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, only have partial views of the sky, and are sometimes blocked by Earth, says Gemma Anderson, an astronomer at Curtin University. “GECAM has the whole sky covered,” she says. Also, Swift and Fermi are optimized to capture the longer, higher energy gamma ray bursts that hail from the collapse of massive stars. GECAM’s observational energy range extends down to 6 kiloelectronvolts, lower than Swift and Fermi, which may be an advantage spotting the “softer” gamma ray bursts associated with gravitational waves, Xiong says.

  • Mexico’s coronavirus czar faces criticism as COVID-19 surges

    illustration of Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez

    “The mission calls me and until I deliver results—I hope favorable—I cannot stop,” says Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez, Mexico’s undersecretary of prevention and health promotion.

    KATTY HUERTAS

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

    There’s hardly a Mexican who doesn’t know Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez by now. Mexico’s undersecretary of prevention and health promotion has sat across from reporters at 7 p.m. sharp almost every single night since late February to update them, and the country, on the toll of the coronavirus pandemic. His firm demeanor, careful speech, and courteous personality have made his televised coronavirus press briefings even more popular than those of the country’s president.

    But as COVID-19 deaths in Mexico continue to soar—surpassed only by the United States, Brazil, and India—many have questioned López-Gatell Ramírez’s leadership. Critics accuse him of undercounting the true numbers and mishandling the nation’s response. In early August, the governors of nine Mexican states demanded his resignation. His defenders, though, say he’s making sound decisions based on science and doing the best he can with the resources at his disposal.

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