Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • WHO says no need—yet—to declare spread of novel virus is an international emergency

    A Chinese couple wearing protective masks while kissing

    Amid travel restrictions and canceled public gatherings, millions of Chinese people, like this couple at a Beijing rail station, are now traveling to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

    Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

    Because a novel coronavirus has spread throughout China and jumped to a dozen other countries, the world is on red alert. But the World Health Organization (WHO) today, to the surprise of many global health experts, decided the outbreak does not merit the loudest siren it can sound, a declaration called a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). “It has not yet become a global health emergency,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference in Geneva this evening. “It may yet become one.”

    The decision by Tedros reflected a recommendation from an emergency committee, which over the past 2 days carefully reviewed information about the outbreak. The committee expected to issue a recommendation yesterday but it was so evenly divided on whether to declare a PHEIC that it requested this second day to review the most current data. Today, its chair, Didier Houssin, said opinions remained split. Those against a PHEIC declaration, Houssin said, contended that too few cases have surfaced outside of China—nine of 584 confirmed infections—and also rejected the declaration “because of the efforts presently made by Chinese authorities in order to contain the disease.”

    According to an update that Chinese health officials gave to the emergency committee, 25% of the cases to date have had life-threatening disease and 17 people have died. But critical questions still remain about the severity of the infection with what’s now dubbed 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Researchers suspect that 2019-nCoV jumped from an animal to a human, but no animal source has been identified. Tedros also stressed that human-to-human transmission has occurred, but only within China.

  • NASA infrared telescope says goodbye after 16-year run

    infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy

    The Spitzer Space Telescope revealed the stars in the swirling core of our Milky Way Galaxy that would otherwise be blocked by surrounding dust. Old, cool stars are colored blue, dust lit up by hot stars appears red, and the central bright patch holds a supermassive black hole.

    NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy/Spitzer Science Center

    The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, considered one of NASA’s four “great observatories,” will be switched off on 31 January after a 16-year career. It probed some of the earliest galaxies ever seen, charted how they evolved and formed stars, and picked apart the constituents of exoplanet atmospheres. And in a late tour-de-force, it discovered a clutch of Earth-size planets around a nearby star. “It’s going out on a high note, producing great science to the end,” says Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, who worked on the mission for 20 years and now directs the Las Cumbres Observatory.

    Spitzer is sensitive to infrared light, the photons emitted by the glow of warm objects. Stars do not dominate in Spitzer images. Instead, the telescope sees the glow of galaxies and the clouds of gas that coalesce into stars. It is also suited to finding the universe’s most distant objects, those whose light has been stretched to infrared wavelengths by the expansion of the universe. Earth’s atmosphere blocks most infrared light, so space telescopes are essential. A couple of infrared satellites preceded it, but Spitzer had the biggest mirror (85 centimeters), more sophisticated instruments, and state-of-the-art infrared sensors.

    It didn’t have an easy journey into orbit, however. Originally, the Space Shuttle was supposed to carry it aloft for monthlong observing campaigns, before the 1986 Challenger disaster prompted a rethink. After several redesigns, it was finally launched in 2003 on a Delta II rocket. It was the last of the great observatories to launch, following the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory.

  • U.S. geoengineering research gets a lift with $4 million from Congress

    A U.S. Senate spending panel wants the Department of Energy to study ways of increasing the amount of sunlight reflected from Earth, in order to combat global warming.
    NASA/ISS Crew/Johnson Space Center

    Originally published by E&E News

    BOULDER, COLORADO—The top climate change scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said he has received $4 million from Congress and permission from his agency to study two emergency—and controversial—methods to cool the Earth if the U.S. and other nations fail to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

    David Fahey, director of the Chemical Sciences Division of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, told his staff yesterday that the federal government is ready to examine the science behind "geoengineering"—or what he dubbed a "Plan B" for climate change.

  • WHO panel puts off decision on whether to sound alarm on rapid spread of new virus

    Travelers wear protective masks while waiting for transport

    Many travelers wore protective face masks at Shanghai’s high-speed railway station today. Hundreds of millions of people are traveling this week to attend Lunar New Year celebrations.

    Bloomberg/Getty Images

    An emergency committee for the World Health Organization (WHO) today had a tie vote on whether to recommend sounding the loudest alarm available in response to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus that has spread from Wuhan, China, throughout that nation and to at least four other countries.

    At a late evening press conference in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chair of the committee, and other WHO officials explained that half the committee decided there were still too many unknowns to a declare Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a designation that can affect travel and the movement of goods. The decision came hours after Wuhan authorities revealed that the city will shut down all transportation from the city of 11 million people on 10 a.m. local time on Thursday.

    Didier Houssin, an adviser to France’s top health agency and chair of the committee, said half the committee still had questions about whether the patterns of transmission of the disease and its severity warranted a PHEIC. “The committee felt it was a little too unprecise to very clearly state that it was time” to recommend declaring a PHEIC, Houssin said. The committee, which advises WHO’s director-general, will meet again tomorrow to review whether fresh data tip the scales one way or another.

  • WHO warning on vaping draws harsh response from U.K. researchers

    close up of a man smoking an E-Cigarette

    The spread of vaping has sparked a debate over its risks and benefits.


    New warnings about vaping issued this week by the World Health Organization have prompted strong pushback from public health experts in the United Kingdom, who charged that WHO was spreading “blatant misinformation” about the potential risks and benefits of e-cigarettes.

    The pointed exchange comes amid growing controversy over the value of e-cigarettes, and how to weigh their role as a smoking cessation tool against their potential harms, especially among young people for whom vaping has soared in popularity. The statements align with others made by U.K. public health officials in recent months, which have generally supported vaping as a useful alternative to traditional cigarettes. In contrast, WHO’s cautions about vaping echo those voiced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some U.S. scientists, who are expressing alarm over both known and still-uncertain hazards from vaping. After an outbreak of severe lung disease that’s still being investigated and is linked to THC-containing e-cigarettes, CDC now recommends that e-cigarettes of all kinds “never be used by youths.”

    In a document released Monday, WHO expressed reservations about the value of e-cigarettes and grave concerns about their risks. The organization stated “there is no doubt” that e-cigarettes “are harmful to health and are not safe, but it is too early to provide a clear answer on the long-term impact of using them or being exposed to them.” WHO also suggested “there is not enough evidence to support the use of these products for smoking cessation,” and urged smokers looking to quit to try nicotine patches or gum, or other tools such as hotlines that counsel smokers.

  • Arrival of new SARS-like virus in U.S. heightens concerns about global spread

    People wearing masks walk through an underground passage

    Passengers wear face masks in a subway station in Beijing, one of several cities in China that have reported cases of a new coronavirus.

    REUTERS/Jason Lee TPX

    It’s hard to keep up with the outbreak of the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan last month, but one thing seems increasingly clear: The virus isn’t going away anytime soon. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just reported the first case in the United States, a patient who returned from Wuhan on 15 January and sought treatment in Washington after developing symptoms. Taiwan also confirmed its first infection today, and a boy in the Philippines reportedly tested positive for the virus. (Thailand, Japan, and South Korea have all previously reported cases.) The total number of confirmed cases again shot up today, to more than 300, including six deaths.

    Meanwhile, a panel of Chinese health experts confirmed yesterday what many scientists suspected or feared for a while: The new virus is able to spread between people, which means it could be a lot harder to control. The panel also said health care workers have become infected.

    The rapid spread heightened fears of a rerun of the severe acute respiratory syndrome episode in 2003, when a related coronavirus spread from China to more than 30 countries. “This outbreak is extremely concerning,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement today. “The urgent focus must be on evidence-based interventions. We do not have proven treatments or vaccines,” says Farrar, who added that the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which Wellcome supports, is “working with global partners to accelerate vaccine research for this new virus.”

  • China reports more than 200 infections with new coronavirus from Wuhan

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    The outbreak of a new virus that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan last month appears to be far from over. Today, Chinese health authorities reported that more than 130 new pneumonia cases caused by the virus were identified over the weekend, bringing the total in China alone to 201, including three outside of Wuhan. There has also been a third death from the infection, and South Korea has now reported a case as well—the third country outside China to do so.

    Meanwhile, the pattern of spread makes it increasingly likely that the virus can transmit between people, some experts say. “Uncertainty and gaps remain, but it’s clear that there is some level of person-to-person transmission,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement today.

    “The sudden spike in cases is disconcerting, but not entirely unexpected,” says Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Sydney. As more people learn about the disease, more will go to doctors, Kamradt-Scott says, even with mild symptoms, whereas previously they might have just stayed home. And doctors are now on the lookout for the new disease. “The result is that you see a sudden surge in cases,” he says. But, “If we continue to see this trend continue over the next week where there are 50 to 100 new cases every day, then that would be cause for further concern.”

  • Campus attacks by nationalists and police alarm India’s scientific community

    a young woman wearing bandages walks in front of a crowd

    Aishe Ghosh, the president of the students' union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, at a 9 January rally to protest an attack on the university by Hindu nationalists that left her with multiple injuries.

    REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

    Early in the evening on 5 January, more than 70 masked hoodlums armed with iron rods, stones, and sticks entered the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). They set upon teachers and students who were holding a peaceful political gathering, and marched into student hostels, terrorizing and injuring dozens. Panicked students posted videos on social media and called the police for help, which didn’t arrive.

    The attack on one of India’s most prestigious universities sent shock waves around the country and is the latest sign that the political forces tearing apart Indian society are also affecting the country’s academic community. Students at JNU, a liberal bastion, had been on strike for months against both a major hike in student fees and the government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), widely decried as discriminatory against Muslims. The attackers appeared to be Hindu nationalists. From the inaction of both campus security and the police, many concluded that the attackers acted with the consent of India’s Hindu nationalist government.

    For many academics, the rampage—which came on the heels of a brutal police response to several other university protests last month—felt like an attack on freedom of speech and democracy itself. “It looks like we are living in an era [of] textbook fascist methodology,” says Dinesh Abrol, a former chief scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and a spokesperson for the Delhi Science Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes science. “The space for dissent, free thinking, and contrarian views has already shrunk,” says geographer Sucharita Sen, a professor of regional development at JNU who was hit on the head with a brick during the attack.

  • Moffitt Cancer Center details links of fired scientists to Chinese talent programs

    Moffitt Cancer Center

    The Moffitt Cancer Center is Florida’s only federally designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

    Moffitt Cancer Center

    Six Florida cancer researchers who were dismissed last month for hiding their ties to a Chinese medical university appear to have been motivated by simple greed and a disregard for both institutional and federal rules. 

    That’s the take-home message in a report from the Moffitt Cancer Center to state legislators, who have launched a probe of foreign research collaborations at state-funded universities, including ties to China’s Thousand Talents or another foreign talent recruitment program.

    The Thousand Talents Program is at the center of both investigations. “None of the Moffitt faculty who were Talents program participants properly or timely disclosed their Talents program involvement to Moffitt, and none disclosed the full extent of their Talents program activities prior to Moffitt’s internal investigation,” Moffitt officials wrote on 17 January to state Representative Chris Sprowls (R), who leads a special legislative committee created this month. “All Moffitt faculty participants in the Talents programs acknowledged receiving personal payments that they did not promptly disclose to Moffitt. They also acknowledged having opened or maintained personal bank accounts in China to receive Talents program compensation.”

  • United Kingdom to embark on ‘agricultural revolution’ in break from EU farm subsidies

    a hiker rests on the side of a trail in the valley in Great Langdale

    U.K. farm subsidies will require efforts to support public goods, such as recreation.

    Peter Mulligan/Getty Images

    After the United Kingdom leaves the European Union at the end of the month, it will sever ties with Europe’s farm subsidy policies—and to many researchers, that is a good thing. This week, the U.K. government proposed radical changes to £3 billion a year in agricultural spending that will focus the money on benefits to climate, ecosystems, and the public. “It’s dramatic and utterly critical,” says Dieter Helm, an economist at the University of Oxford. “This is an agricultural revolution.”

    Under the bill, introduced to Parliament this week and expected to become law within a few months, farmers will be given subsidies not simply for cultivating land—the current EU system—but for delivering “public goods.” These include sequestering carbon in trees or soil, enhancing habitat with pollinator-friendly flowers, and improving public access to the countryside. To ease the transition, direct subsidies will be phased out over 7 years beginning in 2021, and the new payments for environmental services will be tested in pilot projects. “It certainly could have really positive benefits for the environment,” says Lynn Dicks, an animal ecologist at the University of Cambridge who studies wild pollinator conservation.

    After the destruction and starvation of World War II, European tariffs helped protect farmers from foreign competition and subsidies boosted their yields. “It was just about production, it didn’t matter what you did to the environment,” says Ian Bateman, an environmental economist at the University of Exeter. New lands were brought under the plow and hedgerows were ripped up, leading to erosion. Excessive fertilizer and pesticides polluted air and water. And the loss of habitat harmed pollinators and other wildlife. The cost of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) wasn’t just environmental: Up through the 1990s, the subsidies consumed 80% of the EU budget. Even today, the €59 billion CAP represents about 40% of EU public spending.

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