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  • Did an experimental drug help a U.S. coronavirus patient?

    George Thompson

    George Thompson

    University of California-Davis Health

    On 26 February, what seems like ages ago in the ongoing pandemic, the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento finally got RNA test results confirming that a critically ill patient it had been treating for a week had coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). (It took 4 days before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed to evaluate the patient samples because the person did not meet the strict criteria the agency then had in place, and 3 more days for the result to come back.) The patient, who for privacy reasons UC Davis physicans refer to only as they but who has been described as a woman by California's governor and state health officials, was the first likely case of U.S. community spread detected, meaning that the source of her infection was not known: She had had not traveled outside the United States to an infected area or been in known contact with a confirmed case.

    The difficulty the medical center faced acquiring a test for its patient received widespread media scrutiny, but her fate largely escaped notice: After her condition declined, the UC Davis doctors secured what’s known as compassionate use permission from the Food and Drug Administration to test an experimental drug on their patient outside of a clinical trial. The drug, remdesivir made by Gilead Sciences, is given by an intravenous drip. Several randomized, placebo controlled trials of remdesivir for COV-19 are now underway in China and the United States and everyone is looking for quick hints on whether the drug works—a new preprint out today on the drug’s use in three COVID-19 patients is raising questions about its ultimate value.

    Remdesivir cripples an enzyme called RNA polymerase that is used by many viruses to copy themselves; it does not specifically target SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  But it worked well in test tube and animal studies of human coronaviruses, cousins of SARS-CoV-2 called severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, that cause similar respiratory conditions. (Ebola also is an RNA virus, but a test of remdesivir in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year showed that it didn’t work for that disease.) 

  • Embattled spider biologist seeks to delay additional retractions of problematic papers

    Behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt is pictured here in October 2015

    Jonathan Pruitt, seen here in 2015 holding a black widow spider, has had his animal behavior data come under scrutiny by journals and peers.

    Kara Holsopple/The Allegheny Front

    After many colleagues recently raised concerns in blogs and tweets that behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt had fabricated the data behind a slew of provocative results regarding animal personalities and social spiders, he denied the charges, saying any problems were inadvertent mistakes. Now the biologist’s lawyer has sent letters to some co-authors and journal editors, cautioning them to let misconduct investigations at Pruitt’s current and former universities play out before retracting any more of his papers. In addition, an online spreadsheet quickly established to track analyses of the integrity of the scientist’s 160 papers has been taken offline.

    The two actions have effectively shut down the once very public discussion of the situation and put in limbo further clarification of the reliability of papers co-authored by Pruitt, now at McMaster University. Boston University’s James Traniello, editor-in-chief of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, where Pruitt co-authored nine papers, says that as a scientist he is not used to dealing with legal issues and he feels “stuck between a rock and a hard place” in sorting out the best course of action.

    In late January, while Pruitt was doing fieldwork in Australia, one of his co-authors tweeted and blogged about irregularities in spider behavior observations given to her by Pruitt. Those data concerns had led to the retractions of two of their papers, a step Pruitt approved. Many other Pruitt co-authors began expressing concerns and contacting him to ask what was going on. Pruitt, who 2 years ago was given a celebrated endowed research position by Canada, initially responded to some people and journals but says he was then overwhelmed. Between all the emails and social media comments, “There are so many voices, and they are so loud and so diverse, there’s no way to address it,” Pruitt said in an interview with Scienceinsider at the time.

  • Does disinfecting surfaces really prevent the spread of coronavirus?

    Members of a police sanitation team spraying disinfectant

    In Bozhou, China, in a photo from February, workers spray disinfectant to protect against the novel coronavirus.

    STR/AFP via Getty Images

    Photos from the areas hardest hit by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 tell a story of disinfection: Trucks spraying streets and a phalanx of sanitation workers wearing backpack tanks fogging sidewalks, parks, and plazas in China, South Korea, Italy, and elsewhere. Countless recommendations admonish us to wash our hands and disinfect often-touched surfaces in our homes. But what is the most effective way to prevent exposure to the virus?

    Like other coronaviruses, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which causes COVID-19, is thought to spread most commonly through invisible respiratory droplets sent into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Those droplets can then be inhaled by nearby people or land on surfaces that others then touch, who can then get infected when they touch their eyes, nose, or mouth.

    The good news from investigations of the coronavirus spread, says Juan Leon, an environmental health scientist at Emory University, is that past studies show common household disinfectants, including soap or a diluted bleach solution, can deactivate coronaviruses on indoor surfaces. “Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses with a protective fat layer,” Leon says. Disinfectants tear apart that fat layer, Leon says, which makes coronaviruses “fairly wimpy” compared to noroviruses and other common viruses that have a more robust protein shell. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of disinfectants that have shown to be effective in fighting coronaviruses.

  • European Mars rover delayed until 2022

    illustration of the Exomars rover on the surface of Mars

    Europe’s Rosalind Franklin rover can drill 2 meters into the surface of Mars.

    ESA/ATG medialab

    Multiple technical issues will delay the launch of the ExoMars mission for 2 years until 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, announced today. ExoMars includes a Russian-built landing station and an ESA rover that would drill 2 meters below Mars’s surface to look for signs of past or present life. Now, just 4 months from its originally planned launch, the mission has been postponed because of problems with its parachute system, solar panels, and electrical wiring.

    “We cannot really cut corners,” said ESA Director General Jan Wöerner today at a press conference, following a meeting with Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin. “It was a very tough decision, but I’m sure it was the right one.”

    Although the issues could be resolved in the next few months, Wöerner said there was not enough time to test the mission’s software system on the final flight-ready spacecraft. He did not want a repeat of the failure of ESA’s first Mars lander, 2016’s Schiaparelli, which crashed because of a software error during its descent.

  • Quarantine the cat? Disinfect the dog? The latest advice about the coronavirus and your pets

    A dog licks a boy’s face

    When a Pomeranian in Hong Kong tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 last week, pets quickly became part of the coronavirus conversation. The case raised the alarming possibility that pets could become part of the transmission chain for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which could potentially harm both them and us. But many questions remain about this possibility and how best to respond.

    As Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) explained in a fact sheet last week, the Pomeranian tested “weakly positive” for the virus in sensitive tests that detected viral RNA in nose and mouth samples. “The dog has a low-level of infection and it is likely to be a case of human-to-animal transmission,” AFCD wrote. “We strongly advise that mammalian pet animals including dogs and cats from households with … infected persons should be put under quarantine … to safeguard public and animal health.”

    Science talked with Shelley Rankin, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia, about the risks of COVID-19 infection in pets. Her lab is part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network, a collective of veterinary diagnostic labs that could help determine the impact of the pandemic on pets and other animals. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

  • UK cues up big funding increases for R&D

    Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak holds the budget box as members of his Treasury team walk outside his office in Downing Street in London

    U.K. Chancellor of the Excheque rRishi Sunak announced a budget on 11 March with big increases for science.

    REUTERS/Toby Melville

    The United Kingdom will increase public funding for research and development by 15% in the next fiscal year, its largest year-on-year increase ever, according to budget plans unveiled today. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government plans to ramp up R&D spending even faster over the next 3 years, more than doubling the current total to £22 billion by 202425.

    "This is an ambitious program and a huge investment in a short period of time," Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said in a statement. "In a welcome move, the Government has supercharged public investment in science, delivering investment faster and further than it had promised." But some observers worry that the government may be opaque in how it decides to allocate the massive funding increases.

    In 2017, the U.K. government pledged that within 10 years the country would increase spending on research and development—public and private combined—to reach 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), the average of economically developed countries. The United Kingdom currently lags behind and was at 1.7% of GDP in 2017.

  • Fired cancer scientist says ‘good people are being crushed’ by overzealous probes into possible Chinese ties

    Pearlie Epling-Burnett

    Pearlie Epling-Burnette in her former lab at the Moffitt Cancer Center.

    Pearlie Epling-Burnett

    One of Pearlie Epling-Burnette’s students expects to receive her Ph.D. in cancer biology this spring from the University of South Florida. But Epling-Burnett won’t be there to help the student defend her dissertation, the last step before earning her diploma. That’s because, on 19 December 2019, the Moffitt Cancer Center told Epling-Burnette it would fire her unless she resigned immediately.

    According to Moffitt, Epling-Burnette and five other senior scientists got the boot because they were involved in collaborations with institutions in China that “violated multiple Moffitt policies and federal grant standards.” But the 59-year-old Epling-Burnette, an immunologist who began working at Moffitt in 1988 and held its equivalent of tenure, disputes that conclusion.

    In an exclusive interview with ScienceInsider, she says she is being blamed for things that never happened. Her actions violated no federal or institutional policies, she asserts. All her dealings with China, she adds, fell within the scope of a longstanding joint venture between Moffitt and Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital (TMUCIH), for which Tianjin pays Moffitt $500,000 annually. And she says everything was done with Moffitt’s knowledge and consent.

  • ‘We're behind the curve’: U.S. hospitals confront the challenges of large-scale coronavirus testing

    Harborview Medical Center's home assessment team

    A team from Seattle's Harborview Medical Center carry supplies in preparation for home visits to collect samples from people potentially exposed to the new coronavirus.

    David Ryder/Reuters

    China and South Korea continue to report drops in their cases of the respiratory disease COVID-19, and there’s an increasing realization that, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has insisted for several weeks, countries that aggressively confront their outbreaks of the coronavirus causing it can make powerful inroads to slow the spread. Again and again, the key to success has been widescale testing for the virus’ RNA in people and then isolation—either by choice or mandate—of the infected and their contacts.

    In the United States, in contrast, COVID-19 cases are climbing at an alarming rate, and people who have received tests for the virus, SARS-CoV-2, remain few and far between. (No official number exists, but fewer than 5000 people in the United States had received a test as of 9 March, according to an Atlantic article that attempted to tally the total.) The White House coronavirus task force has insisted that early problems created by a faulty test distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been overcome and that the U.S. government has increased production of functioning diagnostic kits. There has also been a push to move testing away from CDC itself and state labs to hospitals and commercial companies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on 29 February changed its regulations to allow diagnostic labs that previously have met federal quality standards to modify the CDC protocol or design their own kits.

    At a White House press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the country’s coronavirus task force, said that by the end of the week, there will be more than 5 million tests available and that industry is ramping up production of even more. Pence stressed that the government has also removed criteria that initially restricted testing to people who had traveled to China, come in contact with a confirmed case, or had severe symptoms. “As the president said, anyone who on a doctor's order wants to be tested, can, at a doctor's indication, be tested now,” Pence said.

  • White House edits to EPA’s draft rule reveal tensions over ‘secret science’ push

    the white house

    Originally published by E&E News

    The White House has released a working copy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) latest controversial “secret science” proposal replete with red edits.

    The document shows there is a battle going on within the administration over what language to use on a rule that aims to retool the scientific research underpinning EPA policy.

  • Does closing schools slow the spread of coronavirus? Past outbreaks provide clues

    Teachers talk with students at home in an online class

    Where schools have closed, teachers have attempted to continue coursework with their students online.

    Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

    As the societal disruptions from COVID-19 spread and intensify, a question for many in the United States is, what about schools? Schools in Japan, Italy, parts of China, and elsewhere have shuttered. A small but increasing number in the United States are following suit, whether for a day, a week, or longer.

    But does shutting a school help a broader community, especially when the role played by children in spreading COVID-19 remains uncertain? Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and physician at Yale University, thinks it does, but he recognizes that questions around closing schools are difficult. Christakis studies social networks and is developing software and statistical methods to forecast an epidemic’s spread before it happens.

    This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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