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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • New Ebola outbreak likely sparked by a person infected 5 years ago

    Ebola virus particles (red) on a larger cell

    The Ebola virus may cause latent infections in survivors that could spark new outbreaks.

    National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    An Ebola outbreak in Guinea that has so far sickened at least 18 people and killed nine has stirred difficult memories of the devastating epidemic that struck the West African country between 2013 and 2016, along with neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, leaving more than 11,000 people dead.

    But it may not just be the trauma that has persisted. The virus causing the new outbreak barely differs from the strain seen 5 to 6 years ago, genomic analyses by three independent research groups have shown, suggesting the virus lay dormant in a survivor of the epidemic all that time. “This is pretty shocking,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University. “Ebolaviruses aren’t herpesviruses”—which are known to cause long-lasting infections—“and generally RNA viruses don’t just hang around not replicating at all.”

    Scientists knew the Ebola virus can persist for a long time in the human body; a resurgence in Guinea in 2016 originated from a survivor who shed the virus in his semen more than 500 days after his infection and infected a partner through sexual intercourse. “But to have a new outbreak start from latent infection 5 years after the end of an epidemic is scary and new,” says Eric Delaporte, an infectious disease physician at the University of Montpellier who has studied Ebola survivors and is a member of one of the three teams. Outbreaks ignited by Ebola survivors are still very rare, Delaporte says, but the finding raises tricky questions about how to prevent them without further stigmatizing Ebola survivors.

  • Europe moves to exclude neighbors from its quantum and space research

    Mariya Gabriel

    A department overseen by European Union research commissioner Mariya Gabriel wants to safeguard strategic research by barring non-EU researchers.

    AP Photo/Francisco Seco

    In a sign of growing national tensions over the control of strategic research, the European Commission is trying to block countries outside the European Union from participating in quantum computing and space projects under Horizon Europe, its new research funding program.

    The proposed calls, which must still be approved by delegates from the 27 EU member states in the coming weeks, would shut out researchers in countries accustomed to full access to European research programs, including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Israel. European Economic Area (EEA) countries Norway, Lichtenstein, and Iceland would be barred from space research calls while remaining eligible for quantum computing projects.

    Research advocates see the proposed restrictions as self-defeating for all parties, including the European Union. It would be a classic lose-lose, with researchers in all countries having to work harder, and spend more, to make progress in these fields,” says Vivienne Stern, director of UK Universities International. The unexpected news has upset some leaders of existing collaborations and left them scrambling to find out whether they will need to exclude partners—or even drop out themselves—if they want their projects to be eligible for further funding. “It is really a pity because we have a tight and fruitful relationship with our partners in the U.K.,” says Sandro Mengali, director of the Italian research nonprofit Consorzio C.R.E.O. and coordinator of an EU-funded project developing heat shields for spacecraft.

  • France grossly underestimated radioactive fallout from atom bomb tests, study finds

    An image of the French Licorne nuclear test

    From 1966 to 1974, France conducted 41 above-ground test of nuclear weapons on the Moruroa atoll, including this one of a 0.9-megaton giant in the Licorne test on 3 July 1970.

    CTBTO/SCIENCE SOURCE

    From 1966 to 1974, France blew up 41 nuclear weapons in above-ground tests in French Polynesia, the collection of 118 islands and atolls that is part of France. The French government has long contended that the testing was done safely. But a new analysis of hundreds of documents declassified in 2013 suggests the tests exposed 90% of the 125,000 people living in French Polynesia to radioactive fallout—roughly 10 times as many people as the French government has estimated.

    “This is going to make a big splash in France,” predicts Frank von Hippel, a physicist specializing in public and international affairs at Princeton University, who was not involved in the work. Most French Polynesians were exposed to a relatively small amount of radiation, von Hippel notes, and the central issue is who is eligible for compensation under French law.

    The findings come from a 2-year collaboration, dubbed the Moruroa Files, between Disclose, a French nonprofit that supports investigative journalism; Interprt, a collective of researchers, architects, and spatial designers affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who focus on environmental issues; and the Science & Global Security program at Princeton. The findings were presented on 9 March on the project’s website, in a book, and in a technical paper posted to the arXiv preprint server.

  • What’s in the huge pandemic relief bill for science?

    the US capitol
    iStock.com/uschools

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

    A massive $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill now on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk will deliver cash to a wide array of groups—including the scientific community.

    The U.S. House of Representatives today approved final passage of the bill, which Biden is expected to sign on Friday, on a 220211 party-line vote.

  • Viral vector unlikely to be cause of leukemia in gene therapy patient

    illustration of sickle shaped red blood cells

    Bluebird Bio is tamping down cancer concerns regarding a gene therapy approach to prevent the sickling of blood cells (above).

    Stocktrek Images/Science Source

    Gene therapy researchers are breathing easier after a company reported today that the modified virus it used to treat sickle cell disease in a person who later developed leukemia was very unlikely to have caused the cancer.

    The leukemia case, which Bluebird Bio disclosed on 16 February, led the company to halt its two sickle cell disease trials and suspend sales of a similar treatment for beta-thalassemia. The following week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put a hold on the company’s two sickle cell disease trials and two beta-thalassemia trials.

    But the company has now done various lab tests and found “important evidence demonstrating that it is very unlikely our BB305 lentiviral vector played a role in this case,” said Chief Scientific Officer Philip Gregory in a press release. The company is now in discussions with FDA about lifting the trial hold.

  • What is research misconduct? European countries can’t agree

    illustration of a few date stamps in a crowd of many rubber stamps
    MirageC/Getty Images, edited by E. Petersen/Science

    In Sweden, a national code takes 44,000 words to define research misconduct and discuss scientific values. Next door, Norway’s equivalent is a brisk 900 words, little more than in this news article. And it’s not just the size of the codes that differs across Europe: A new analysis of scientific integrity policies in 32 nations has found widely varying standards and definitions for research misconduct itself, despite a 2017 Europe-wide code of conduct intended to align them.

    Research ethicists say the differences threaten to create confusion and disputes for international scientific collaborations. Teams often include members working in different countries; if a team member is accused of research misconduct, which country’s rules should apply? The decision affects who can be held responsible, and which behaviors are considered unethical. “It really is a difficult issue,” says Nicole Föger, managing director of the Austrian Agency for Research Integrity.

    The mismatched standards have already led to practical problems, Föger says. She cites a case of an Austrian postdoctoral researcher who applied Austrian ethical standards while working at a university in another European country. The Austrian standards—mandated by the postdoc’s Austrian research funding contract—forbid “honorary authorship” for researchers who did not contribute substantially to a paper. But after leaving a senior researcher at this university off a paper because of a lack of contribution, the postdoc faced a university investigation and was found to have been in the wrong.

  • Critics decry access, transparency issues with key trove of coronavirus sequences

    coronavirus genome visualization

    GISAID data can help scientists build visualizations such as this one of the coronavirus genome.

    MARTIN KRZYWINSKI/SCIENCE SOURCE

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

    In December 2020, software developer Angie Hinrichs at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), applied for access to a labor-saving data feed from GISAID, a nonprofit database of viral sequences including those of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. She wanted GISAID’s data so she could display mutations on UCSC’s coronavirus Genome Browser. That tool ties any position in the virus’ nearly 30,000-letter genome to other scientific information, much as Google Maps shows gas stations and restaurants near addresses.

    With more than 700,000 genomes from more than 160 countries, GISAID is by far the world’s largest database of SARS-CoV-2 sequences. Access to the free, nonprofit repository has become vital to Hinrichs and thousands of other scientists and public health agencies tracking the virus’ alarmingly rapid evolution.

  • Countries now scrambling for COVID-19 vaccines may soon have surpluses to donate

    An over the shoulder view of a pharmacist opening a box of vials inside a freezer

    Dozens of wealthy nations should by the end of the year have many surplus doses of COVID-19 vaccines like these made by BioNTech and Pfizer.

    Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

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

    Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden shaved 2 months off earlier projections and promised COVID-19 vaccine doses would be available for all U.S. adults by the end of May. That’s welcome news for the United States, which has had more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country. It could also be good news for nations that may benefit from the more than 1 billion extra doses the federal government has ordered.

    Like three dozen other countries, the United States contracted with multiple vaccine companies for several times the number of doses needed to cover its population. No one knew at the time which, if any, of the candidate vaccines would work or when they might prove safe and effective. But by now, most of the prepurchased vaccines appear to offer solid protection—which means many countries will receive far more vaccine than they need. The excess doses the United States alone may have by July would vaccinate at least 200 million people. Over the next year or two, U.S. surplus doses and those from other countries could add up to enough to immunize everyone in the many poorer nations that lack any secured COVID-19 vaccine.

  • ‘On the verge of a breakdown.’ Report highlights women academics’ pandemic challenges

    A mother works at a table with her young child.
    kate_sept2004/iStock

    Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and policymakers have raised serious concerns about impacts on women, including those pursuing careers in academic science. Today, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine adds to the chorus with its report on how women academics in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine are faring.

    In the 253 pages of the report—which reinforces existing concerns, particularly for women who are caregivers—some of the most resonant pieces are survey responses from women faculty members about the challenges they faced during the first 6 months of the pandemic. “The experiences described in the survey are heartbreakingly vivid and all too familiar,” says Reshma Jagsi, an oncology professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the committee that commissioned the report. Here is a selection.

  • Health official ousted by Trump to lead private coronavirus tracking effort

    A technician uses a micropipetter in a biosafety hood.

    The United States needs to boost efforts to sequence coronavirus samples taken from COVID-19 patients, says Rick Bright, leader of a new Rockefeller Foundation program on pandemic prevention.

    AP Photo/John Minchillo

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

    Immunologist Rick Bright, who was removed as director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in April 2020 by the Trump administration after he pushed back against investing in the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, will lead a new private effort to improve defenses against pandemics, both present and future. The Rockefeller Foundation today announced Bright will be its senior vice president for pandemic prevention and response, leading efforts “to avert future pandemics by identifying and responding to the earliest alerts of a disease outbreak and stopping it in the first 100 days.”

    The foundation also released a report, produced by a group of experts Bright helped convene last month, that urges the United States to quickly ramp up its surveillance of the coronavirus. The country is sequencing fewer than 1% of cases, which makes it difficult to identify versions such as the fast-spreading U.K. B.1.1.7 variant that is raising concerns about the efficacy of vaccines.

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