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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Designer antibodies could battle COVID-19 before vaccines arrive

    illustration of antibodies binding to SARS-CoV-2 virus

    Hopes are riding on labmade antibodies that bind to a key surface protein of the new coronavirus (orange in an artist’s concept).

    Juan Gaertner/Science Source

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

    While the world is transfixed by the high-stakes race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, an equally crucial competition is heating up to produce targeted antibodies that could provide an instant immunity boost against the virus. Clinical trials of these monoclonal antibodies, which could both prevent and treat the disease, are already underway and could produce signs of efficacy in the next few months, perhaps ahead of vaccine trials. “If you were going to put your money down, you would bet that you get the answer with the monoclonal before you get the answer with a vaccine,” says Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

    “Antibodies have the potential to be an important bridge until the vaccine is available,” says Ajay Nirula, a vice president at Eli Lilly, one of several large companies investing in them. Likely to be more effective than the repurposed drugs now available, such as remdesivir and dexamethasone, antibodies could protect the highest risk health care workers from becoming infected while also lessening the severity of COVID-19 disease in hospitalized patients. But making monoclonals involves growing lines of antibodymaking cells in bioreactors, raising concerns they could be scarce and expensive. On 15 July, Lilly, AbCellera, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Genentech, and Amgen jointly asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) whether they could share information about manufacturing their monoclonals without violating antitrust laws, “to expand and expedite production.” 

  • Why pregnant women face special risks from COVID-19

    Yalda Afshar
    Aparna Sridhar

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

    Yalda Afshar hears the worries every day from her patients: Will COVID-19 hit me harder because I’m pregnant? If I’m infected, will the virus damage my baby? Afshar, a high-risk obstetrician at Ronald Reagan University of California (UC), Los Angeles, Medical Center, understands the women’s concerns better than most: Her first child is due in October.

    Data on pregnancy and COVID-19 are woefully incomplete. But they offer some reassurance: Fetal infections later in pregnancy appear to be rare, and experts are cautiously optimistic that the coronavirus won’t warp early fetal development (see sidebar). But emerging data suggest some substance to the other worry of Afshar’s patients: Pregnancy does appear to make women’s bodies more vulnerable to severe COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. That’s partly because of pregnant women’s uniquely adjusted immune systems, and partly because the coronavirus’ points of attack—the lungs and the cardiovascular system—are already stressed in pregnancy.

  • Radical shift in COVID-19 testing needed to reopen schools and businesses, researchers say

    a researcher organizes biohazard samples

    This fall, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, plans to test all 60,000 students and faculty members multiples times per week.

    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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

    Even as the United States ramped up coronavirus testing from about 100,000 per week in mid-March to more than 5 million per week in late July, the country fell further behind in stemming the spread of the virus. Now, diagnostics experts, public health officials, and epidemiologists are calling for a radical shift in testing strategy: away from diagnosing people who have symptoms or were exposed and toward screening whole populations using faster, cheaper, sometimes less accurate tests. By making it possible to identify and isolate infected individuals more quickly, proponents say, the shift would slow the virus’ spread, key to safely reopening schools, factories, and offices.

    “America faces an impending disaster,” says Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Testing, he says, needs to focus on “massively increasing availability of fast, inexpensive screening tests to identify asymptomatic Americans who carry the virus. Today, we are conducting too few of these types of tests.” Rebecca Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), agrees. To stop outbreaks from overwhelming communities, she says, “we need fast, frequent testing,” which could mean faster versions of existing RNA tests or new kinds of tests aimed at detecting viral proteins. But researchers say the federal government will need to provide major financial backing for the push.

  • Twitter account of embattled #MeTooSTEM founder suspended

    BethAnn McLaughlin

    The Twitterverse responded angrily to alleged deception by #MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin.

    Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

    *Update, 4 August, 5 p.m.: On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that BethAnn McLaughlin had provided it a statement via her lawyer admitting involvement in fabricating a Twitter account. “I take full responsibility for my involvement in creating the @sciencing_bi Twitter account,” it said. “My actions are inexcusable. I apologize without reservation to all the people I hurt.”

    Twitter has suspended the account of MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin after allegations emerged that the former Vanderbilt University neuroscientist fabricated the Twitter account of an apparently nonexistent female Native American anthropologist at Arizona State University (ASU) who had claimed to be an anonymous victim of sexual harassment by a Harvard professor. McLaughlin announced on 31 July that Alepo, the woman supposedly behind the @Sciencing_Bi account, had died after a COVID-19 infection. The company has also suspended that pseudonymous account.

    A detailed accounting of McLaughlin’s recent actions was published by Heavy.com. The episode began when McLaughlin issued a series of tweets on Friday memorializing @Sciencing_Bi, including: “She was a fierce protector of people” and “I wanted to go out there so bad when she went back in the hospital.”

  • Groups protest exclusion of HIV-infected people from coronavirus vaccine trials

    A nurse gives a volunteer an injection as the world's biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine

    A volunteer in a new COVID-19 vaccine trial just launched by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health receives her immunization on 27 July.

    AP Photo/Hans Pennink

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

    *Update, 7 August, 11 a.m.: Pfizer is now seeking to amend its protocol to allow people living with HIV to participate in its phase II/III trial, along with people successfully treated for hepatitis B and hepatitis C, according to a 6 August letter from the company to Lynda Dee of AIDS Action Baltimore. Although the current protocol allowed people with a preexisting stable disease to participate, “we understand the importance of amending the protocol, with regulatory approval, to specifically state that volunteers living with stable HIV, HCV and HBV, and others living with stable disease, can be included,” writes Pfizer official William Gruber.  

    On 5 August, Moderna announced on Twitter that its phase III COVID-19 vaccine study would shift to “include people living with controlled HIV who are not otherwise immunosuppressed.” The company had planned to test the vaccine in HIV patients in a separate study, but “heard the preference of the community,” it said, to be part of the ongoing trial. It decided to modify the protocol after discussions with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Operation Warp Speed, and other federal officials.

    As large trials get underway to test the vaccines needed to stop the global coronavirus pandemic, one group has realized it is being left out and is not happy: people living with HIV.

  • Antiabortion ethicists and scientists dominate Trump’s fetal tissue review board

    Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and U.S. President Donald Trump

    Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (right) is carrying out President Donald Trumps fetal tissue policy.

    REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    Last summer, the Trump administration clamped down on federally funded fetal tissue research by requiring that such projects go through an ethics review by a new advisory board. Research advocates were eager to learn who Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar would appoint to the board and to see its ideological makeup. Today they got their first look as it gathered online for a one-time meeting run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

    Although the 1-hour public portion of the meeting was perfunctory—limited to introductions and public comments—it offered a glimpse of the opposition that may greet proposals to work with fetal tissue donated after elective abortions. At least 10 of the 15 members of the NIH Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board oppose abortion, and several have publicly stated positions against the funding of fetal tissue research.

    “The board is stacked with people who are known to oppose use of tissue from induced abortions, regardless of the scientific necessity and regardless of the fact that using such tissue does not in any way affect whether an abortion will take place,” says R. Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Charo concedes that the board includes “real scientists who understand the research importance of this tissue.” But because it does not need to reach unanimity in order to reject a proposal, their presence “will not stand in the way of a majority dismissing it out of hand.”

  • The pandemic is hitting scientist parents hard, and some solutions may backfire

    Science Careers logo

    When COVID-19 hit the United Kingdom in March, Michele Veldsman—a postdoc at the University of Oxford—took her 2-year-old daughter out of day care. She and her husband split child care responsibilities so they could each work half days. However, by the time she responded to urgent emails and questions from students in her lab, she had little time left to dive into the data analyses and writing she’d hoped to make progress on. “A lot of the scientific work I’m doing really needs sustained time to be able to focus,” she says—time that was sorely missing.

    Veldsman, a cognitive neuroscientist, also saw lost opportunities for career development. Many of her colleagues participated in virtual conferences, training courses, and journal clubs, but she didn’t have time for anything that didn’t have an immediate deadline. She also postponed collaborations that could bolster her career—she’s currently 4 years into a second postdoc, hoping to land a faculty position. “I really need to be going to the stage of independence,” she says. “Collaborations … show that independence, which I don’t have time to do now.”

    For months, stories such as Veldman’s have flooded social media. “All it takes is 5 minutes on Twitter to see how much people are struggling right now,” says Michelle Cardel, an assistant professor of nutritional science at the University of Florida. But until recently, the reports from scientist parents had been largely anecdotal, she adds.

  • From ‘brain fog’ to heart damage, COVID-19’s lingering problems alarm scientists

    Athena Akrami resting on the couch

    Neuroscientist Athena Akrami has had debilitating symptoms since her coronavirus infection more than 4 months ago.

    Ryan Low

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

    Athena Akrami’s neuroscience lab reopened last month without her. Life for the 38-year-old is a pale shadow of what it was before 17 March, the day she first experienced symptoms of the novel coronavirus. At University College London (UCL), Akrami’s students probe how the brain organizes memories to support learning, but at home, she struggles to think clearly and battles joint and muscle pain. “I used to go to the gym three times a week,” Akrami says. Now, “My physical activity is bed to couch, maybe couch to kitchen.”

    Her early symptoms were textbook for COVID-19: a fever and cough, followed by shortness of breath, chest pain, and extreme fatigue. For weeks, she struggled to heal at home. But rather than ebb with time, Akrami’s symptoms waxed and waned without ever going away. She’s had just 3 weeks since March when her body temperature was normal.

  • Census director dodges legislators’ questions about Trump memo on undocumented residents

    Steven Dillingham wears a mask with the words "2020 Census"

    Steven Dillingham appeared before Congress yesterday wearing a special “2020 census” mask.

    AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

    Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham spent 2 hours yesterday trying not to take sides in a fiercely partisan debate over how the 2020 U.S. census will be used to determine representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. He largely succeeded, but some Democrats worried the nation’s largest statistical agency might pay a high price for his neutrality.

    Dillingham was the star witness at a congressional hearing whose tone was set by its title: Counting Every Person: Safeguarding the 2020 Census Against the Trump administration’s Unconstitutional Attacks. But he demurred when asked repeatedly for his thoughts on a 21 July memo from President Donald Trump that orders the Census Bureau to exclude undocumented residents from its overall tally of each state’s population.

    Democrats hoped Dillingham would agree with them that the memo violated the U.S. Constitution’s requirement to count every resident, regardless of their immigration status. Republicans wanted him to endorse their argument that House seats should be allocated only among those who can influence the political process, by which they meant U.S. citizens. But Dillingham didn’t endorse either stance.

  • An Olympian-turned-scientist helped a $1 million basketball tournament tip off amid COVID-19

    a person sprays disinfectant on a rack of holding basketballs

    A staff member with a high-stakes sports contest known as The Basketball Tournament sprays equipment with disinfectant between play.

    Ben Solomon

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

    It may not be as fraught as the debate over reopening schools, but trying to reboot sports of any type during a pandemic also presents a heady challenge. In Europe, where the coronavirus has mostly subsided, resuming professional sports has been relatively straightforward: Several major professional soccer leagues, including the Bundesliga and the Premier League, have wrapped up seasons with few incidents. But in countries such as the United States, where COVID-19 remains ubiquitous, restarting massive professional sports leagues has been an uphill battle.

    Take Major League Baseball’s (MLB’s) faltering start last week to its abbreviated season. Hours before the league’s first game, one of the star players on the reigning world champion Washington Nationals tested positive for COVID-19 and was pulled from the lineup. Less than 1 week later, MLB games are already being canceled or postponed. On the Miami Marlins, almost half of the players have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

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