Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Blood vessel attack could trigger coronavirus’ fatal ‘second phase’

    a health care worker places a hand on a hospital patient’s forehead

    A physician cares for a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit in São Paulo. A new hypothesis suggests injury to blood vessels may drive some patients deadly spiral into critical illness.

    Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto via Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Frank Ruschitzka told his pathologist to be ready before the first COVID-19 patient died. In early March, Ruschitzka, who leads the cardiology department at University Hospital Zürich, noticed that patients with the disease had strange symptoms for what was then thought to be chiefly a respiratory infection. Many patients had acute kidney failure, organ damage, and mysterious blood clots. Several weeks later, the first body was autopsied: Tiny clots and dead cells littered the capillaries of the lungs, and inflammation had distended blood vessels supplying every organ in the body.

    The pathologist had never seen anything like it. But the results showed Ruschitzka why his patients were suffering so much: The virus had targeted their blood vessels.

  • Scientists rush to defend Venezuelan colleagues threatened over coronavirus study

    People wearing face masks in Caracas, Venezuela

    Masked pedestrians crowded a sidewalk near a bus stop in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday.

    Ariana Cubillos/AP

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Scientific and human rights groups in Venezuela and abroad have rushed to defend the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences (ACFIMAN) after a high-level government official suggested raids or arrests to punish the academy for “causing alarm” in a report that suggested the country’s coronavirus epidemic is far worse than official numbers show.

    In the unsigned 18-page report, released on 8 May, scientists at ACFIMAN used mathematical models to estimate the current and future size of the epidemic in the country. As of 30 March, up to 883 people in Venezuela had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, they concluded—well above the 135 reported confirmed infections at the time. The report also said the government’s reassurances that it had “flattened the curve” of exponentially increasing infections were wrong. Without additional control measures, Venezuela could see between 1000 and to 4000 cases daily during the pandemic’s expected peak between June and September, according to the study.

  • Operation Warp Speed selects billionaire scientist’s COVID-19 vaccine for monkey tests

    portrait of Patrick Soon-Shiong

    Patrick Soon-Shiong hopes an experimental COVID-19 vaccine from his companies will prove its worth in monkeys.

    David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    The race for a COVID-19 vaccine has a dark horse entrant. Billionaire scientist and businessman Patrick Soon-Shiong announced in a 27 May investor call and press release that an experimental vaccine being developed by two of his companies is on the short list of 14 candidates being evaluated by Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s push to deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021.

    Although the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has so far announced financial backing for five other vaccine candidates, including from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, it has not publicly said a word about Soon-Shiong’s vaccine. Nor has HHS committed any money to the effort so far, Soon-Shiong acknowledges, although he says Warp Speed is arranging monkey tests of the vaccine by a federal lab. “We’re not confirming anyone’s involvement in the initial group [of vaccines] unless a company is bound by fiduciary requirements to report contractual agreements,” says Michael Caputo, an HHS spokesperson for Warp Speed.

  • U.S. move imperils effort to reduce weapons risk from Iranian reactor

    Iranian Media Visits Arak Heavy Water Complex.

    Reporters visit Iran’s Arak Heavy Water Complex in late 2019.

    SIPA via AP

    Ratcheting up its maximum pressure campaign on Iran, the U.S. Department of State will no longer waive sanctions against parties redesigning an Iranian heavy water reactor to sharply curtail its generation of plutonium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons.

    The 27 May decision is “tremendously concerning,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Heavy water reactors are a substantial proliferation concern.”

    Under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States and other Western powers agreed to relax sanctions on Iran if it dismantled large pieces of its nuclear program and thereby eliminated pathways for quickly building nuclear weapons. In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement, arguing it didn’t go far enough. Other signatories sought to salvage the JCPOA, but flagging efforts prompted Iran to rev up uranium enrichment and take other steps it has characterized as reversible.

  • Shuttered natural history museums fight for survival amid COVID-19 ‘heartbreak’

    Phlebotomist Lakisha Mason draws blood from Sarah Ference at the Field Museum of Natural History

    Closed for the pandemic, the Field Museum of Natural History hosted a socially distanced blood drive in its empty, cavernous halls.

    Scott Olson/Getty Images

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    A few months ago, retirement was the furthest thing from David Thomas’s mind. “Then the world went upside down,” recalls the archaeologist from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In March, the coronavirus pandemic forced the museum to close its doors. No more school groups thronging the interactive exhibit on color, no more corporate dinners or lines of international tourists waiting to pay $23 a head to marvel at gems and fossils. The museum’s income plummeted 60%.

    Leaders first asked for early retirements. By early May, they had sliced the staff of 1100 by 20% and furloughed an additional 250 staff members. All other full-time employees now work 3 days a week, mostly from home. Thomas opted to retire early, along with four of the other 38 curators. “It was the right thing to do,” he says.

  • Yemen was facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Then the coronavirus hit

    security men holding guns and wearing protective masks Newscom info: Security men wearing protective masks stand on a street during a 24-hour curfew amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID

    Armed men patrol the street in rebel-held Sana’a, Yemen. The rebel health ministry has reported just four COVID-19 cases, but there are unofficial reports of hundreds of laboratory-confirmed cases.

    Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS/Newscom

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    When Abdulla Bin Ghooth saw the computed tomography scan of the lungs of a colleague’s brother in Aden, Yemen, in April, he knew the outlook was grim. The 55-year-old man had complained of a fever and shortness of breath, and likely had COVID-19. But hospital staff, afraid of the novel coronavirus, sent him home with an oxygen cylinder, says Bin Ghooth, an epidemiologist at Hadhramout University College of Medicine. He pleaded with friends at the ministry of health to intervene, to no avail. The colleague’s brother was never tested for COVID-19 and died at home 3 days later.

    Perhaps no country is more vulnerable to COVID-19’s depredations than Yemen. Even before the virus’ arrival, the country was grappling with “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” as a result of a civil war now grinding into its sixth year, says Jens Laerke, a spokesperson at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Yemen has 3.6 million internally displaced people, scores of attacks have left half of the nation’s medical facilities in tatters, and a cholera outbreak has sickened some 2.3 million Yemenis, killing nearly 4000. The United Nations classifies nearly one-quarter of the population of 30 million as malnourished.

  • Can plasma from COVID-19 survivors help save others?

    A person who recovered from COVID-19 donates plasma

    A recovered COVID-19 patient donates plasma at a clinic in Bangkok.


    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    On 13 March, with the COVID-19 pandemic exploding and drugs elusive, Arturo Casadevall published what he considers “maybe the most important paper” of his long career. In The Journal of Clinical Investigation, the infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University and Liise-anne Pirofski of Albert Einstein College of Medicine argued that one effective treatment might already be at hand: the blood plasma of people who have recovered from the disease, rich in antibodies against the virus. The strategy seems to have worked in other infections, the duo pointed out, and the infrastructure for collecting and administering plasma exists. The risks are known and comparatively low. “We recommend that institutions … begin preparations as soon as possible,” they wrote. “Time is of the essence.”

    Ten weeks later, more than 16,000 patients at hundreds of U.S. hospitals have received the experimental therapy, and hope that it works could soon give way to evidence. A study of patients treated with serum at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, published as a preprint on 22 May, offers hints it may, as do other small studies elsewhere. But randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs) that will give more definitive answers are still underway.

  • ‘Got my fingers crossed.’ As ITER fusion project marks milestone, chief ponders pandemic impact

    an above view of the ITER tokamak installation

    Cranes lift ITER’s cryostat base into the tokamak pit to begin reactor assembly.

    ITER Organization

    The $25 billion ITER project, which aims to build the world’s largest fusion reactor and finally demonstrate that melding together hydrogen nuclei is a viable energy source, passed a major milestone today as construction crews lifted the first major piece of the reactor, known as a tokamak, into place.

    Over 2 days, a crew of about 200 carefully lifted the cryostat base, a steel dish big enough to fill a baseball diamond and weighing as much as a giant redwood tree, into the tokamak pit near Cadarache in France. The cryostat base—the single largest and heaviest tokamak component—is the bottom section of a huge metal can that will eventually contain the rest of the reactor, including the vacuum vessel, huge superconducting magnets, and cooling systems. The ITER team is racing to have all of ITER’s major components on site by the end of 2021, in order to meet a December 2025 deadline for switching on the massive machine.

    ITER has been a long time in gestation. Originally dreamt up in the 1980s, it was inaugurated as an international project based in France in 2007 and now has seven partners: China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. Projected at the time to be complete in 2016 at a cost of $11 billion, a thorough review in 2016 under then-new Director-General Bernard Bigot pushed the deadline back and the budget up. But members stuck with it and Bigot has kept the project on track.

  • As India’s lockdown ends, exodus from cities risks spreading COVID-19 far and wide

    Migrants wearing protective face masks wait for transportation

    Migrant workers stand in line as they wait for transportation to a railway station in Mumbai, India.

    Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

    Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    One morning in mid-May, Nasim Qureshi suddenly developed a fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Qureshi, a member of Mumbai, India’s street vendor union, rushed to a small private hospital, where doctors gave him a check up but refused to admit him. Later the same day, he was turned away from two more hospitals before he finally found a bed at a municipal hospital. By then, his breathing trouble had worsened—and the hospital only had a few ventilators.

    By the time one was made available, his friends say, Qureshi had died.

  • European R&D review finds lagging high-tech performance despite major science investment

    illustration of scientists in a laboratory with a giant light bulb
    akindo/istockphoto, adapted by M. Atarod/Science

    The European Union is struggling to turn its scientific prowess into economic gains, according to a biennial European Commission review of European R&D performance.

    The 770-page report says Europe lags behind the United States and China in high-tech industries, despite strong scientific output and high public investment. It argues that Horizon Europe, the forthcoming successor to the €77 billion Horizon 2020 research funding program, should bolster innovation by supporting tech startups and plowing money into research partnerships with the private sector. The Commission published the report today alongside a €1.85 trillion proposal for a postpandemic recovery plan, which calls for €94.4 billion to be spent on Horizon Europe from 2021 to 2027.

    According to the report, EU researchers produce one-fifth of the world’s most cited publications, whereas the United States leads with 31.3%. China is third, at 17.5%. And EU public sector R&D spending, as a percentage of gross domestic product, is second only to South Korea, although the European Union falls to fourth place, in a tie with China, when private sector investment is factored in, behind South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

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