ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • New helmet and tent aim to protect health care workers from the coronavirus

    A person wearing a helmet in a hospital room

    Kevin Ward, a University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, emergency medicine physician, tests a negative pressure helmet he helped design.

    Michigan Medicine and FlexSys, Inc.

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

    COVID-19 is a threat to the very people fighting it—nurses, doctors, and other first responders, who are exposed to virus-carrying droplets, or aerosols, from infected patients. Now, a team has developed two devices that could reduce their risks by sucking away infectious aerosols: a helmet to be worn by a patient, and a small tent in which a patient could be enclosed. The devices haven’t been proved to work in clinical settings, but their inventors hope they’ll reduce the toll among health care workers, at least 90,000 of whom worldwide have been infected with COVID-19, according to the International Council of Nurses.

    Talking and coughing can expel virus-carrying droplets, and medical procedures needed for the sickest COVID-19 patients—such as intubation, tracheostomy, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation—are thought to generate even more aerosol droplets. The tent and helmet would capture them with negative pressure, generated by a pump that draws exhaled air through filters, researchers reported yesterday in the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

  • Acclaimed mentor of minority mathematicians relied on tough love—but some say he went too far

    Carlos Castillo-Chavez, second from left, with student participants from MTBI

    Carlos Castillo-Chavez (center) with students from his undergraduate summer research program

    Matt Le

    The numbers tell the story of a master mentor. Carlos Castillo-Chavez, a Mexican-born mathematical biologist, has trained some 50 Ph.D. students, two-thirds of whom belong to groups historically underrepresented in science. He is especially proud of what he calls his “diamonds in the rough”—students from less selective undergraduate programs who have ended up with good jobs in academia, industry, and the public sector.

    At Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe, where he held the coveted title of regents professor and an endowed chair, Castillo-Chavez presided over a mini-empire of programs designed to increase diversity within the math community. He’s been honored by three U.S. presidents for expanding the educational horizons of thousands of minority students. His work has been fueled by nearly $50 million in grants from federal agencies and the private sector.

    But that’s all in the past. On 16 May Castillo-Chavez will retire from ASU. It is the final step in the dismantling of his empire.

  • Plant biologist picked to lead U.K. research funding agency

    Ottoline Leyser

    Ottoline Leyser leads about 130 plant scientists at the University of Cambridge.

    Sainsbury Laboratory/University of Cambridge

    Ottoline Leyser, a plant biologist at the University of Cambridge, will be the next director of the United Kingdom’s research funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the government announced today.

    “Many in the community will welcome the fact that the leadership of UKRI is passing into the hands of someone who is a highly respected scientist,” says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield. Leyser co-discovered the receptor for auxin, a hormone that controls plant growth. “I expect she will enter the job with a lot of goodwill,” says John Womersley, director-general of the European Spallation Source and former head of a U.K. research funding council.

    UKRI was created 2 years ago as a de facto merger of seven research councils that span all of science as well as the arts and humanities. Its budget is £7 billion, and rising. The reorganization was intended to provide strategic oversight of the entire research community.

  • Emails offer look into whistleblower charges of cronyism behind potential COVID-19 drug

    Rick Bright speaks during a House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing

    Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint argues that federal officials inappropriately tried to steer U.S. money to an unproven treatment for the pandemic coroanvirus.

    Toya Sarno Jordan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    Early last month, a top contracting officer at a U.S. agency charged with accelerating the development of drugs to fight the COVID-19 pandemic got a request that made him feel uneasy. Senior Trump administration officials had asked him to rapidly approve funding that would help a small pharmaceutical firm further develop a still-experimental drug being considered to treat COVID-19. The federal outlay could have ultimately amounted to $300 million or more. But the contracting officer pushed back, according to a 13 April email obtained by ScienceInsider. “We are uncomfortable with rushing forward” on the directive, Joffrey Benford wrote, calling it “impossible due to acquisition processes and procedures that are required for the size of this acquisition.”

    The episode, which has not been previously reported, is at the heart of just one of the explosive allegations laid out in a scorching whistleblower complaint filed by immunologist Rick Bright, who was removed on 20 April as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). The central theme of Bright’s complaint, made public last week, is that federal officials including his boss—Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at BARDA’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—illegally retaliated against him for objecting to what he saw as improper and unscientific efforts to steer taxpayer dollars to certain firms run by “cronies” or “for political purposes.” In one accusation, for example, Bright says $20 million of BARDA money was given without his authorization to a combined COVID-19 trial of a heartburn remedy and an antimalaria drug.

  • Scientists are drowning in COVID-19 papers. Can new tools keep them afloat?

    Illustration of waves of papers
    SARA GIRONI CARNEVALE

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

    Timothy Sheahan, a virologist studying COVID-19, wishes he could keep pace with the growing torrent of new scientific papers about the disease and the novel coronavirus that causes it. But there are just too many—more than 4000 alone last week. “I’m not keeping up,” says Sheahan, who works at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It’s impossible.”

    A loose-knit army of data scientists, software developers, and journal publishers is pressing hard to change that. Backed by large technology firms and the White House, they are racing to create digital collections holding thousands of freely available papers that could be useful to ending the pandemic, and scrambling to build data-mining and search tools that can help researchers quickly find the information they seek. And the urgency is growing: By one estimate, the COVID-19 literature published since January has reached more than 23,000 papers and is doubling every 20 days—among the biggest explosions of scientific literature ever.

  • House Democrats include research dollars in latest pandemic relief package

    Nancy Pelosi speaking at a podium

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) describes her latest plan to combat the pandemic.

    Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    By week’s end the Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives hopes to approve another massive coronavirus relief package.

    For U.S. scientists, the good news is that the $3 trillion spending bill (H.R. 6800) unveiled last night contains billions of dollars in new research funding. The bad news is that the bill is only a marker for negotiations with Senate Republicans and the White House on what more the federal government should do to help the country deal with the devastating economic and health effects of the pandemic.

  • Unveiling ‘Warp Speed,’ the White House’s America-first push for a coronavirus vaccine

    a pharmacist administers a vaccine to a patient
    AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

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

    Conventional wisdom is that a vaccine for COVID-19 is at least 1 year away, but the organizers of a U.S. government push called Operation Warp Speed have little use for conventional wisdom. The project, vaguely described to date but likely to be formally announced by the White House in the coming days, will pick a diverse set of vaccine candidates and pour essentially limitless resources into unprecedented comparative studies in animals, fast-tracked human trials, and manufacturing. Eschewing international cooperation—and any vaccine candidates from China—it hopes to have 300 million doses by January 2021 of a proven product, reserved for Americans.

    Those and other details, spelled out for Science by a government official involved with Warp Speed, have unsettled some vaccine scientists and public health experts. They’re skeptical about the timeline and hope Warp Speed will complement, rather than compete with, ongoing COVID-19 vaccine efforts, including one announced last month by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Duplication only leads to infighting and slowing people down,” says Nicole Lurie, former U.S. assistant secretary for preparedness and response, who advises the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a nonprofit funding and helping coordinate COVID-19 vaccine efforts. “The U.S., and others around the world, should be engaged in this competition against the virus, not against one another.”

  • Artificial intelligence systems aim to sniff out signs of COVID-19 outbreaks

    map of North America with red dots where outbreaks are

    HealthMap uses artificial intelligence and data mining to spot disease outbreaks and issue location-specific alerts (colored dots) on COVID-19 and other diseases. It sounded an early alarm on the pandemic.

    HealthMap

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    The international alarm about the COVID-19 pandemic was sounded first not by a human, but by a computer. HealthMap, a website run by Boston Children’s Hospital, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan social media, news reports, internet search queries, and other information streams for signs of disease outbreaks. On 30 December 2019, the data-mining program spotted a news report of a new type of pneumonia in Wuhan, China. The one-line email bulletin noted that seven people were in critical condition and rated the urgency at three on a scale of five.

    Humans weren’t far behind. Colleagues in Taiwan had already alerted Marjorie Pollack, a medical epidemiologist in New York City, to chatter on Weibo, a social media site in China, that reminded her of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which spread to dozens of countries and killed 774. “It fit all of the been there, done that déjà vu for SARS,” Pollack says. Less than 1 hour after the HealthMap alert, she posted a more detailed notice to the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, a list server with 85,000 subscribers for which she is a deputy editor.

  • Fired Emory University neuroscientist with ties to China sentenced on tax charge

    gate at Emory University

    Neuroscientist Li Xiao-Jiang, who has pleaded guilty to not paying U.S. taxes on income earned from Chinese institutions, worked at Emory University.

    AIMINTANG/ISTOCK.COM

    The saga of an Emory University neuroscientist who was fired in May 2019 after an investigation into his ties to China ended last week in a federal court. But the sentencing of Li Xiao-Jiang sheds little light on the politically explosive issue of foreign influences on U.S. research that has roiled the scientific community for the past 2 years.

    Emory fired Li, a tenured faculty member, and his wife, Li Shihua, for “failing to fully disclose” his connections to Chinese research institutions through that country’s Thousand Talents program. It is one of many actions taken by research institutions as part of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies into whether foreign governments, notably China, are trying to improperly acquire work done by U.S.-funded researchers.

    On 8 May, Li Xiao-Jiang pleaded guilty in the U.S. district court in Atlanta to underreporting his income on federal tax returns. He agreed to pay $35,089 and any penalties stemming from refiling amended returns from 2012–18. The sentence includes 1 year of probation.

  • Deadly imports: In one U.S. forest, 25% of tree loss caused by foreign pests and disease

    Two National Park Service workers inspect a tree

    Two Shenandoah National Park employees assess the crown of a black birch tree as part of the parks long-term forest monitoring program.

    NPS Photo/C. Harman

    From a deadly fungus that showed its face in 1904 on an American chestnut in the Bronx to a nematode recently found to kill American beeches in Ohio, forests in the United States have faced more than 100 years’ worth of attacks from introduced pests and pathogens. But how much of a chunk are these invaders actually taking out of the woods? A new study suggests the impact is severe, accounting for one-quarter of all tree deaths in eastern U.S. forests over the past 3 decades.

    That death toll is likely far higher than the mortality caused by introduced species from the 1940s to the 1980s, and also “currently much bigger than any known effect of climate change,” says Kristina Anderson-Teixeira, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who led the research.

    Scientists have documented at least 450 foreign insects and pathogens that have found their way to North America and feed on trees. Most do little damage, but more than a dozen have proved extraordinarily destructive, wiping out tree species—or even whole genera—as functioning members of forest ecosystems.

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