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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • With inauguration 10 weeks away, Biden’s pandemic plans face agonizing wait

    President-elect Joe Biden attends a coronavirus briefing

    Joe Biden gets a 28 October briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic from health experts advising his campaign. Some of those advisers are now on the president-elect’s new COVID-19 advisory board.

    Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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

    U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is wasting little time in moving to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, but many observers fear the crisis could get much worse before he is sworn in 10 weeks from now and is able to begin to execute his plans.

    Today, Biden named 13 scientists and public health specialists to a COVID-19 advisory board. The board will “help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations,” the president-elect said in a statement.

  • Second cable breaks at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo telescope

    View underneath the damaged Arecibo dish

    In August, a detached auxiliary cable tore through the dish of Arecibo Observatory. Last week, another cable failed.

    ARECIBO OBSERVATORY

    The already battered Arecibo Observatory was hit with another blow on 7 November when one of its 12 main support cables snapped and tore through the radio telescope’s main dish. The incident comes just 3 months after the failure of another cable. Researchers are concerned that increasing stresses on remaining cables could lead to cascading failures and the collapse of the antenna platform that is suspended over the dish.

    “It’s not a pretty picture,” says Joanna Rankin, a radio astronomer at the University of Vermont. “This is damn serious.” It is “without a doubt” the worst accident to befall the observatory in its long history, says former Director Donald Campbell, now at Cornell University.

    The nearly 60-year-old telescope, built into a depression in the hills of Puerto Rico, is still prized by researchers. Its huge 307-meter dish—the largest in the world until overtaken by China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope in 2016—makes it very sensitive. And it is one of just a few telescopes with the ability not just to receive radio waves, but also emit them, in the form of radar beams—which helps researchers track nearby asteroids that could threaten Earth. 

  • How a communist physics teacher flattened the COVID-19 curve in southern India

    Illustration of K. K. Shailaja

    “Until we get a vaccine, all of us will have to sacrifice some pleasures in our lives,” says K. K. Shailaja, health minister of India’s Kerala state.

    KATTY HUERTAS

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

    When the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its first statement on the spread of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, on 18 January, few local governments in India paid close attention. But K. K. Shailaja, the diminutive woman running the health ministry in the southern state of Kerala, immediately perked up her ears. 

    Shailaja knew many students from Kerala were studying at Wuhan University; some had asked her for internships the previous year. She also knew firsthand the havoc an outbreak could cause. In 2018, during her first stint as a minister, she faced an outbreak of Nipah virus, another deadly pathogen spread from animals to people. “We knew anything could happen at any time,” she says.

  • Biden has a bold agenda, but a divided Congress could constrain him

    Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks, joined by Senator Kamala Harris on stage

    President-elect Joe Biden (right) and Vice Presidentelect Kamala Harris

    Drew Angerer/Getty Images

    Most U.S. researchers and environmental activists were ecstatic when Joe Biden emerged as the winner of the U.S. presidential election on Saturday. They expect him to reverse a host of Trump administration policies they oppose and push for new steps to fight climate change.

    But when Biden is sworn in on 20 January 2021, his ability to advance an ambitious agenda will be constrained by his likely status as the first president in more than 30 years to take office without his party controlling both chambers of Congress. Republicans are favored to preserve their majority in the Senate by winning at least one of the two runoff contests in Georgia, and Democrats will have a narrower majority in the new House of Representatives than during the previous 2 years.

    Biden won’t need a Democratic Congress to start to tackle some of his top priorities, including confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, for example, he named 13 researchers, physicians, and public health specialists to a COVID-19 advisory board. “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations,” the president-elect said in a statement.

  • Proponent of using IQ tests to screen immigrants named to senior NIST post

    U.S. flag flies outside the Department of Commerce

    Jason Richwine’s new job comes courtesy of Wilbur Ross, who leads the Department of Commerce.

    Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

    An advocate for using IQ tests to select who is allowed to legally immigrate to the United States has been given a high-ranking position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

    ScienceInsider has learned that Jason Richwine, an independent public policy analyst, has been appointed as deputy undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and could start work as soon as today. It’s a new position reporting to the NIST director, Walter Copan, who also holds the title of undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology.

    Richwine did not return several messages from ScienceInsider. A NIST spokesperson referred inquiries to the Department of Commerce, of which NIST is one component. The department has not responded to questions about Richwine’s status or the scope of his duties.

  • Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug candidate takes a beating from FDA advisers

    images of brain scans

    Aducanumab reduces buildup of beta amyloid (shown in a positron emission tomography scan above) in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, but experts aren’t convinced it slows cognitive decline.

    Sevigny et al., Nature, 537, 50 (2016)

    If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to approve the first new drug for Alzheimer’s disease in 17 years, it will have to do so against the overwhelming recommendation of the experts it turned to for advice on the matter. An independent advisory panel convened by the agency today to review data on the antibody drug candidate, called aducanumab, concluded that even the strongest available clinical trial data don’t support its effectiveness.

    FDA, which is expected to decide about aducanumab by March 2021, doesn’t have to follow the advice of its advisory committees, but it typically does. If approved, aducanumab would be the first Alzheimer’s drug prescribed to slow cognitive decline and would likely bring in tens of billions of dollars in sales for its developer, Biogen. It might also vindicate the battered theory that clearing the brain of the sticky protein called beta amyloid can effectively treat the disease.

    During a public comment section of the meeting, people with Alzheimer’s— including some who participated in Biogen studies—and their caregivers strongly urged FDA to approve the drug. But many researchers, including most of the advisory committee members, weren’t convinced by the two large clinical trials of aducanumab—only one of which found evidence of benefit. And the committee was uncomfortable with rosy interpretations of Biogen’s data that FDA presented today and in documents it released this week.

  • Gene therapy for autism-linked condition weakened legs, robbing two people of ability to walk

    scientists in a lab

    A new gene therapy may lessen traits of Angelman syndrome, but its makers may need to limit the dose.

    Ultragenyx

    Originally published on Spectrum

    A small clinical trial of a gene therapy for Angelman syndrome—a rare genetic condition related to autism—is on hold after two participants temporarily lost the ability to walk. The safety issue is important to resolve, experts say, given that the therapy otherwise appears to be effective, and the trial could guide treatment strategies for similar brain conditions.

    Biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx in Novato, California, in collaboration with Florida-based biotech startup GeneTx, launched the trial in February to assess the safety of a therapy for Angelman syndrome, a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by intellectual disability, balance and motor problems, seizures, sleep problems and, in some cases, autism.

  • U.S. elections bring wins and losses for research community

    an election worker rushes across a room carrying ballots

    An election worker in Pennsylvania prepares ballots for counting during yesterday’s elections.

    AP Photo/Matt Slocum

    It’s not yet clear who will be the next U.S. president and which party will control the Senate. And although Democrats in the House of Representatives will remain in the majority in the next Congress, there was no blue wave. That last takeaway from yesterday’s elections—with many votes still to be counted—is not good news for several candidates and incumbents with science backgrounds and those holding influential positions on the House science committee.

    Voters around the country also weighed in on more than 100 state ballot items, a few of which had drawn interest from the research community.

    Among House races, Democrat Nancy Goroff, a Stony Brook University chemistry professor, is trailing badly in her bid to become the first female House member with a science Ph.D. Representative Lee Zeldin (R–NY) is leading the race with about 60% of the vote, although the tally doesn’t include tens of thousands of votes cast before 3 November. “We owe it to voters that every single one be counted,” Goroff’s campaign manager, Jacob Sarkozi, said early this morning about a process that could take weeks.

  • Several U.S. utilities back out of deal to build novel nuclear power plant

    An aerial view illustration of the NuScale Power plant

    Even as the Department of Energy has pledged $1.4 billion to the project, several public utilities have backed out of a plan build a NuScale nuclear power plant.

    NuScale Power, LLC

    Plans to build an innovative new nuclear power plant—and thus revitalize the struggling U.S. nuclear industry—have taken a hit as in recent weeks: Eight of the 36 public utilities that had signed on to help build the plant have backed out of the deal. The withdrawals come just months after the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), which intends to buy the plant containing 12 small modular reactors from NuScale Power, announced that completion of the project would be delayed by 3 years to 2030. It also estimates the cost would climb from $4.2 billion to $6.1 billion.

    “The project is still very much going forward,” says LaVarr Webb, a spokesperson for UAMPS, which has nearly four dozen members in Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Although some UAMPS members have dropped out, “promising discussions are ongoing with a number of utilities to join the project or enter into power-purchase agreements,” Webb says.

    However, critics of the project say the developments underscore that the plant, which is designed by NuScale Power and would be built at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Idaho National Laboratory, will be untenably expensive. M. V. Ramana, a physicist who works on public policy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, says he’s not surprised that so many utilities have opted out of the project. The question, he says, is why so many are sticking with it. “They ought to be seeing the writing on the wall and getting out by the dozens,” he says.

  • Europe is locking down a second time. But what is its long-term plan?

    noccupied tables and chairs of a closed coffee stand on the market place.

    Tables and chairs remained empty today at a coffee stand in Quedlinburg, in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Germany implemented a new lockdown on 1 November at 11 p.m.

    Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/picture alliance/Getty Images

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

    BERLIN—Shortly before 11 p.m. yesterday, a waitress passed out paper cups to the customers crowded around the tables outside Luzia, a bar in the lively Kreuzberg district here. “I’m sorry, but you all have to leave,” she said. “God, in 2 minutes it’s going to be lockdown,” a woman at one table said, as guests poured the remainder of their cocktails into the cups. The fun was over: For the second time this year, Luzia had to close on the German government’s orders.

    All restaurants, bars, gyms, and theaters in Europe’s largest economy will remain shut until at least the end of the month in a new bid to halt the spread of COVID-19. Hotels are no longer allowed to host tourists. Residents have been asked to meet people from only one other household. Florent, the manager at Luzia, took some hope from the fact that Germany was locking down while cases were still lower than in neighboring countries. “Hopefully we’ll reopen in a month,” he said.

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