Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Why don’t some coronavirus patients sense their alarmingly low oxygen levels?

    the oximeter and oxygen mask on the lap of a coronavirus patient in a hospital bed.

    A pulse oximeter on a patient’s finger measures blood oxygenation.

    MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

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

    Among the many surprises of the new coronavirus is one that seems to defy basic biology: infected patients with extraordinarily low blood-oxygen levels, or hypoxia, scrolling on their phones, chatting with doctors, and generally describing themselves as comfortable. Clinicians call them happy hypoxics.

    “There is a mismatch [between] what we see on the monitor and what the patient looks like in front of us,” says Reuben Strayer, an emergency physician at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. Speaking from home while recovering from COVID-19 himself, Strayer says he was first struck by the phenomenon in March as patients streamed into his emergency room. He and other doctors are keen to understand this hypoxia, and when and how to treat it.

  • How the pandemic made this virologist an unlikely cult figure

    Christian Drosten in PPE in a lab

    Christian Drosten admits the pandemic surprised him, despite having worked on coronaviruses for 17 years.


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

    BERLIN—On a recent Monday morning, Christian Drosten said goodbye to his wife and 2-year-old son in front of his apartment block and got on his bicycle for his daily commute to the Charité University Hospital here.

    It looked like a scene from normal daily life. But of course it wasn’t. His wife was going for a walk with their child instead of bringing him to the day care center, which was closed. The Berlin streets Drosten traversed were eerily quiet, most shops were closed, and some people on the sidewalks wore masks. Charité’s Institute of Virology, which Drosten heads, was studying exotic viruses, as always, but now one of those pathogens was killing patients in a hospital a few blocks away.

    And instead of teaching virology to a few hundred students, Drosten now addresses hundreds of thousands of anxious Germans. Twice a week around 10 a.m., he sets a blue microphone on his desk, puts on headphones, and waits for a science journalist from German radio station NDR Info to call him. For the next 40 minutes, he answers questions about vaccines, respiratory droplets, school closures, or masks. The podcast, simply titled Coronavirus Update, has made Drosten the face, or rather the voice, of the pandemic in Germany. More than 1 million people regularly download what has become the country’s most popular podcast.

  • Reopening puts Germany’s much-praised coronavirus response at risk

    A student wears a protective mask while sitting in a classroom

    Students at a high school in Übach-Palenberg, in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, were back in class on 23 April. The state’s leader, Armin Laschet, has pushed for easing many coronavirus restrictions.

    Jonas Güttler/picture alliance via Getty Images

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

    Angela Merkel is generally not an alarmist. But in a 23 April speech to parliament, the German chancellor warned that the country’s push to ease coronavirus restrictions was a dangerous game. “Let’s not gamble away what we’ve achieved and risk a setback,” she urged.

    Her real audience wasn’t the members of the Bundestag, seated 2 meters apart, but the leaders of the German Länder, or states. Like governors in the United States, these regional leaders have the power to decide whether and when to reopen schools, shops, churches, and cafes—and several think it’s time. Many schools and shops reopened last week, with more to come in early May. But Merkel, like many of the country’s scientists, has pushed back, saying additional weeks of tight restrictions are needed to drive COVID-19 cases lower. “It is the right thing to do to lift some restrictions,” she emphasized. “But the way some states are going forward is rather brisk,” she said. “I would say too brisk.”

  • New York clinical trial quietly tests heartburn remedy against coronavirus

    Copies of the new coronavirus

    The heartburn remedy famotidine may disable a key enzyme that the new coronavirus uses to make copies (gold) of itself.

    National Institutes of Health

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

    The fast-growing list of possible treatments for the novel coronavirus includes an unlikely candidate: famotidine, the active compound in the over-the-counter heartburn drug Pepcid. On 7 April, the first COVID-19 patients at Northwell Health in the New York City area began to receive famotidine intravenously, at nine times the heartburn dose. Unlike other drugs the 23-hospital system is testing, including Regeneron’s sarilumab and Gilead Sciences’s remdesivir, Northwell kept the famotidine study under wraps to secure a research stockpile before other hospitals, or even the federal government, started to buy it. “If we talked about this to the wrong people or too soon, the drug supply would be gone,” says Kevin Tracey, a former neurosurgeon in charge of the hospital system’s research.

    As of Saturday, 187 COVID-19 patients in critical status, including many on ventilators, have been enrolled in the trial, which aims for a total of 1174 people. Reports from China and molecular modeling results suggest the drug, which seems to bind to a key enzyme in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), could make a difference. But the hype surrounding hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine—the unproven antimalarial drugs touted by President Donald Trump and some physicians and scientists—has made Tracey wary of sparking premature enthusiasm. He is tight-lipped about famotidine’s prospects, at least until interim results from the first 391 patients are in. “If it does work, we’ll know in a few weeks,” he says.

  • Artificial intelligence takes on song-composing duties in Eurovision-inspired contest

    a screenshot of a music video showing three people wearing masks and Australia sweatshirts

    Members of the Australian band Uncanny Valley trained an algorithm using sounds from koalas.

    Uncanny Valley Music, Sound, and Technology

    A contest inspired by the popular annual Eurovision music competition has drawn entries composed with the help of unusual songwriters—artificial intelligence (AI) programs.

    For the first time, 13 teams from Europe and Australia, made up of data scientists, programmers, and musicians, submitted tunes this month to the AI Song Contest, sponsored by Dutch public broadcaster VPRO. According to the contest’s website, the organizers seek to raise awareness of the important role of AI in our lives, as well as the possibilities and limitations of the technology.

    The contestants were invited to write AI programs or adapt existing ones to craft lyrics, melodies, and harmonies for songs lasting no more than 3 minutes each. Besides entering their tracks, the teams also submitted their algorithms, models, and code, along with explanations of their creative process and the systems they used.

  • Plan to move beluga whales from Canada to U.S. aquarium sparks controversy

    Young boy at an underground aquarium looking at a beluga whale

    Efforts by aquaria in the United States to import beluga whales for display and research have catalyzed controversy.


    Originally published by E&E News

    The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will decide soon on whether to approve a controversial plan to import five Canadian beluga whales for research at a Connecticut aquarium.

    Before the plan can be finalized under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NOAA must first grant a permit to import the captive-born whales and send them to Mystic Aquarium.

  • ‘Hydrologists should be happy.’ Big Supreme Court ruling bolsters groundwater science

    Resurgences of groundwater after destruction of the coastal dune.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that polluted water that flows underground into nearby lakes, rivers, and bays is covered by the Clean Water Act, rejecting claims to the contrary.

    Pierre BRYE/Alamy Stock Photo

    A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling puts groundwater science at the center of decisions about how to regulate water pollution.

    Today, in a closely watched case with extensive implications, the court ruled six to three that the federal Clean Water Act applies to pollution of underground water that flows into nearby lakes, streams, and bays, as long as it is similar to pouring pollutants directly into these water bodies. The decision came after a sewage treatment plant in Hawaii claimed that the landmark environmental law covered only “point sources” of pollution, such as an effluent pipe that dumps polluted water in a stream, lake, or bay, and not polluted groundwater that seeps into water bodies.

    The decision is a win for environmentalists, who feared the court might side with the Trump administration’s argument that the law didn’t apply to groundwater. In the decision, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that groundwater pollution was subject to federal water-quality regulations as long as the connection to surface waters was the “functional equivalent” of a direct discharge such as a pipe.

  • COVID-19 vaccine protects monkeys from new coronavirus, Chinese biotech reports

    gloved hands hold two vaccines

    Sinovac Biotech has created a new COVID-19 vaccine by growing the novel coronavirus in the VERO monkey cell line and inactivating it with chemicals.

    Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

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

    For the first time, one of the many COVID-19 vaccines in development has protected an animal, rhesus macaques, from infection by the new coronavirus, scientists report. The vaccine, an old-fashioned formulation consisting of a chemically inactivated version of the virus, produced no obvious side effects in the monkeys, and human trials began on 16 April.

    Researchers from Sinovac Biotech, a privately held Beijing-based company, gave two different doses of their COVID-19 vaccine to a total of eight rhesus macaques. Three weeks later, the group introduced SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, into the monkeys’ lungs through tubes down their tracheas, and none developed a full-blown infection.

  • Surveys of infectious disease experts aim to predict COVID-19’s toll

    very crowded and busy hospital emergency room

    Experts have forecasted rising numbers of U.S. COVID-19 cases as hospitals such as Mount Sinai South Nassau scramble to respond.

    Jeffrey Basinger/Newsday via Getty Images

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

    Statistical models of infectious disease are vital for understanding where the COVID-19 pandemic is headed. But their predictive power can be limited by sparse data and rapidly changing circumstances.

    A useful complement to numerical models is forecasts made by experts using their informed judgment, says Tom McAndrew, a biostatistics postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Each week since February, he and his faculty adviser, Nicholas Reich, have been surveying about 20 experts in public health and infectious disease, asking for their best estimates of future COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

  • Donald Kennedy, who led Science through turbulent times, dies at 88

    Donald Kennedy speaking at a graduation commencement

    Donald Kennedy spoke at Stanford University’s 1978 commencement while serving as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

    Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

    Donald Kennedy would probably be amused by an old friend’s tribute to him as “very close to being a Renaissance man.”

    It’s hard to argue with the facts. The 8 years he served as editor-in-chief of Science was only the final chapter in a long and very distinguished career. He spent most of it at Stanford University, including 12 years as its president, interrupted by a 2-year stint as head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under former President Jimmy Carter. But the Harvard Universitytrained neurobiologist wore those and other honors lightly, driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world and a wish to help make it a better place.

    Kennedy, who died on 21 April of COVID-19 at age 88, relished his role as a scientist, educator, public servant, and communicator, recalls Tom Grumbly, who was his aide at FDA. “A brilliant, funny, very special person,” says Grumbly, who leads a foundation that advocates for increased support for agricultural research. “He could talk on any level to people about science, without condescending to them. And he could stand toe to toe with the best scientists in the world.”

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