Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • Russia’s approval of a COVID-19 vaccine is less than meets the press release

    two vaccine vials

    An experimental COVID-19 vaccine made by a Russian research institute needs more testing, many scientists say.

    Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    In a startling and confusing move, Russia claimed today it had approved the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, as the nation’s Ministry of Health issued what’s called a registration certificate for a vaccine candidate that has been tested in just 76 people. The certificate allows the vaccine, developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, to be given to “a small number of citizens from vulnerable groups,” including medical staff and the elderly, a Ministry of Health spokesperson tells ScienceInsider. But the certificate stipulates that the vaccine cannot be used widely until 1 January 2021, presumably after larger clinical trials have been completed.

    Scientists around the world immediately denounced the certification as premature and inappropriate, as the Gamaleya vaccine has yet to complete a trial that convincingly shows it is safe and effective in a large group of people. Even some within Russia challenged the move. “It's ridiculous,” says Svetlana Zavidova, a lawyer who heads the Association of Clinical Research Organizations in Russia. “I feel only shame for our country.” Zavidova, who has worked on clinical trials for 20 years and anticipated the approval, yesterday sent an appeal to the Ministry of Health to postpone registering the vaccine until proper efficacy trials are completed. “Accelerated registration will no longer make Russia a leader in this race, it will only expose end users of the vaccine, citizens of the country of the Russian Federation, to unnecessary danger,” she wrote on behalf of the clinical research group.

  • The pandemic appears to have spared Africa so far. Scientists are struggling to explain why

    Two children run past a mural of a healthcare worker chasing the coronavirus.

    Children run past a mural warning about COVID-19 in Nairobi. Kenya has reported relatively few cases so far.

    AP Photo/Brian Inganga

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

    Although Africa reported its millionth official COVID-19 case last week, it seems to have weathered the pandemic relatively well so far, with fewer than one confirmed case for every thousand people and just 23,000 deaths so far. Yet several antibody surveys suggest far more Africans have been infected with the coronavirus—a discrepancy that is puzzling scientists around the continent. “We do not have an answer,” says immunologist Sophie Uyoga at the Kenya Medical Research Institute–Wellcome Trust Research Programme.

    After testing more than 3000 blood donors, Uyoga and colleagues estimated in a preprint last month that one in 20 Kenyans aged 15 to 64—or 1.6 million people—has antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, an indication of past infection. That would put Kenya on a par with Spain in mid-May when that country was descending from its coronavirus peak and had 27,000 official COVID-19 deaths. Kenya’s official toll stood at 100 when the study ended. And Kenya’s hospitals are not reporting huge numbers of people with COVID-19 symptoms.

  • Senior U.S. lawmaker wants National Academies to scrutinize racism in science

    illustration for racism study

    A U.S. representative has called for a study of academic racism in all of its forms.

    Robert Neubecker

    The U.S. research community may finally be ready to confront the “R” word.

    In response to a request from the chairwoman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is gearing up for an in-depth study of racism in academic research.

    Previous NASEM studies have documented the value of diversity to the practice of science, and recommended ways to broaden participation by groups historically underrepresented in science. But the study proposed by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) would break new ground, say researchers who study the topic, by asking the community to examine long-standing beliefs and practices that have marginalized many individuals and skewed decisions on what topics are worthy of support.

  • Once praised for taming the pandemic, Asian-Pacific nations worry about new onslaught

    A police offer directs traffic at a highway check point

    Members of the Australian Defence Force walk through Melbourne after the state of Victoria implemented a new lockdown on that city to stop the spread of COVID-19.

    Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

    Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

    TOKYO—Many Asian-Pacific countries have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic remarkably well so far, recording some of the lowest case numbers anywhere and earning praise as models of how to handle the virus. But the sheen is coming off their performance. Many countries see cases ticking up sharply, triggered by complacency among officials, premature relaxation of control measures, and public fatigue with social distancing.

    The most dramatic example is the Australian state of Victoria, which recorded a record 723 new COVID-19 cases on 30 July and declared a state of disaster 3 days later that empowers the government to impose an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on Melbourne. Only one person per household in the city is allowed to shop for essential goods once a day, and the state has closed its borders to traffic with the rest of the country, effectively confining its 6.7 million inhabitants. It’s a surprising reversal for a country that was once deemed close to eliminating local COVID-19 transmission. Victoria reported zero new cases on 9 June.

  • 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 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.”

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