Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
A small commuter town surrounded by sugarcane fields in southeastern Brazil, one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, has shown that even a vaccine that had low efficacy in some clinical trials can dramatically control the pandemic virus.
As part of an unusual experiment to track the real-world effectiveness of CoronaVac, a COVID-19 vaccine made by a Chinese company, almost all adult residents of Serrana, in the state of São Paulo, received the required two shots between February and April, long before most would otherwise have become eligible for the vaccine. The results were dramatic. Symptomatic cases of COVID-19 have dropped by 80% since the start of mass vaccination, related hospitalizations fell 86%, and deaths plummeted 95%, the research team in charge of the experiment reported during a press conference yesterday.
Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
The COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech appears to put young men at elevated risk of developing a heart muscle inflammation called myocarditis, researchers in Israel say. In a report submitted today to the Israeli Ministry of Health, they conclude that between one in 3000 and one in 6000 men ages 16 to 24 who received the vaccine developed the rare condition. But most cases were mild and resolved within a few weeks, which is typical for myocarditis. “I can’t imagine it’s going to be anything that would cause medical people to say we shouldn’t vaccinate kids,” says Douglas Diekema, a pediatrician and bioethicist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Israeli health officials first flagged the issue in April, when they reported more than 60 cases, mostly in young men who had received their second dose of vaccine a few days earlier. Around the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense began to track 14 such cases. In mid-May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it, too, was reviewing myocarditis cases. Officials at the European Medicines Agency said on 28 May they had received 107 reports of myocarditis following the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, or about one in 175,000 doses administered. But relatively few people under age 30 have been vaccinated in Europe.
Those closely following President Joe Biden’s plan to create a huge agency to fund cutting-edge, transformative health projects welcomed the release this week of new details about the ambitious proposal. But for some research advocates, worries remain that the new agency won’t be significantly different from the rest of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where it would be housed.
The proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) “will need to be audacious, nimble, and have unique authorities,” says Ellen Sigal, chair and founder of Friends of Cancer Research. “It’s an incredible opportunity, but at the moment there are many unknowns that will need to be discussed and debated in the near future.”
First proposed by Biden early this year, ARPA-H would be modeled after the similarly named Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has a reputation for accelerating the development of breakthrough technologies for the military. DARPA’s funding approach depends less on traditional peer review of ideas and more on hard-charging program managers empowered to award contracts that can be abruptly canceled if researchers don’t meet desired milestones. DARPA has been lauded for, among other things, helping develop the internet and radar-evading stealth technologies. Biden and others believe a similar model of placing informed bets on high-risk, but potentially high-payoff ideas could also produce biomedical advances.
The $6 trillion request calls for sweeping investments in infrastructure and social welfare programs in the 2022 fiscal year that begins 1 October. It also includes a 9% increase, or $13.5 billion, in total federal spending on R&D, bringing the total to $171 billion. Spending on basic research would rise by 10%, or $4.4 billion, to $47.4 billion, whereas applied research would get a 14% bump ($6.3 billion) to $51.1 billion.
The budget “proposes historic increases in funding for foundational R&D across a range of scientific agencies,” Biden said in a statement, including what he asserts is “the biggest increase in non-defense research and development spending on record.”
President Joe Biden today released a proposed 2022 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) that calls for a new technology directorate as part of a 20% overall increase for the agency, to $10.2 billion. But hours before in Congress, a group of Republican lawmakers temporarily blocked a bipartisan bill championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY) that would have added the Senate’s backing to the idea.
Biden’s $6 trillion spending plan for all government agencies includes $1.2 billion in 2022 to help NSF move research more quickly into the marketplace. Charged with that goal, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan wants to give the agency a seventh research directorate, to be called Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP), and has proposed it be given an initial budget of $865 million in 2022.
Unlike NSF’s existing directorates, which have divisions focused on individual disciplines, TIP would be organized around activities aimed at getting more bang for NSF’s research and training bucks. For example, some $200 million would be invested in new regional innovation accelerators, a mechanism for helping parts of the country with relatively little research infrastructure compete better against high-tech corridors like Silicon Valley. The new directorate would absorb some $350 million in existing NSF programs aimed at helping scientists become more entrepreneurial. TIP would also operate a $50 million office aimed at promoting partnerships with industry, government, and the nonprofit sector.
The U.S. Senate today confirmed mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Lander will also serve as President Joe Biden’s science adviser and hold a seat in Biden’s Cabinet.
Biden’s nomination of Lander, announced in January, drew mixed reactions from the research community. Many were pleased with the pick, saying Lander has the background and experience to be a savvy operator within the White House. Others, however, criticized the pick, noting that Lander had a history of conflict with other researchers and had been criticized for, among other things, downplaying the role of two female scientists in developing the CRISPR gene-editing tool, and for publicly toasting geneticist James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, despite Watson’s history of racist and misogynistic remarks. Some were disappointed that Biden selected a white man for the post and said he should have nominated a woman or person of color.
Swiss scientists are concerned they might lose access to European research funding after the country announced on 26 May it would not ratify a major new treaty with the European Union.
The treaty—called the Institutional Framework Agreement (IFA)—would have replaced many existing agreements between the EU and Switzerland on matters such as migration and trade. Negotiations about the deal broke down this week after 7 years because of disagreements over immigration, social security, and other topics.
Although science funding is not part of the IFA, Swiss researchers fear the political fallout could derail separate negotiations over Swiss access to Horizon Europe, the €95.5 billion EU research funding program that officially began this year. Switzerland, like a handful of other non-EU nations, has previously paid for full access to EU research programs as an “associate” member, but talks on joining the new program have not begun.
Last month, the Biden administration proposed boosting the budget for the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) basic research wing, the Office of Science, by 5.7% to $7.4 billion for fiscal year 2022. Members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology think the agency, the single largest U.S. funder of the physical sciences, needs a lot more. And tomorrow the panel will unveil a bipartisan bill that would authorize spending $8.7 billion next year—and nearly $11 billion by 2026.
“The Office of Science is receiving a $400 million increase from [current] levels, which would enable us to support all the of the key areas that the office covers, from quantum technology to biology,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told the committee today during testimony on the president’s overall 2022 request for research at the department. The proposed increase stands in stark contrast to budgets proposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump, which repeatedly sought—unsuccessfully—ؙto slash the Office of Science’s budget by as much as 19%.
However, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), who chairs the House science committee, questioned whether the proposed boost would be enough to enable the office to follow through on the programs and projects it has already begun—such as the U.S. contribution to ITER, the massive international fusion reactor under construction in southern France. The Office of Science is the main U.S. builder of large scientific machines such as atom smashers, x-ray synchrotrons, and neutron sources. DOE officials have built or begun the majority of large facilities that the Office of Science set out in 2003 as part of a 20-year plan for U.S. energy research.
More than 1000 researchers have signed an open letter in support of Elisabeth Bik, a scientific integrity consultant who is being accused of harassment and blackmail by a lawyer representing Didier Raoult, a controversial microbiologist at the Hospital Institute of Marseille (IHU) Mediterranean Infection in France. Last year, Raoult popularized the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Bik, who specializes in identifying manipulated images in scientific papers, has raised concerns about dozens of Raoult’s papers—including ethical, procedural, and methodological problems in a March 2020 paper reporting success in a small hydroxychloroquine trial.
The letter reflects a concern that “legitimate scientific criticism can be squelched by behaviors that go beyond scholarly debate,” says University of Virginia social scientist Brian Nosek, one of its authors. Threats like these are a “substantial threat to science as a social system,” adds Nosek, who has led a push for greater replicability in science.
Raoult’s lawyer told Science he filed a complaint against Bik with the French public prosecutor last month, although Bik has not been notified or charged. She says she has also faced months of harassment on Twitter—from one of Raoult’s colleagues, IHU structural biologist Eric Chabriere, and from anonymous accounts—as a result of her critiques of Raoult’s work. Most of the tweets question whether Bik is being paid by pharmaceutical companies and whether she profited from securities fraud at microbiome testing startup uBiome, where she worked from 2016 to 2018. Other tweets have attacked Bik’s appearance and threatened “justice” in “a real prison” in France. Most frightening, Bik says, has been the doxxing—publication of her home address by both Chabriere and anonymous accounts.
For the first time, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has expelled a member who had been found guilty of sexual harassment. NAS’s governing council has rescinded the membership of astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, the academy told its members in an email yesterday.
The email from NAS informed members that Marcy’s membership had been rescinded, effective 24 May, for violating its harassment policy. The NAS press office confirmed the academy’s action in an email to ScienceInsider, noting that the council’s vote met the required two-thirds majority.