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  • 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.


    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.


    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.

  • White House effort to boost marine aquaculture raises environmental concerns

    Divers around a deepwater aquaculture cage at the Cape Eleuthera Institute.

    Offshore aquaculture farms, like this SeaStation, must be tough enough to withstand the open ocean.


    The United States imports far more seafood than it produces, creating a trade deficit that reached $16.8 billion in 2017. Now, the Trump administration aims to boost domestic fishing and aquaculture in federal waters. The plan is drawing plaudits from industry, but darts from conservationists.

    The directive to federal agencies, announced last week by the White House and to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, would speed permits and environmental reviews for new aquaculture farms. It also instructs federally chartered regional fisheries councils to look for ways to cut bureaucratic red tape and increase catches of wild fish.

    “This is huge,” says Margaret Henderson, campaign manager for Stronger America Through Seafood, an industry trade group. “It’s a great show of support.”

  • U.K. government should not keep scientific advice secret, former chief adviser says

    David King

    David King, a former chief scientific adviser in the United Kingdom, has set up a “shadow” scientific advisory group to the government.

    Climaterepair/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

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

    Chemist David King is no stranger to politics or epidemics. From 2000 to 2007, King was chief scientific adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, U.K. prime ministers from the Labour Party. During that time, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease led to the culling of millions of sheep and cattle. Meanwhile, in humans, the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus spread from China to two dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, before the epidemic was contained.

    In the current pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, King has criticized the way scientific advice has been handled by the Conservative U.K. government. He has charged, for instance, that the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) should be made public—along with its advice. King has assembled a dozen scientists into an unofficial panel that he calls an independent SAGE. Last week, it conducted its first meeting, which was livestreamed on YouTube.

  • Secretive Jasons to offer advice on how to reopen academic labs shut by pandemic

     empty biotech laboratory

    Researchers around the world are trying to figure out how to reopen laboratories shuttered by the pandemic.

    Morsa Images/

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

    A group of prominent academic scientists that has been advising the U.S. government on security matters since the Cold War is conducting a quick-turnaround, pro bono study of a new threat to national security—the impact of COVID-19 on academic research. And this time it’s personal.

    Last month, some 30 members of Jason began to tackle the thorny question of how to reopen university laboratories safely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Nobody is paying for the study, a rare departure for the group, whose work is usually financed by government agencies and often involves classified information. But the study’s leader, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physicist Peter Fisher, says several federal agencies have expressed interest in the group’s analysis of the technical challenges facing every university that wants to resume research operations without jeopardizing the health of the faculty, students, and staff who work in those labs.

  • Fact-checking Judy Mikovits, the controversial virologist attacking Anthony Fauci in a viral conspiracy video

    Judy A. Mikovits

    Judy Mikovits (right), seen here at her lab in Reno, Nevada, in 2011 with a graduate student, has made many unfounded claims about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

    David Calvert for AP Images

    In a video that has exploded on social media in the past few days, virologist Judy Mikovits claims the new coronavirus is being wrongly blamed for many deaths. She makes head-scratching assertions about the virus—for instance, that it is “activated” by face masks.

    Mikovits also accuses Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a prominent member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, of being responsible for the deaths of millions during the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The video claims Mikovits was part of the team that discovered HIV, revolutionized HIV treatment, and was jailed without charges for her scientific positions.

    Science fact-checked the video. None of these claims are true. The video is an excerpt from a forthcoming movie Plandemic, which promises to “expose the scientific and political elite who run the scam that is our global health system.” YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms have taken down the video because of inaccuracies. It keeps resurfacing, including on the Plandemic website, which, in “an effort to bypass the gatekeepers of free speech,” invites people to download the video and repost it.

  • ‘Finally, a virus got me.’ Scientist who fought Ebola and HIV reflects on facing death from COVID-19

    Peter Piot

    “You live in a routine from syringe to infusion and you hope you make it,” Peter Piot says about his time in a London hospital.

    Heidi Larson

    Virologist Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, fell ill with COVID-19 in mid-March. He spent a week in a hospital and has been recovering at his home in London since. Climbing a flight of stairs still leaves him breathless.

    Piot, who grew up in Belgium, was one of the discoverers of the Ebola virus in 1976 and spent his career fighting infectious diseases. He headed the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS between 1995 and 2008 and is currently a coronavirus adviser to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. But his personal confrontation with the new coronavirus was a life-changing experience, Piot says.

    This interview took place on 2 May. Piot’s answers have been edited and translated from Dutch: 

  • India’s push to relax environmental assessment rules amid pandemic draws criticism

    Looking north in the Upper Dibang Valley District, Arunachal Pradesh, June 27 2012

    The Dibang Valley, a biodiversity hot spot in northeastern India, is threatened by a proposed hydropower dam.

    Goldentakin/Flickr/CC 2.0

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

    Environmentalists in India are criticizing government moves to continue to approve major industrial projects, and to relax the nation’s environmental assessment rules, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated public oversight and canceled potential field reviews.

    “They are carrying on as if there is no health emergency, hosting meetings and taking decisions including on big ticket projects,” said Kanchi Kohli, an environmental governance expert with the Centre for Policy Research. “Public engagement, ground verification—these options are all foreclosed at this time.”

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