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  • Forget throat swabs: Dutch company claims its breathalyzer can help sniff out COVID-19

    Minister Hugo de Jonge using SpiroNose

    Dutch health minister Hugo de Jonge gets tested for COVID-19 using the SpiroNose.

    Joris van Gennip

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

    People seeking to get tested for COVID-19 by Amsterdam’s Public Health Service (GGD) in February were pioneers: They were the first in the world to be tested using a “breathalyzer” that can sniff out the disease based on a mix of chemical components exhaled by the patient.

    The approach promises to be faster and less unpleasant than a nose or throat swab, and cheaper. But soon after its premiere, 25 people who tested negative turned out to have COVID-19 after all, and Amsterdam halted its use. The Dutch government has decided the device itself was innocent, however, and has not withdrawn its authorization. A commercial testing company is now deploying it widely—for example to screen workers at the Eurovision Song Contest, which begins tomorrow in Rotterdam.

  • Scientists tracking coronavirus variants struggle with global blind spots

    A passenger receives a nasal swab from a health care worker in personal protective equipment

    A passenger being tested for COVID-19 at Johannesburg’s international airport in January. A coronavirus variant of concern that arose in South Africa has spread around the world.

    Guillem Sartorio/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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

    Last month, Gytis Dudas was tracking a concerning new coronavirus variant that had triggered an outbreak of COVID-19 in his native Lithuania and appeared sporadically elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. Exploring an international database of coronavirus genomes, Dudas found a crucial clue: One sample of the new variant came from a person who had recently flown to France from Cameroon. A collaborator, Guy Baele of KU Leuven, soon identified six more sequences from people in Europe who had traveled in Cameroon. But then their quest to pinpoint the variant’s origins hit a wall: Cameroon had uploaded a total of only 48 genomes to the global sequence repository, called GISAID. None included the variant.

    With dogged legwork, Baele and Dudas, an evolutionary biologist at the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, learned another team had gathered as-yet-unpublished sequences from a COVID-19 outbreak among staff at a great ape program in the Central African Republic—near the Cameroonian border. Six people there carried the new variant.

  • The pandemic surge at home is threatening an Indian vaccinemaker’s bid to protect the world

    Aerial view of a large multi-building campus.

    The 20-hectare original campus of the Serum Institute of India (above) now abuts its equally large biotech park, which has vastly expanded the company’s vaccine production capabilities.

    Serum Institute of India

    Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

    PUNE, INDIAIn a world of have and have-nots, Adar Poonawalla is most decidedly a have, with both abundant personal wealth and a corner on what promises to be a massive supply of one of the world’s most desperately sought commodities: COVID-19 vaccines. Affable but feisty and a fan of bespoke suits, the 40-year-old heads the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest maker of vaccines. Before the pandemic, the company’s factories in India annually churned out 1.5 billion doses of vaccines—50% more than the next largest producer—to protect against 13 different diseases.

    Poonawalla’s list of personal haves is long: an office fashioned from a retired Airbus 320 jetliner set on Serum’s 40-hectare campus. Ferraris, a Rolls Royce, and a Batmobile. A helicopter and a fleet of private jets. He splits his time between a luxurious ranch house on the family’s stud farm abutting the company, a 9-hectare home across town in the upscale Salisbury Park neighborhood, a former maharaja’s mansion in Mumbai, and a $69,000-a-week rental in London.

  • Bills to give NSF massive spending boost advance in Senate and House, but hurdles remain

    A scientist works on beamline equipment

    Funding authorized for the Department of Energy could support its network of laboratories, which includes Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

    Mark Lopez Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

    Two key congressional committees this week endorsed the idea of a sizable spending increase for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Separate pieces of legislation—one approved by a Senate panel, the other by a committee of the House of Representatives—would more than double NSF’s budget over 5 years as part of a broader push to outinnovate China and the rest of the world through a massive federal investment in research.

    But research advocates aren’t popping any corks yet. The two votes represent an important step in a 20-year push to bring the $8.5-billion-a-year NSF closer to parity with the $43 billion National Institutes of Health. However, legislators must still reconcile competing visions of NSF’s role in maintaining U.S. global leadership in science in order for some version of either bill to become law. And then they would have to convince their colleagues to appropriate at least some portion of the additional money Congress has authorized.

    “Getting [the bills] out of committee is great news,” says one lobbyist for higher education. “But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

  • Only 1% of Japan is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Is it ready for the Olympics?

    Kenji Jojima, a former professional baseball player, runs in the Tokyo Olympic torch relay

    Kenji Jojima, a former professional baseball player, runs in the Tokyo Olympics torch relay in Sasebo, a city in southwestern Japan, on 8 May.

    Kyodo via AP Images

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

    Two months before the scheduled start of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, COVID-19 cases are rising steeply in Japan while immunization is moving at a glacial pace. Only 1% of the population is fully vaccinated, a much lower fraction than in the United States, Europe, India, and China. That has led some to ask whether the Olympics should proceed, and others to urge an overhaul of the cumbersome immunization campaign and a rethink of Japan’s regulatory approach—which so far has authorized only one vaccine, produced by Pfizer and BioNTech.

    Japan has weathered the pandemic well compared with many other countries, with 640,000 cases and 10,900 deaths since early 2020. But some say that has made the government overly confident. A succession of lenient lockdowns has been imposed on different regions at different times, but most were lifted prematurely, scientists say, as soon as new infections trended downward. In July 2020, the government launched a campaign to boost domestic tourism that, according to two studies, resulted in a spike in cases among leisure travelers and hospitality workers. On 7 May, the government announced that a state of emergency affecting Tokyo, Osaka, and several other prefectures, set to lift on 11 May, will be extended to the end of the month.

  • Meet the scientists who want to help write Chile’s new constitution

    A demonstrator waves the Chilean flag outside of a burning church at dusk

    Demonstrators waved the Chilean flag in front of a burning church in October 2020, 1 week before voters overwhelmingly supported writing a new national constitution.

    MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

    SANTIAGO, CHILE—As soon as it became clear from October 2020’s national referendum that Chileans had voted overwhelmingly to rewrite their constitution—chucking the current, dictatorship-era document in favor of a charter to be written by an elected body—astronomer Diego Mardones called a colleague, who is one of the country’s most prominent scientists, to find out whether he planned to run for a seat in the new constitutional assembly. After José Maza Sancho, an astrophysicist widely beloved for his work in science communication, said he would not be a candidate, Mardones decided to take up the torch: He is now one of hundreds of candidates—including more than a dozen researchers—on the ballot in the historic election to be held this weekend. 

    “It’s really important to have scientists represented in the [constitutional] assembly,” says Mardones, who studies star formation at the University of Chile here.

    The 15–16 May elections will select the 155 representatives, from 28 districts, who will spend the next year crafting the new constitution, which will be put to a national vote in 2022. At least 18 candidates hail from the world of science and research. Several told ScienceInsider they are running because they believe scientists need to have a seat at the table, both to make sure that research interests are considered in drafting the constitution, but also because scientists have unique expertise to bring to issues such as natural resource management, public health, and climate change.

  • Senate panel backs funding ban on U.S. researchers in Chinese talent programs

    Maria Cantwell speaks during a committee hearing

    Senator Maria Cantwell (D–WA) managed hours of debate yesterday on the Endless Frontier Act.

    U.S. Senate

    The U.S. Senate’s commerce committee has voted to ban any U.S. scientist who participates in a Chinese-sponsored talent recruitment program from receiving or making use of federal funding. Yesterday’s vote—just the first step toward making the provision law—represents a ratcheting up of current U.S. efforts to block the Chinese government from stealing or gaining improper access to federally funded research.

    The new restrictions are tucked into bipartisan legislation championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–NY), called the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), which would authorize massive budget increases for the National Science Foundation and research at the Department of Energy, and also give NSF a new technology directorate. The committee voted 24 to four to advance the latest version of the bill (S.1260), which could be headed to the Senate floor as soon as next week. A similar bill with the same restrictions is pending in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    The 340-page EFA is aimed at strengthening the country’s ability to turn basic research into technologies essential for U.S. economic and national security. Supporters see China as the main threat to U.S. leadership in innovation, and many of its provisions are meant to counter China’s aggressive efforts over the past 2 decades to bolster innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum information science.

  • ‘Hybrid’ scientific conferences aim to offer the best of in-person and virtual meetings

    WiT hybrid conference showing a masked and socially distanced audience with hybrid in-person and virtual presenters

    Some conferences will convene partially in-person this year as “hybrid” meetings.

    Marina Bay Sands

    Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the conference experience for researchers around the globe as scientific societies canceled in-person meetings and scrambled to hold virtual events in their place—with varying success. Now, as vaccines become more widely available, particularly in the United States, some of those societies are grappling with a new challenge: when and how to safely get conference attendees into the same room again while maintaining the accessibility and wide reach virtual meetings afford.

    Many are opting to stay virtual. But this summer and fall, a handful of U.S. societies are taking the plunge and planning “hybrid” meetings, which will convene in a physical location and also allow for virtual participation. It's a significant undertaking, often involving two separate planning teams and greater expense—and the risk that virtual attendees won't get the full benefit of the meeting. But many are optimistic it will pay off. “We're going to take the best of both worlds and try and smash them together in a way that makes sense,” says Nate Wambold, director of meetings and conferences for the American Anthropological Association (AAA). (For its 2022 annual meeting, AAAS, Science's publisher, will also adopt a hybrid format.)

    If these hybrids succeed, they could serve as a model for what scientific conferences could look like in years to come. “All the organizations that run meetings … will have to revise the concept,” says Guy Brasseur, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology who is serving as the program committee chair for the American Geophysical Union's (AGU's) annual meeting, scheduled to convene in New Orleans in December. He likens the situation to the digital publishing shakeup: “When we went from paper publication to electronic publication, that was a revolution for the community. Now we are in the middle of thinking, ‘What is going to be the conferences of the future?’”

  • ‘A toxic cocktail:’ Panel delivers harsh verdict on the world’s failure to prepare for pandemic

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

    World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is up for reelection next year. A panel proposes limiting future WHO heads to a single 7-year term.

    FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

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

    There was warning after warning after warning, and yet the world failed to do what was needed to prepare for a pandemic, the first comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 finds. This lack of preparation left countries short of essential supplies, burdened by underresourced health systems, and scrambling to coordinate a response, while large vulnerable populations had few options to protect themselves.

    “The combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis,” the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR) writes in its report, which was presented today.

  • Next stop, space: NASA Webb telescope undergoes final tests

    the James Webb Space Telescope’s 18 hexagonal mirrors

    The mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing final tests this month before being packaged up for launch.

    NASA/Chris Gunn

    NASA engineers are getting one last look at the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST): a final test to show that its 18 gold-tinted mirror segments can unfold into a precise honeycomb configuration. After the test concludes this week, the giant instrument will be folded up, packed into a shipping container, and shipped off to French Guiana, where it will launch into space on 31 October.

    The 6.5-meter-wide JWST is the agency’s next great observatory, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. In a NASA briefing today, Program Scientist Eric Smith told reporters it was born out of a realization in the mid-1990s that, no matter how long it stared into deep space, Hubble would never be able to see the universe’s very first stars and galaxies and learn how they formed and evolved. The expanding universe has “redshifted” the light of those primordial objects out of the visible spectrum; NASA needed a space telescope that worked in the infrared. “So the idea of Webb was born,” Smith says. Since then, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets. Smith says JWST will be able to probe their atmospheres for molecules such as carbon dioxide, water, methane, and others that could suggest the presence of life.

    Getting the $9 billion contraption to the point of departure has taken NASA much more time and money than it or Congress ever suspected. The construction of JWST proved to be the most complex and difficult science project in the agency’s history. The process of testing the telescope’s folding mirror, multilayered sunshield, and cryogenically cooled instruments has stretched years longer than planned.

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