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Read our COVID-19 research and news.

  • U.K. variant puts spotlight on immunocompromised patients’ role in the COVID-19 pandemic

    A large crowd of shoppers walk down Regent Street.

    Shoppers wear face masks on Regent Street in London on 19 December, the day the U.K. government imposed new restrictions to curb a rapidly spreading new SARS-CoV-2 variant.

    AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali

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

    In June, Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, heard about a cancer patient who had come into a local hospital the month before with COVID-19 and was still shedding virus. The patient was being treated for a lymphoma that had relapsed and had been given rituximab, a drug that depletes antibody-producing B cells. That made it hard for him to shake the infection with SARS-CoV-2.

    Gupta, who studies how resistance to HIV drugs arises, became interested in the case and helped treat the patient, who died in August, 101 days after his COVID-19 diagnosis, despite being given the antiviral drug remdesivir and two rounds of plasma from recovered patients, which contained antibodies against the virus. When Gupta studied genome sequences from the coronavirus that infected the patient, he discovered that SARS-CoV-2 had acquired several mutations that might have allowed it to elude the antibodies.

  • Massive 2021 U.S. spending bill leaves research advocates hoping for more

    President Donald Trump walking away from mics in press pool

    President Donald Trump will leave office next year having overseen robust growth in federal science spending over his 4 years in office, despite his administration’s repeated efforts to slash research budgets.

    Carlos Barria/Reuters

    The massive $1.4 trillion spending bill that the U.S. Congress passed this week should once again reverse the deep cuts the President Donald Trump had proposed for most science agencies, although the outgoing politician has threatened not to sign the bill. Even if he does, the modest hikes for 2021 have left the research community wanting more.

    The final budget package includes increases of 3% for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 2.5% for the National Science Foundation (NSF), 2.3% for NASA science, and 0.4% for the Department of Energy (DOE’s) science office. Those numbers (see details below) put the cherry on top of 4 years of robust growth under Trump despite his persistent attempts to eviscerate federal science budgets.

    NIH’s budget now stands at $42.9 billion, a 33% rise over its 2016 level of $32.3 billion. Similarly, spending by DOE science tops $7 billion, compared with $5.4 billion in 2017, a boost of 30%. NASA science programs rose by 8% and 11% in 2018 and 2019, respectively, before slowing in 2020 and 2021. NSF’s budget, now nearly $8.5 billion, has grown the least among the four biggest federal science agencies. But even so, a 14% rise since 2017 compares favorably with an overall increase of only 4% during the second term of former President Barack Obama.

  • Liver tumor in gene therapy recipient raises concerns about virus widely used in treatment

    Scanning Eletron microscopy image of red blood cells trapped in fibrin.

    People receiving gene therapy for hemophilia often lack a protein called factor that stabilizes fibrin (yellow), a component of blood clots.

    DENNIS KUNKEL MICROSCOPY/Science Source

    It’s troubling news that gene therapy researchers have long anticipated: A hemophilia patient injected with a virus carrying a therapeutic gene in a clinical trial has developed a liver tumor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has halted the associated clinical trials, and uniQure, the Dutch firm behind the studies, is now investigating whether the virus itself caused the cancer.

    Gene therapy experts say that’s unlikely. The patient had underlying conditions that predisposed him to liver cancer. Still, scientists say it’s crucial to rule out any role for adeno-associated virus (AAV), the viral delivery system, or vector, that is used in hundreds of other gene therapy trials. “Everyone will want to know what happened,” says physician-scientist David Lillicrap of Queen’s University, a hemophilia researcher who was not involved with the uniQure study.

    Gene therapy for various forms of the blood-clotting disorder hemophilia has been one of the field’s latest success stories. UniQure’s hemophilia B treatment appears to be among the treatments working, with 52 of 54 patients no longer needing injections of factor IX after 6 months in its latest study.

  • Makers of successful COVID-19 vaccines wrestle with options for placebo recipients

    A clinical trial participant receives a vaccine in their arm

    Half the participants in the efficacy trial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine received a placebo, and whether—and how—the company should offer the now proven vaccine to those volunteers is a complex issue.

    Penn Medicine

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

    Now that regulators around the world have begun to issue emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for COVID-19 vaccines—the United States authorized a candidate vaccine from the biotech Moderna on Friday—a theoretical debate that has simmered for months has become a pressing reality: Should ongoing vaccine efficacy studies inform their tens of thousands of volunteers whether they were injected with a placebo or the vaccine, and also offer an already authorized vaccine to those who got the placebo?

    Vaccinemakers must now quickly decide how to handle this issue, called unblinding. And if they do choose to unblind, they will also need to get regulatory approval. Adding to the pressure: The choice arrives as many trial participants in the United States who are now eligible for an authorized COVID-19 vaccine are dropping out of studies in order to make sure they get immunized.

  • Suspicions grow that nanoparticles in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine trigger rare allergic reactions

    a gloved hand fills a syringe with the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine

    Some people suspect polyethylene glycol may have triggered severe reactions in at least eight people who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the past 2 weeks.

    CARLOS OSORIO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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

    Severe allergy-like reactions in at least eight people who received the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech over the past 2 weeks may be due to a compound in the packaging of the messenger RNA (mRNA) that forms the vaccine’s main ingredient, scientists say. A similar mRNA vaccine developed by Moderna, which was authorized for emergency use in the United States on Friday, also contains the compound, polyethylene glycol (PEG).

    PEG has never been used before in an approved vaccine, but it is found in many drugs that have occasionally triggered anaphylaxis—a potentially life-threatening reaction that can cause rashes, a plummeting blood pressure, shortness of breath, and a fast heartbeat. Some allergists and immunologists believe a small number of people previously exposed to PEG may have high levels of antibodies against PEG, putting them at risk of an anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine. 

  • Researchers retract controversial female mentorship paper

     illustration of a woman standing between two large silhouettes, one dark and stormy the other bright and sunny.
    Robert Neubecker

    The authors of a Nature Communications study that suggested female scientists who have female mentors have worse career outcomes, provoking social media outrage and criticism of their methods, have retracted the paper. The move comes 1 month after journal editors announced they were launching a “priority” investigation of that paper, Retraction Watch reports today.

    The study, published on 17 November by researchers from New York University, Abu Dhabi, combed through more than 200 million scientific papers to identify several million mentor-mentee pairs, then tracked their co-authorships and citation records to evaluate the impact of mentorship. Their conclusions, including a finding that “current diversity policies promoting female-female mentorships, as well-intended as they may be, could hinder the careers of women,” angered many researchers. Critics attacked both the study’s conclusions and the methods used to reach them.

    In a retraction notice published today, the authors wrote that they recognized the validity of some of the complaints, including concerns about “the use of co-authorship as a measure of mentorship.” The authors added that although they “believe that all the key findings of the paper with regards to co-authorship between junior and senior researchers are still valid,” they “feel deep regret that the publication of our research has both caused pain on an individual level and triggered such a profound response among many in the scientific community.”

  • Plan to map oil in Alaska’s Arctic refuge ignores environmental risks, critics say

    A polar bear walks along an ice edge with her two cubs following.

    Scientists fear a planned hunt for oil on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this winter could harm female polar bears and their newborn cubs that live along the southern edge of the Beaufort Sea.

    Steven Kazlowski/Minden Pictures

    A plan to crisscross parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with earth-shaking machines that help map underground oil formations is drawing criticism from scientists who study the remote Alaskan wilderness.

    Two federal agencies in recent weeks have issued preliminary decisions concluding that the work, which will span 1400 square kilometers, poses no significant risk to the landscape or animals living there, including federally protected polar bears. The decisions are part of a fast-paced push to launch oil exploration inside the refuge in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s administration.

    But some scientists argue there is too little research to support that conclusion, and note that similar mapping techniques used in the area in the past created scars on the landscape that have lasted for decades. They fear the new exploration could damage an extensive area of tundra and harm hibernating polar bears.

  • Mutant coronavirus in the United Kingdom sets off alarms, but its importance remains unclear

    People at Saint Pancras station in London waiting to board a Eurostar train to Paris.
    Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP Images

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

    On 8 December, during a regular Tuesday meeting about the spread of the pandemic coronavirus in the United Kingdom, scientists and public health experts saw a diagram that made them sit up straight. Kent, in southeastern England, was experiencing a surge in cases, and a phylogenetic tree showing viral sequences from the county looked very strange, says Nick Loman, a microbial genomicist at the University of Birmingham. Not only were half the cases caused by one specific variant of SARS-CoV-2, but that variant was sitting on a branch of the tree that literally stuck out from the rest of the data. “I’ve not seen a part of the tree that looks like this before,” Loman says.

    Less than 2 weeks later, that variant is causing mayhem in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. Yesterday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced stricter lockdown measures, saying the strain, which goes by the name B.1.1.7, appears to be better at spreading between people. The news led many Londoners to leave the city today, before the new rules take effect, causing overcrowded railway stations. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy announced they were temporarily halting passenger flights from the United Kingdom. The Eurostar train between Brussels and London will stop running tonight at midnight, for at least 24 hours.

  • Targeting U.S. wetland restoration could make cleaning up water much cheaper

    Flooded farmland after heavy spring rain

    Rain washing off fields can pollute waterways with fertilizer. Wetlands help remove that excess nitrogen.

    ANT Photo Library/Science Source

    Wetlands do a great job of filtering and cleaning up polluted water. But in the United States, many of those natural filters have been destroyed: filled in, paved over, or drained to become farm fields. Now, a study suggests policymakers responsible for managing wetlands could do a better job by strategically locating restored or created wetlands near sources of pollution, such as farms and livestock operations. Such a targeted approach would remove much more nitrogen—which pollutes groundwater, lakes, and coastal waters—than current scattershot policies, the researchers say.

    The new study quantifies how much nitrogen is removed by wetlands all over the country, providing a new estimate of their contribution to water quality both nationwide and locally. “This is certainly the best estimate that we’ve had to date and it will probably stand for many years to come,” says Patrick Inglett, a biogeochemist at the University of Florida. “This gives us so much more focus as to where wetlands need to be located.”

    When nitrogen-based fertilizer washes off farm fields, it ends up in streams. This nitrogen stimulates algal blooms in rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, which can cause oxygen-poor “dead zones” that harm fisheries. Excess nitrogen, which comes from livestock manure as well, also contaminates groundwater as nitrate. Wetlands are effective at removing the nitrogen because they have carbon-rich and oxygen-poor sediments that are ideal breeding grounds for bacteria that convert biologically active forms of nitrogen—the kind that would stimulate the growth of algae—into inert nitrogen gas that is released to the atmosphere.

  • Chicken-size dino with a furlike mane stirs ethics debate

    illustration of Ubirajara

    The dinosaur Ubirajara jubatus lived more than 110 million years ago in what is now northeastern Brazil.

    ? Bob Nicholls/Paleocreations.com

    About 110 million years ago in what is now Brazil, a pint-size dinosaur cut a flamboyant figure with a display of filaments resembling mammalian fur and narrow, bladelike structures erupting from its shoulders. Now it’s in the spotlight for another reason: questions about how it fell into the hands of the paleontologists who described it last week and was added to the collection of a museum in southwest Germany.

    Some researchers say the specimen may have been exported illegally. The authors say they had permission to take the fossil out of Brazil as part of a shipment of fossils. But under Brazilian law, “There is no legal exportation of fossils. Period,” only loans, says Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist and director of the National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

    The fossil was found in northeastern Brazil, likely by a worker in one of the many limestone quarries in the area. The researchers who prepared and described the specimen named it Ubirajara jubatusUbirajara means “lord of the spear” in Tupi, one of the Indigenous languages spoken in the region. Jubatus is Latin for “maned.” It’s the first dinosaur from the Southern Hemisphere with structures that might be related to early feathers, although the filaments were not branched like modern bird feathers. The creature evidently bore an impressive mane on its neck and its furlike covering was “like a teddy bear”—though with rather fierce claws, says Eberhard Frey, a paleontologist at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe who helped lead the new study of the fossil.

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