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  • ‘There’s only one chance to do this right’—FDA panel wrestles with COVID-19 vaccine issues

    A patient receives an injection in their upper arm.

    This COVID-19 vaccine trial in Florida and others could be disrupted if the Food and Drug Administration authorizes one vaccine before others.

    Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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

    Concerns raised yesterday by an advisory group to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may once again tap the brakes on Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government’s $10.8 billion push to rapidly move candidate COVID-19 vaccines from concept to communities.

    As new U.S. cases of the pandemic coronavirus set a daily high of more than 75,000, FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) held a 9-hour virtual meeting to discuss a regulatory pathway that could permit the widescale use of a COVID-19 vaccine that has only minimal evidence of safety and efficacy. A so-called emergency use authorization (EUA) could use preliminary data from vaccine efficacy trials now underway to shave many months off the standard approval process, and FDA wanted VRBPAC to weigh in about the wisdom of taking this shortcut. The hearing, live-streamed on YouTube, drew intense interest, and some of the committee members—a mix of academics, consumer representatives, and government scientists—had an unsettling but clear message to FDA: Hold your horses.

  • U.S. cities struggling to meet lofty climate goals

    Tuscon, Arizona

    Tuscon, Arizona, has seen greenhouse gas emissions grow by 39% since 1990, the biggest increase among the 100 largest U.S. cities, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.


    Originally published in E&E News

    Most major U.S. cities that have signed on to the climate fight with pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions are failing to meet their goals or haven't even started to track local progress, according to a survey by the Brookings Institution.

    The report, "Pledges and Progress," looked for climate policy and actions in the nation's 100 most populous cities, finding that two-thirds have made commitments to address citywide emissions.

  • Troubles escalate at Ecuador’s dream research university

    Campus of Yachay Tech in Ecuador

    Yachay Tech University, launched in 2014, drew faculty from around the world to its brand new campus.


    It was supposed to become Ecuador’s dream research university—an international hub for science and higher education, able to recruit top talent from around the world. Instead, 6-year-old Yachay Tech University, nestled in the mountains 2 hours north of Quito, has long been mired in conflicts. Now, Ecuador’s economic woes and shifting politics have stirred new turmoil that threatens the university’s drive for “independent” status, which would allow it to run its own affairs.

    The past year, dozens of professors were fired or left because of salary reductions or alleged mistreatment, and those who remain have had to work extra shifts. The departures have left students struggling to enroll in courses or find thesis advisers, they say. On 13 October, Ecuador’s Higher Education Council (CES) ordered the university to file a “clear and accurate report” within 10 days answering complaints and inquiries from two professors and a group of students. They allege the university’s administration has violated professors’ rights and made long-term decisions with little transparency.

    The turmoil—which follows a previous spate of firings in 2017—comes at a sensitive time. In Ecuador, new universities are established by the government but must go through a process called institutionalization, which includes awarding tenure to some faculty and democratically electing university leadership. Given the current chaos, Yachay Tech will almost certainly miss the 31 December deadline for doing so, sources say.

  • Strict biodiversity laws prevent Indian scientists from sharing new microbes with the world

    Electron microscopy photo of Klebsiella indica bacteria

    Klebsiella indica, isolated from the surface of a tomato, is one of the few microbial species reported by Indian researchers this year.

    National Centre for Cell Science

    Praveen Rahi spent the better part of the past 3 years identifying and describing a new species of a nitrogen-fixing bacteria he discovered on peas cultivated in the mountains of northern India. But it could take years for Rahi, a microbial ecologist at India’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), to get the new species validated and officially named—if he doesn’t get scooped.

    Syed Dastager, a microbiologist at the country’s National Chemical Laboratory, faces a similar problem. He says he has discovered 30 new microbial species over the past several years, but they all sit in his laboratory freezer, unknown to the world, because he can’t publish about them.

    These scientists, like many others, are caught in a strange bureaucratic limbo between India’s stringent biodiversity protection laws and the rules of the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes (ICSP), which validates newly discovered microbes. “As a country, we now face the prospect of losing the claim to document bacterial diversity from India,” Yogesh Shouche, a microbial taxonomist at NCCS, wrote in an editorial in Current Science last month that called attention to the problem.

  • U.S. climate report moves ahead after complaints about delays

    White House at night

    Originally published by E&E News

    President Donald Trump’s administration has quietly restarted the National Climate Assessment after public outcry over its delay.

    A key step in the progress of the National Climate Assessment—the solicitation for authors to work on the project—was delayed for months, E&E News has reported (Climatewire, 5 October). After public outcry, NASA restarted the process, publishing a Federal Register notice Thursday on behalf of the U.S. Global Change Research Program that it was seeking lead authors and researchers for the assessment.

  • Stem cell research, clinical use of ‘magic mushrooms’ among issues on state ballots this year

    Voters in line in Fairfax VA

    Voters lined up last month in Fairfax, Virginia, to cast their ballots in this year’s elections.


    Election Day is 3 November, but U.S. voters have already started to mail in or drop off their ballots. In addition to selecting candidates for local, state, and federal positions, voters in many states will be weighing in on more than 100 initiatives and referenda.

    The measures often deal with mundane financial matters. But voters will also get to vote on a number of hot-button issues, including marijuana legalization, abortion, and health care.

    There are also a few science-related initiatives that the research community is watching. Here are examples from four states: California, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada.

  • In new strategy, Wellcome Trust will take on global health challenges

    The Wellcome Trust headquarters

    With an endowment worth £28 billion, the Wellcome Trust is taking on goal-oriented global health challenges.

    Arcaid Images/Alamy Stock Photo

    One of the world’s largest nongovernmental funders of science, the Wellcome Trust, is enlarging its focus to include goal-oriented, as well as basic research. The London-based philanthropy, which spends more than £1 billion per year, said today it will boost funding for research on infectious diseases, the health effects of global warming, and mental health. The new strategy moves it closer to philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on public health challenges around the world. “It’s a big shift,” says Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who leads the charity. “It’s not just about discovering stuff, it’s also about making sure that changes come to peoples’ lives.”

    Wellcome already supports significant research in infectious disease. But outbreaks are “becoming larger, more frequent, and more complex,” a Wellcome spokesperson says, and so it will spend more money on researching neglected tropical diseases and pushing for “clinical trials with greater participant diversity.” It also hopes to make an impact in new areas. The spokesperson argues that there has been “little scientific progress in 30 years” on mental health or on the health impacts of global warming, which include the spread of infectious diseases and heat-related sickness and death.

    Adding mental health is a particularly big step, says Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at the University of Edinburgh who receives some funding from Wellcome and who consulted on a review that led to the new strategy. “We haven’t really seen a charity take on the mental health agenda,” she says. 

  • Could certain COVID-19 vaccines leave people more vulnerable to the AIDS virus?

    Two vaccine vials with their packaging

    CanSino Biologics’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine is one of at least four using an adenovirus that some worry could increase HIV susceptibility.


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

    Certain COVID-19 vaccine candidates could increase susceptibility to HIV, warns a group of researchers who in 2007 learned that an experimental HIV vaccine had raised in some people the risk for infection with the AIDS virus. These concerns have percolated in the background of the race for a vaccine to stem the coronavirus pandemic, but now the researchers have gone public with a “cautionary tale,” in part because trials of those candidates may soon begin in locales that have pronounced HIV epidemics, such as South Africa.

    Some approved and experimental vaccines have as a backbone a variety of adenoviruses, which can cause the common cold but are often harmless. The ill-fated HIV vaccine trial used an engineered strain known as adenovirus 5 (Ad5) to shuttle into the body the gene for the surface protein of the AIDS virus. In four candidate COVID-19 vaccines now in clinical trials in several countries, including the United States, Ad5 similarly serves as the “vector” to carry in the surface protein gene of SARS-CoV-2, the viral cause of the pandemic; two of these have advanced to large-scale, phase III efficacy studies in Russia and Pakistan.

  • In Wyoming, an ecologist seeks a new niche as a U.S. senator

    Merav Ben-David at the University of Wyoming

    Merav Ben-David

    Nadav Soroker

    More than 10 years ago, Merav Ben-David encountered a bureaucratic blizzard when she launched a study of polar bears in Alaska. She had to comply with a host of regulatory policies, obtain permits from regional, federal, and tribal agencies, and plot out the team’s trip through the Artic Ocean. So, days after receiving her U.S. citizenship, the Israeli-born conservation ecologist says she found herself “neck deep” in government affairs.

    Now, Ben-David is once again neck deep in governance—but this time, she’s aiming to craft policy, not simply follow it. On 18 August, the University of Wyoming professor won the state’s Democratic primary for Senate. Now, she’s running for a U.S. Senate seat as an underdog against Republican Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming’s former representative to Congress.

    Ben-David’s interest in ecology started on a farm. Growing up in Nahalat Yehuda, she tended to young animals—nestlings, bunnies, hedgehogs, and the like—that she found in the fields of her father’s farm. By her early 20s, she had a master’s degree in zoology and was leading wildlife tours in Kenya. In 1990, she began a doctoral program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She became fascinated by the state’s marine ecosystems, occupied by mink, martens, otters, salmon, and polar bears. In 2000, she won a faculty job at the University of Wyoming.

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