Science

News at a glance: Climate justice, ethical mask wearers, and CDC under Trump

FISHERIES SCIENCE

Warming cancels crab harvest

In a first, the state of Alaska last week canceled the $250 million Bering Sea snow crab season because of a population crash that scientists blame largely on a marine heat wave. The population of the crab, Chionoecetes opilio, plummeted from an estimated 11.7 billion in 2018 to about 2 billion this year. Temperatures on the Bering’s bottom, where the crabs dwell, reached 3.5°C in 2018, up from 1.5°C in 2017, and stayed high for at least 2 years. Adjusting to the warmer waters would have stressed and potentially starved them, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. After temperatures returned to normal starting in 2020, however, the crabs didn’t reappear. That indicates they did not temporarily move away in search of cooler water.

PUBLIC HEALTH

Trump pressure on CDC detailed

The administration of former President Donald Trump repeatedly pressured senior staff at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to edit or suppress reports offering grim news about COVID-19, a U.S. House of Representatives select subcommittee reported this week. During 5 months in 2020, political appointees took the unusual step of targeting 18 reports written for CDC’s flagship Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) that they perceived as undermining Trump’s rosier view of the pandemic, the report says. CDC staff members pushed back, and just five reports were altered or delayed. A political appointee demanded that MMWR be shut down if he could not read draft reports, which CDC by policy had not shared with outsiders. “This would be a red line, I think, for all of us,” Henry Walke, a CDC incident manager for coronavirus response, told the subcommittee. Some findings from the Democrat-led panel were previously reported by news organizations, but its 91-page report offers new details from interviews with 19 current and former senior officials, including Robert Redfield, CDC’s director under Trump. Former Trump administration officials cited in the report have dismissed it as partisan.

HEALTH POLICY

Journals call for climate justice

Ahead of a major climate policy conference in Egypt in November, 259 health journals are asking wealthy nations to step up support for lower income nations, such as those in Africa, disproportionately affected by climate change. “It is highly unjust that the most impacted nations have contributed the least to global cumulative emissions,” says the editorial, written by editors of journals based in Africa and published this week by all the participating journals. It highlights how climate change is linked to drought, famine, flooding, and the resulting harm to the health and wealth of African nations. The editorial calls for changes in financing to low-income countries to help them adapt to the effects of climate change, such as by providing them grants instead of loans. Signers include the BMJ, Lancet, and JAMA families of journals and The New England Journal of Medicine.

COVID-19

Mask wearing improved behavior

People in China who wear masks to protect against COVID-19 behave more ethically in public than those who don’t, researchers found. The result challenges a hypothesis that masks encourage deviant behavior by increasing anonymity. The researchers did 10 different studies involving more than 68,000 participants. Some tallied antisocial behavior of masked and unmasked people in public, such as pedestrians who ran red lights and bicyclists parking in no-parking zones. Another study measured whether participants lied about solving an unsolvable puzzle. In all these cases, masked people obeyed rules and acted ethically more often than unmasked ones, the researchers reported in the 4 October issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

PUBLIC HEALTH

Sharing antibiotics is no Rx

Thérèse Coffey, the United Kingdom’s secretary for health, drew criticism last week after she reportedly said at an official meeting that she had shared leftover antibiotics with others, which is illegal in that country. Health researchers worry excessive prescribing and use of antibiotics will foster drug-resistant microbes. Coffey’s comment came during a discussion of the pressure on physicians to handle caseloads. The government is considering allowing pharmacies to provide patients antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription.

ASTRONOMY

U.S. wants to use Arecibo site for science education

A gash (center, left) in the dish of the famed Arecibo Observatory radio telescope, caused by an equipment collapse, has left it unusable since 2020. RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, for decades home to the world’s largest radio telescope, will be a leading research center no more. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) last week invited proposals to transform the facility, which was badly damaged when a radio receiver crashed down on its iconic 305-meter dish in 2020, into a center for science education and outreach. Before the collapse, Arecibo actively supported science education, welcoming nearly 100,000 visitors a year. Some astronomers have urged NSF to build a new large telescope at the site. But the NSF announcement suggests it has no such plans. Researchers also worry the new center’s budget—$5 million over 5 years—won’t be enough to maintain several smaller instruments still operating at the observatory or support its existing technical staff.

PUBLIC HEALTH

China sticks to zero-COVID policy

Chinese President Xi Jinping touted his country’s “zero-COVID” strategy this week at the opening session of the Communist Party’s National Congress, dashing any hopes that China’s rigid regime of quarantines, mass testing, and lockdowns may soon come to an end. The strategy has crimped the economy, and public health experts say the obstacles to lifting it are now rising: Unlike much of the rest of the world, China has not begun second booster doses, which means protection is waning. And Chinese health authorities say that zero-COVID is still needed to protect the 10% of those over age 60 still not fully vaccinated. Xi’s policy is likely to continue, as the congress is expected to give him an unprecedented third 5-year term.

COVID-19

Blended viral strain draws fire

Twitter exploded with outrage this week about a study in which scientists engineered the spike protein of Omicron—the fast-spreading but relatively mild variant of SARS-CoV-2 that’s now pervasive—into a deadlier strain of the coronavirus found in Washington state early in the pandemic. The objective was to learn whether the protein alone explains Omicron’s lower pathogenicity. The hybrid virus killed 80% of infected mice, according to a preprint posted on 14 October by Boston University (BU) researchers. Critics worried it could escape the lab. They also argued that the work, partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), qualifies as “gain-of-function” (GOF) research that makes risky pathogens more dangerous and should have gone through a high-level federal review (see feature). BU officials said the study, conducted under the second highest level of biosafety precautions, BSL-3, was not GOF research because it resulted in a virus less deadly to mice than the original Washington strain, which killed 100% of the animals. They also said it was not subject to GOF review because NIH funds were only used for developing tools used in the experiment. Several non-BU virologists pointed out the mice were engineered to be extremely sensitive to SARS-CoV-2, which only kills about 1% or less of people.

THREE QS

Ukrainian science hangs on

As a new wave of Russian missiles began to rain down on Ukraine on 10 October, killing and wounding civilians, science was hit as well. One rocket blew out windows at the science ministry and the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Also damaged was the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Its president, Anatoly Zagorodny, 71, added repairing the premises to a to-do list that includes maintaining a pulse in 160 science institutes and paying salaries to some 27,000 staff as the war drains Ukraine’s budget. Science interviewed Zagorodny, a theoretical physicist, at the academy’s headquarters a few days before 10 October. A longer version of this interview is at https://scim.ag/3QsZagorodny.

Q: Many Ukrainian scientists have fled. How will you entice them to come home after the war?

A: It really will be a big challenge. Many Ukrainian students are studying elsewhere in Europe. We need to ensure that international cooperation doesn’t contribute to the brain drain.

Q: How are those who stayed being helped?

A: The Austrian Academy of Sciences, ALLEA [All European Academies], PAN [the Polish Academy of Sciences], and others have announced, or are going to announce, special calls for support. And we are in conversation with PAN and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on their new program [to invite proposals from teams of Polish scientists and colleagues in Ukraine]. We also appealed to leading manufacturers for scientific equipment. As of today, four companies—Agilent, Bruker, Carl Zeiss, and Analytik Jena—have nobly decided to donate urgently needed instruments totaling more than $4 million. We’re deeply grateful.

Q: As Russia attacks civilian targets, you could face a long winter.

A: We will recommend to institutes how to save equipment [for example, sample freezers and mass spectrometers that maintain a vacuum] and infrastructure if they lose electricity and heating. It’s terrorism, pure and simple. But Ukrainian people are united. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe we will be victorious.

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