5-31-20 Coronavirus: The mystery of asymptomatic 'silent spreaders'
As the crisis has unfolded, scientists have discovered more evidence about a strange and worrying feature of the coronavirus. While many people who become infected develop a cough, fever and loss of taste and smell, others have no symptoms at all and never realise they're carrying Covid-19. Researchers say it's vital to understand how many are affected this way and whether "silent spreaders" are fuelling the pandemic. When people gathered at a church in Singapore on 19 January, no-one could have realised that the event would have global implications for the spread of coronavirus. It was a Sunday and, as usual, one of the services was being conducted in Mandarin. Among the congregation at The Life Church and Missions, on the ground floor of an office building, was a couple, both aged 56, who'd arrived that morning from China. As they took their seats, they seemed perfectly healthy so there was no reason to think they might be carrying the virus. At that time, a persistent cough was understood to be the most distinctive feature of Covid-19 and it was seen as the most likely way to transmit it. Having no symptoms of the disease should have meant having no chance of spreading it. The couple left as soon as the service was over. But shortly afterwards, things took a turn for the worse, and in a wholly confusing way. The wife started to become ill on January 22, followed by her husband two days later. Because they had flown in from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, that was no big surprise. But over the following week, three local people also came down with the disease for no obvious reason, leading to one of Singapore's first and most baffling coronavirus cases. Working out what had happened would lead to a new and disturbing insight into how the virus was so successfully finding new victims. "We were extremely perplexed," says Dr Vernon Lee, head of communicable diseases at Singapore's Ministry of Health. "People who didn't know one another somehow infected each other," while showing no sign of illness. This new batch of cases simply did not make sense, according to what was known about Covid-19 back then. So Dr Lee and his fellow scientists, along with police officers and specialist disease trackers, launched an investigation, generating detailed maps showing who was where and when. This involved the very best of the process known as contact tracing - a version of which is getting under way now in the UK. It's seen as a vital system for tracking down everyone involved in an outbreak and helping to stamp it out, and Singapore is renowned for the skill and speed with which this is carried out.
5-22-20 The truth about masks
Let's cut to the chase. Are masks effective at stopping the spread of coronavirus?. Health officials now recommend that people cover their faces in public places. Are masks effective?
- How do masks fight COVID-19? The mouth and nose are usually where the coronavirus first sets up camp, and also serve as the portals for spreading the virus to new hosts. The saliva of infected people teems with virus particles, which are emitted in droplets when they cough or sneeze
- How effective are masks? Though different studies reach varying statistical conclusions, the overwhelming consensus is that they help stem transmission. Jeremy Howard, an Australian data scientist who created the website Masks4All.co, has identified 34 papers showing their effectiveness, and none that show otherwise.
- Do masks protect the wearer? Not perfectly, but yes. One meta-study funded by the World Health Organization that analyzed 64 scientific papers found that masks dropped wearers' risk of infection by between 50 and 80 percent.
- Why are masks controversial? Early in the pandemic, mixed signals from health officials created confusion. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that people wear masks, it initially told them not to.
- What kind of mask should I wear? N95 masks should be kept for medical professionals. But if you have a stray one around the house, it offers the highest protection as long as it's properly worn, with no gaps between your face and the mask. Commercially available surgical masks can be highly effective, studies have found. Cloth masks also provide protection, but to varying degrees.
- Turning masks into partisan symbols: If masks are so effective, why are some Americans so resistant to wearing them? Given that we have no history of mask wearing, it's not surprising they seem alien. But the major reason is the degree to which the pandemic has been politicized. To supporters of President Trump (who has insisted on going maskless, reportedly because he thinks it would make him look "weak" to wear one), masks indicate a groundless fear of a virus whose dangers they believe are exaggerated in order to limit their freedom.
5-31-20 Mining firm Rio Tinto sorry for destroying Aboriginal caves
Mining giant Rio Tinto has apologised for blowing up 46,000-year-old Aboriginal caves in Western Australia dating back to the last Ice Age. The Juukan Gorge caves, in the Pilbara region, were destroyed last Sunday as Rio Tinto expanded an iron ore project agreed with the authorities. Many prehistoric artefacts have been found at the remote heritage site. "We are sorry for the distress we have caused," said Chris Salisbury, the firm's iron ore chief executive. "We pay our respects to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP)," he said. The PKKP are the traditional owners of the site. "We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership. As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area." Artefacts found there include a belt made from human hair, analysis of which showed a direct link going back 4,000 years between the PKKP and the prehistoric cave-dwellers. "Today we also recognise that a review is needed in relation to the management of heritage in Western Australia more broadly," Mr Salisbury said. Besides iron ore, the Anglo-Australian giant has many mining interests in Australia, including bauxite for aluminium, diamonds and uranium. Last week a PKKP representative, John Ashburton, said losing the site was a "devastating blow". "There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one... its importance cannot be underestimated," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying. "Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land." Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt, who is Aboriginal, said it was "incomprehensible" that the blast had gone ahead, but added that it appeared to be a "genuine mistake". State laws had failed in this instance, he said.
5-30-20 Genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s also raise the risk of getting COVID-19
It’s unclear how the APOE4 gene variant may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus. A genetic variant that raises one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease may also make people more susceptible to COVID-19. People with two copies of a version of the APOE gene called APOE4 are 14 times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as people with two copies of the APOE3 version of the gene (SN: 9/22/17). Those people were also more than twice as likely to test positive for the coronavirus than people with two copies of the APOE3 version, researchers report May 26 in the Journals of Gerontology: Series A. The results come from a study of more than 600 people in England diagnosed with COVID-19 from March 16 to April 26. Two previous studies showed that people with dementia were more likely to have severe cases or to die of COVID-19. This new study found that even people with no signs of dementia or other diseases associated with having APOE4 were still more susceptible to COVID-19 than people with the APOE3 version. Among nearly 400,000 participants in the large genetic database called the UK Biobank, only 3 percent have two copies of APOE4, while 69 percent have two copies of APOE3. The remainder have one of each version. But the APOE4 version was more common than expected among people diagnosed with COVID-19, the study found. Of 622 people who tested positive for the coronavirus, 37 had two copies of APOE4. On a population scale, that means about 410 of every 100,000 people with two copies of that version of the gene would test positive, the researchers calculate. That compares with 179 of every 100,000 people with two copies of APOE3 testing positive. APOE is involved in handling cholesterol in the body and the protein also plays a role in some immune system functions. Exactly how APOE4 may make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus isn’t understood yet.
5-29-20 Simulating dead bodies could help calculate an accurate time of death
When a body is found, forensic scientists spring into action in an attempt to figure out the time and cause of death. At the moment, we often use simple temperature measurements to determine when someone died, but a new mathematical model could provide more accurate answers. Maurice Aalders at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and his colleagues developed the new approach, which uses data collected from the scene where a body is found to create a 3D computer simulation. Skin and air temperatures, body size and position, and details of any clothing all feed into the model, which is then split into a matrix of cubes. The model calculates the rate at which heat would be transferred between neighbouring cubes, according to the thermodynamic properties of the materials they are made up of – for example, clothing or skin. This provides an estimate of how much the temperature of the body has changed since death, which can be used to calculate the elapsed time. Aalders and his team tested their method on four deceased subjects who had donated their bodies to research, with time since death ranging from 5 to 50 hours. The group compared its estimates with those produced using the standard and most widely used method to determine death at crime scenes, which relies on measurements of rectal body temperature. The team found that the model was within 38 minutes of the true time elapsed since death, whereas the standard method gives estimates within 3 to 7 hours for the post-mortem interval (PMI). “Their results suggest that they can predict PMI to within 1 hour of the actual PMI, which is considerably better than the best estimates produced by the most commonly used invasive temperature-based methods,” says Anna Williams at the University of Huddersfield, UK.
5-29-20 Ventilators may not be the best treatment for severe covid-19
When the coronavirus pandemic began, the UK scrambled to get more ventilators for intensive care. But now some doctors are trying to keep people off ventilators as they believe it makes some people with covid-19 worse. Ventilators are used to treat people with covid-19 when the infection stops them being able to breathe on their own, but the procedure to ventilate someone is invasive and can even be traumatic. Doctors have several options for boosting someone’s oxygen levels. Less drastic measures include giving patients oxygen by face masks or nasal cannulas, two tubes that sit just inside the nostrils. Those who are sicker may need to be put on a ventilator, which usually requires being unconscious so a breathing tube can be put down their throat. But this has long been known to carry risks, and recovery can take weeks or even months. Initially, people taken to hospital with breathing difficulties due to covid-19 were quickly being put on ventilators. This was partly because of information coming from China that people given face masks and nasal cannulas often deteriorate and need ventilation anyway, says Stephen Brett at Imperial College London. But that was based on anecdotal reports, not systematically collected data, he says. As doctors have gained more experience with covid-19 patients, some now argue against being too quick to ventilate. One factor has been the high death rate in covid-19 patients put on ventilators, which has been more than 50 per cent in the UK. “The success rate reported from Italy and New York was very low,” says Michael O’Connor, who heads critical care at the University of Chicago Medicine. He believes the high air pressures of ventilation could be worsening lung damage. His unit tries to keep people on nasal cannulas for as long as possible before resorting to ventilation. This can be combined with lying patients on their front for part of the day, which aids breathing.
5-28-20 First map of tumour microbiomes finds bacteria live in many cancers
The first comprehensive survey of the microorganisms that live inside tumours has found that bacteria reside in those from many different cancer types, but it is unclear whether they contribute to tumour growth. These bacteria make up part of a tumour’s microbiome – the complex community of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live inside it. Bacteria have previously been found in tumours in the bowel and other tissues in the body that are routinely exposed to microbes. However, less is known about their presence in tumours from other cancers, like those of the bone, brain and ovary. To get a fuller picture, Ravid Straussman at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his colleagues looked for bacteria in just over 1000 tumour samples collected from people with cancers of the bone, brain, ovary, breast, skin, pancreas or lung at nine medical centres in four countries. They found bacteria in tumours from all cancer types, although to differing extents.More than 60 per cent of bone, breast and pancreatic tumours tested positive for bacterial DNA, compared with only 14 per cent of melanomas. In total, 528 species of bacteria were detected in the tumour samples. A different mix of species was found in each tumour type, with those from breast cancer harbouring the most diverse range of bacteria. It is unclear why different bacteria colonise different tumours, but exposure to environmental factors that cause cancer may be one factor, says Straussman. For example, the study found that lung tumours in smokers tended to contain bacteria that break down tobacco chemicals. At this stage, we don’t know why bacteria exist in tumours. Bacteria may contribute to tumour growth, or they may simply find it easier to invade tumours, says Straussman.
5-29-20 Grey hairs sometimes regain their colour when we feel less stressed
People’s grey hairs sometimes naturally regain their original colour, typically when individuals feel less stressed. The finding suggests it may be possible to develop drugs to reverse greying. Lab mice go grey when stressed and the same thing seems to occur in people. It has long been assumed that once hairs turn grey, they stay that way. But Martin Picard at Columbia University in New York and his colleagues discovered by chance that hair greying sometimes naturally reverses. The researchers looked at the hair of 14 healthy men and women from different ethnic backgrounds with an average age of 35. They plucked 397 hairs from the participants and studied them under a microscope. They identified hairs that were turning grey by looking for those that were grey at the roots while still coloured at the tips, as new hair grows from the scalp. To their surprise, the researchers discovered some hairs showed the opposite pattern – they were coloured at the roots and grey at the tips – suggesting they were reverting from grey to their original colour. Because hair grows at a fixed rate of 1 to 1.3 centimetres per month, the team was able to trace these colour transitions back to specific life events. The reversals tended to correlate with periods of reduced stress. For example, it occurred in one participant when he went on a two-week holiday and in another after she recovered from the stress of her marriage breakdown. It is feasible that stress reductions could trigger a reversal of hair greying, says David Fisher at Harvard University. However, it probably only occurs in a few scattered hairs, since we would have noticed if people’s full heads of grey hair changed colour when they felt less stressed, he says. “Most instances of hair greying do not seem to be reversible, but perhaps there is a discreet subset of grey hairs that can do this.”
5-29-20 Cannabis was burned for religious rituals in Biblical-era Israel
Religious ceremonies that took place thousands of years ago in what is now Israel involved the burning of cannabis, according to a study of an ancient shrine. The finding suggests psychoactive substances played a key role in rituals performed in the biblical Kingdom of Judah. “In many places in the world, psychoactive materials were used for religious purposes,” says Eran Arie of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. “But it’s the first time that we have positive evidence from Judah itself.” Arie and his colleagues studied two stone altars dated to between 760 and 715 BC. Both are from Tel Arad, an Iron Age fortress to the west of the Dead Sea, and were excavated in the 1960s. They are now on permanent display in The Israel Museum. Both altars have blackened residues on their tops, which previous analyses couldn’t identify. Arie’s colleagues took samples and used modern techniques to identify the substances. The larger altar yielded chemicals characteristic of frankincense: a perfume made from the sap of Boswellia trees found in Africa and Asia. It had been mixed with animal fat, probably to ensure that it heated up enough to evaporate. Frankincense is often used in incense, and is mentioned in the Bible as one of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the three wise men. There is extensive evidence of frankincense being traded in Africa and Eurasia at the time, so Arie wasn’t surprised to find it. However, the team was startled to find traces of cannabis on the smaller altar. It had been mixed with animal dung, which when burned would have heated it up enough to release the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The cannabis was almost certainly burned for its psychoactive effects, says Arie, as it doesn’t grow in the area so would be difficult to obtain, and unlike frankincense its fragrance isn’t particularly pleasant. “It’s the first evidence for religious ecstasy in the official courts of any kingdom in the ancient Near East,” he says.
5-29-20 A biblical-era Israeli shrine shows signs of the earliest ritual use of marijuana
Chemical analyses of residue from an altar reveal a cannabis–animal dung mixture. A limestone altar from an Iron Age shrine in Israel contains remnants of the world’s earliest known instance of burning cannabis plants in a ritual ceremony, a new study finds. This altar, along with a second altar on which frankincense was burned, stood at the entrance to a room where religious rites were presumably held inside a fortress of the biblical kingdom of Judah. Previous analyses of recovered pottery and documented historical events at the site indicate that the shrine was used from roughly 760 B.C. to 715 B.C. Excavations at Israel’s Tel Arad site in the 1960s uncovered the shrine amid the ruins of two fortress cities, one built atop the other, that date from the ninth century B.C. to the early sixth century B.C. Arad, about 45 kilometers west of the Dead Sea, guarded Judah’s southern border. Chemical analyses of dark material on the two altars’ upper surfaces conducted in the late 1960s proved inconclusive. Using modern laboratory devices, a team led by archaeologist Eran Arie of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem and bioarchaeologist Dvory Namdar of Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani Center in Bet-Dagan analyzed chemical components of residues on each altar. Cannabis on the smaller of the two altars had been mixed with animal dung so it could be burned at a low temperature, likely allowing ritual specialists to inhale the plant’s mind-altering fumes, the researchers report online May 29 in Tel Aviv, a journal published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology. This cannabis sample contained enough of the plant’s psychoactive compound THC to have induced an altered state of consciousness by breathing in its fumes.
5-29-20 'Cannabis burned during worship' by ancient Israelites - study
Ancient Israelites burned cannabis as part of their religious rituals, an archaeological study has found. A well-preserved substance found in a 2,700-year-old temple in Tel Arad has been identified as cannabis, including its psychoactive compound THC. Researchers concluded that cannabis may have been burned in order to induce a high among worshippers. This is the first evidence of psychotropic drugs being used in early Jewish worship, Israeli media report. The temple was first discovered in the Negev desert, about 95km (59 miles) south of Tel Aviv, in the 1960s. In the latest study, published in Tel Aviv University's archaeological journal, archaeologists say two limestone altars had been buried within the shrine. Thanks in part to the dry climate, and to the burial, the remains of burnt offerings were preserved on top of these altars. Frankincense was found on one altar, which was unsurprising because of its prominence in holy texts, the study's authors told Israeli newspaper Haaretz. However, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) - all compounds found in cannabis - were found on the second altar. The study adds that the findings in Tel Arad suggest that cannabis also played a role in worship at the Temple of Jerusalem. This is because at the time the shrine in Arad was part of a hilltop fortress at the southern frontier of the Kingdom of Judah, and is said to match a scaled-down version of Biblical descriptions of the First Temple in Jerusalem. The remains of the temple in Jerusalem are now inaccessible to archaeologists, so instead they study Arad and other similar shrines to help them understand worship at the larger temple.
5-28-20 Wastewater could provide up to a week of warning for a COVID-19 spike
Finding coronavirus RNA in sewage may signal that people in a community are infected. Monitoring sewage for the coronavirus’s genetic material could give public health experts up to a week of warning before COVID-19 cases peak in an area, a new study finds. Scientists have found the coronavirus’s RNA in stool from some COVID-19 patients. Though it remains unclear whether the virus can be transmitted through feces, researchers have also detected coronavirus RNA in raw wastewater. Because most people don’t get tested for the virus until they begin to get sick, and some may never develop symptoms (SN: 4/15/20), researchers are considering using sewage to look for early signs that the virus has hit a community. In Connecticut, the amount of the virus’s genetic material in sewage peaked a week before the number of cases in one region did, researchers report in a preliminary study posted May 22 at medRxiv.org. Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 hit their highest point three days after RNA levels did. From March 19 to May 1, researchers collected sludge — which contains solids that can settle out of water — from a wastewater treatment facility in New Haven. The team tested the sludge for coronavirus RNA, and then compared the amount of RNA in those daily samples with the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions in the region. The study “shows that we can monitor wastewater in cities to get an early warning of when coronavirus outbreaks will occur,” says Aaron Packman, a civil and environmental engineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was not involved with the work. Public health experts already use wastewater to track pathogens like poliovirus, norovirus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such surveillance for the coronavirus could help pinpoint areas where cases will soon be on the rise.
5-28-20 Isle of Wight pterosaur species fossil hailed as UK first
A fossil of a species of prehistoric reptile, previously found in China and Brazil, has been discovered in the UK for the first time, a university said. The delicate jaw fragment was collected by an amateur fossil hunter who spotted it while walking his dog at Sandown Bay, Isle of Wight. The University of Portsmouth identified it as a tapejarid, a flying pterosaur from the Cretaceous period. Researchers said it demonstrated a wide global distribution of the species. Palaeontology PhD student Megan Jacobs said she saw the fossil on a friend's kitchen table after he received it from the collector. She said she recognised the "characteristic tapejarid jaw, including numerous tiny little holes that held minute sensory organs for detecting their food". Ms Jacobs added: "Complete examples from Brazil and China show that they had large head crests, with the crest sometime being twice as big as the skull. "The crests were probably used in sexual display and may have been brightly coloured. "It's the first tapejarid found in the UK." Professor David Martill from the University of Portsmouth, said: "This new species adds to the diversity of dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles found on the island, which is now one of the most important places for Cretaceous dinosaurs in the world." The Isle of Wight fossil had been donated to Dinosaur Isle Museum at Sandown for future display. The university's findings have been published in the journal Cretaceous Research.
5-27-20 We can see when your brain forms a memory by watching you move
How do we make a memory? An idea gaining ground is that forming memories and recalling them involves brainwaves cycling several times a second in our hippocampi, two small curved structures on either side of the brain. Evidence to support the idea is accumulating, including the first glimpse of subtle patterns in people’s actions that reflect these underlying rhythms. “You can make these brainwaves visible in behaviour,” says Maria Wimber at the University of Birmingham, UK. The findings raise the possibility that one day we may be able to boost memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease by enhancing these brainwaves, says Aidan Horner at the University of York, UK, who wasn’t involved in the work. The hippocampi have long been thought to be central to memory because some people who have damage to this part of the brain become unable to form new memories of events. When rats are forming new spatial memories as they run around a maze, for instance, cells in their hippocampi start firing at between four and eight times a second, at the same frequency as we see in theta brainwaves. Some studies have suggested humans also have such brainwaves associated with memory formation, although their frequency may be from three to eight times a second. To investigate further, Wimber’s team made use of the fact that people who need surgery to stop epileptic seizures originating in their hippocampi have recording electrodes put into these structures for several days to pinpoint the source of their seizures. During this monitoring, people were asked to learn associations between unrelated words and pictures, and then were later shown the word alone and asked to recall the picture. Theta brainwaves could sometimes be seen in the hippocampi during the learning phase – but only when people went on to answer correctly during the test phase, suggesting they are necessary for forging memories. It took a further step to see the brainwaves reflected in people’s actions, though. Healthy volunteers did a similar learning task, but after being prompted with the word cue they had to press a button the instant they remembered the picture, to record their reaction times over multiple trials. It typically took between one and three seconds for the image to come to mind.
5-27-20 Cannibal dinosaurs resorted to eating each other when food was scarce
Abundant bite marks on a collection bones from the Jurassic Period show that predatory dinosaurs called allosaurs often scavenged on carcasses at one site – including those of other allosaurs. There is no reason to think that cannibalism was rare among predatory dinosaurs, says Stephanie Drumheller at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, but we don’t have a lot of evidence for it. Only T. rex and another species called Majungatholus have been shown to be at least occasional cannibals. Drumheller’s team studied a unique collection of 150-million-year-old fossil bones from the Mygatt-Moore quarry in Colorado. Normally a lot of material gets left behind when a site is excavated. “Only the pretty stuff gets brought back from the field,” she says. But for one season, Julia McHugh at the Museums of Western Colorado collected every single bone that was found at the quarry, with the help of volunteers. Nearly 30 per cent of the 2368 bones have bite marks on them, far more than thought normal. Usually less than 5 per cent of dinosaur bones have bite marks. “For dinosaurs, it’s really, really weird,” says Drumheller. “To find 30 per cent was really nuts.” The team think most of the bite marks were made by allosaurs, which were the most common large predator found at the site. A lot of the bite marks were found on the bones of other allosaurs. Why scavenging and cannibalism was so common at the site is unclear. One explanation is that something is unusual about this particular site – maybe environmental conditions forced predators to scavenge more. The other explanation, says Drumheller, is that this bone collection reflects the norm. The tendency of fossil hunters to leave behind damaged bones could have skewed our picture. She is trying to persuade people at other sites to try collecting every single bone, too. But it is a lot of work, especially if the bones are from massive species such as the allosaurs, which could grow up to 10 metres long.
5-27-20 The amazing Antarctic discovery that could tell us how Earth was made
Explorers trawling the polar ice have finally unearthed a trove of precious, iron-rich space rocks that might help crack the puzzle of how our planet took shape. A BEEP sounded in Katherine Joy’s earpiece and a light flashed on her handlebar display. The metal detector dragging behind her snowmobile had found something buried in the thick Antarctic ice. She dismounted. Could this finally be it? A convoluted story had brought Joy and her fellow treasure hunters here, 700 kilometres south of the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI research station. You might say the story started 4.5 billion years before, as a result, probably, of a massive star going supernova. Its rumbling shock wave caused a cloud of dust and gas laced with heavier elements to begin to collapse in on itself, eventually forming the sun and the planets, moons, asteroids and, eventually, other components of our solar system, like us. For decades, researchers have been hunting for pristine material from these turbulent times to better understand exactly how these processes occurred. Joy and her colleagues had ventured out into the Antarctic wilderness following a hot lead to fill a crucial gap in the tale: the mystery of the missing meteorites. What they found, however, wasn’t one mystery, but two. Meteorites are time capsules from the solar system’s birth. They are mostly fragments of asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter, plus the occasional unsullied piece of the moon or Mars that has come unstuck and crossed Earth’s orbital path. These fragments have existed more or less untouched since bits of rock first began to accrete from smaller dust particles as they whirled around the infant sun. With their chemistry unadulterated by the tectonics, volcanism and other violent processes of Earth, they preserve vital clues as to how the solid parts of the solar system formed. We know lots of individual details about what must have happened as bits of rock crashed together and aggregated to form larger bodies, or sometimes split apart again in the maelstrom of the early solar system. But we lack a convincing, unifying picture. “We don’t have an equivalent of, say, evolution by natural selection in planetary science right now,” says Luke Daly at the University of Glasgow, UK. “We don’t have a good theory that takes us all the way from gas and dust to planetary systems.”
5-27-20 Coronavirus seems to reach the brain. What could this mean for us?
From loss of smell to stroke, people with covid-19 are reporting strange neurological issues that challenge our understanding of the disease – and how to treat it. JENNIFER FRONTERA has been treating people in intensive care for years. But she has never experienced anything like covid-19 before. “These patients are absolutely among the sickest any of us have ever encountered,” says the New York-based doctor. But the strange thing is, Frontera isn’t a lung disease specialist or a virologist, she is a neurologist. And it is the possible impact of the coronavirus on our brains that is worrying her. It was early in the outbreak in New York that Frontera and her colleagues began to notice neurological symptoms in those with covid-19. People were passing out before they were hospitalised. Once in hospital, some of them started having unusual movements. Some had seizures and others had strokes. Similar reports are coming in from hospitals around the world. Some neurological symptoms appear to be mild, such as the loss of smell and taste. At the other end of the spectrum, a few people have developed encephalitis – a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain. It is a surprising discovery in a disease that was generally considered to attack the airways, and one of pressing concern. One big question is how the new coronavirus is causing these kinds of symptoms. Growing evidence suggests that the virus may work its way into the brain, directly attacking neurons. If that is the case, we may need to reconsider some of the treatments being developed for covid-19. And we must also prepare for potential long-term and chronic neurological conditions in some survivors. Millions of people globally have now been infected with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, but we are still learning how it works. What we do know is that it can be spread by droplets from an infected person and seems to latch on to receptors on cells in people’s airways.
5-27-20 At work, school and seeing friends: How to lower your coronavirus risk
THE coronavirus is still circulating yet many countries are taking steps to relax restrictions. If you have been asked to return to work or send your children back to school, how can you minimise the risk of infection to yourself and your family?. Although there are still many unknowns about the virus, a growing amount of data on how it transmits and survives on surfaces can guide our decisions. You are most likely to catch the SARS-CoV-2 virus by spending a long time near an infected person in an enclosed space. Researchers in Guangzhou, China, examined how the virus was transmitted between 347 people with confirmed infections and the people they had contact with. They found that the risk of the infection being passed on at home or by repeated contact with the same person was approximately 10 times greater than the risk of passing it on in a hospital and 100 times greater than doing so on public transport (medRxiv, doi.org/dwgj). Outside the home, it is difficult to rank the relative risks, because environments vary so widely. However, “what we can say is that SARS-CoV-2 spread tends to be higher in communal areas where there are higher numbers of people passing through, or in areas where there is more physical engagement with the surroundings, for example door handles, desks and computer keyboards”, says Seema Jasim at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, UK. The risk also seems to be higher when people are more physically active. Investigations into a cluster of cases in the South Korean city of Cheonan revealed that eight fitness instructors became infected with the virus after attending a 4-hour Zumba workshop. Some of them subsequently passed it on to students during classes which involved high intensity exercise in a small indoor studio (Emerging Infectious Diseases, doi.org/ggwpjz). “The moist, warm atmosphere coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets,” writes the team that conducted the study. However, students attending smaller yoga and pilates classes in the same space didn’t become infected. Regular, thorough handwashing is still advised. It remains unclear how long the virus can survive and remain infectious on surfaces, but this is still thought to be a significant route of transmission.
5-27-20 Infecting people with COVID-19 could speed vaccine trials. Is it worth it?
Science News spoke with researchers on either side of the debate about human challenge trials. The world waits with bated breath for a COVID-19 vaccine, which could effectively end the pandemic once it’s widely available. Until then, more people will die from the disease, and economies will struggle to fully recover. With such intense pressure to get a vaccine quickly, many experts are contemplating a controversial shortcut to the usual vaccine testing protocol: human challenge trials. Instead of vaccinating hundreds to thousands of people and waiting to see if they naturally catch the virus, scientists would purposely infect a smaller number of vaccinated volunteers with COVID-19 in a controlled setting to see if a vaccine offered protection. If successful, such studies could fast-track vaccine evaluation, as well as our understanding of COVID-19 immunity. However, doctors and researchers don’t all agree on whether it’s ethical to infect people with a disease that remains poorly understood, and for which there is currently no reliable treatment. That leaves it to those bioethicists, researchers and regulators to weigh the pros and cons. If scientists stick to the usual playbook, a licensed vaccine is at least 12 to 18 months away, experts say. That’s not because it takes long to develop possible vaccines — dozens are already in the testing stage (SN: 5/20/20) — but because of the time that it takes to be sure a vaccine is safe and actually works. The final and most involved stage of this process, Phase III clinical trials, requires thousands of volunteers to get the vaccine or a placebo. Then, scientists track them over months to see whether vaccinated people are less likely to get sick compared with unvaccinated people.
5-27-20 Neanderthal DNA linked to higher fertility in modern humans
A chunk of Neanderthal DNA carried by some people living today appears to reduce the chance of miscarriage and promote fertility. The finding is the latest evidence that Homo sapiens benefitted from Stone Age sexual encounters with other human species. Genetic studies suggest anatomically modern humans interbred with Neanderthals on several occasions, and that people of non-African descent carry about 1 to 2 per cent Neanderthal DNA in their cells. For about 10 years we have suspected that some of that Neanderthal DNA proved useful. It might have helped Homo sapiens cope with Eurasian diseases that they hadn’t encountered during their evolution in Africa, for instance. But some Neanderthal DNA is probably detrimental to modern humans. In 2018, Jingjing Li at Stanford University and his colleagues found an example. They were studying the PGR gene, which plays a role in pregnancy, and realised a form (or allele) of the gene that increases the chance of premature birth contains Neanderthal DNA. The finding puzzled Hugo Zeberg at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Any harmful Neanderthal DNA that entered the modern human gene pool should have disappeared with time because it left carriers at a competitive disadvantage. But in some modern populations the PGR Neanderthal allele is carried by about 20 per cent of people. “The high allele frequency was surprising given the report of a detrimental impact,” says Zeberg. With his colleagues, Zeberg has found an explanation: the Neanderthal allele is probably beneficial after all. The researchers examined data from the UK Biobank, which includes the genetic and lifestyle information of more than 450,000 people in the UK. They found that women who carry the Neanderthal allele were less likely to have experienced a miscarriage or unexpected bleeding during early pregnancy.
5-27-20 Roman mosaic floor found under Italian vineyard
A Roman mosaic floor has been discovered under a vineyard in northern Italy after decades of searching. Surveyors in the commune of Negrar di Valpolicella north of Verona published images of the well-preserved tiles buried under metres of earth. According to officials, scholars first found evidence of a Roman villa there more than a century ago. Technicians are still gently excavating the site to see the full extent of the ancient building. Images posted online show the pristine mosaic as well as foundations of the villa. A note on the commune website said diggers finally made the discovery "after decades of failed attempts". Surveyors will liaise with the owners of the vineyard and the municipality "to identify the most appropriate ways to make this archaeological treasure hidden under our feet available and accessible". Technicians will need "significant resources" to finish the job. But local authorities have pledged to give "all necessary help" to continue with the excavation. Pompeii - the Roman city buried after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius - officially reopened to the public on Tuesday after months of closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. Greece's famous Acropolis reopened to visitors earlier this month.
5-26-20 Is the coronavirus mutating? Yes. But here’s why you don’t need to panic
Lab experiments would help determine whether mutations change how the virus infects cells. In novels and movies, infectious pathogens mutate and inevitably become more dangerous. In the blockbuster movie Contagion, for instance, a deadly virus acquires a mutation in Africa that causes the global death toll to spike in mere days. Reality, however, is far less theatrical. Over the past few months, a few research groups have claimed to identify new strains of the coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, that’s infecting people around the globe. That sounds scary. But not only is it sometimes difficult to determine whether a change amounts to a “new strain,” none of the reported changes to the virus have been shown to make it more dangerous. This has led to great confusion for the general public. Each time such studies surface, fears arise, and virus experts rush to explain that changes in a virus’s genetic blueprint, or genome, happen all the time. The coronavirus is no exception. “In fact, it really just means that it’s normal,” says Kari Debbink, a virologist at Bowie State University in Maryland. “We expect viruses to evolve. But not all of those mutations are meaningful.” Here’s what it means to find mutations in the novel coronavirus, and what evidence is needed to actually raise a red flag. Most of the time, mutations don’t do anything to a virus at all. Viruses are simply protein shells that contain either DNA or RNA as their genetic material. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, it’s RNA. The building blocks of RNA, called nucleic acids, are arranged in triplets, called codons. These nucleic acid trios provide the code for building amino acids, which make up the virus’s proteins. A mutation is a change to one of these nucleic acids in the virus’s genetic material — in SARS-CoV-2’s case, one of around 30,000 nucleic acids. Sometimes a mutation in a triplet is silent, meaning the codon still codes for the same amino acid. But even when an amino acid does change, the virus might not behave in a way that’s obviously different. Some mutations could also spawn dysfunctional viruses that quickly disappear as a result.
5-26-20 Australia's megafauna roamed the tropics with first humans but then disappeared
Giant wombats, six-metre-long goannas and the world's largest kangaroos are among the enormous megafauna that inhabited Queensland between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, but where did they go? Some scientists have argued that hunting by humans was a possible cause of their extinction, but new evidence suggests it was most likely major climatic and environmental change.
5-26-20 Asteroid that killed the dinosaurs hit just right for maximum damage
The trajectory of the asteroid thought to have killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago was just right to cause maximum damage. A new study of Chicxulub crater in Mexico, where the asteroid struck, has revealed that the angle and speed of the impact were probably in the perfect range to send clouds of choking vapour into the skies. When an asteroid hits a planet, the resulting crater is highly dependent on the angle of the impact. Gareth Collins at Imperial College London in the UK and his colleagues compared a set of simulations with geological data gathered at Chicxulub crater to reconstruct that impact. “That initial impact gouges a huge hole in the ground, which then collapses spectacularly and you form this huge overshoot, rather like what happens when you throw a pebble into the pond,” says Collins. In this “overshoot”, the middle of the hole bounces back up to create a plateau at the centre of the crater. In simulations of the Chicxulub impact, that central plateau was tilted toward the direction the asteroid came from, though how tilted it was depended on the angle of the impact. The simulations that best matched observations of the crater were those where the asteroid came in relatively fast, around 20 kilometres per second, and hit the ground at an angle of around 60 degrees from horizontal. Much of the devastation caused by the asteroid impact came from vaporised rock being blasted into the air and blocking out sunlight. It turns out that an impact angle of about 60 degrees is ideal for hurling as much vapour into the air as possible, Collins says – if it came in from straight overhead, the asteroid would have smashed up more rock but not sent as much into the atmosphere, and if it was more of a glancing blow, less rock would have been vaporised. “It’s sort of a perfect storm,” says Collins, which is good news for us today. “This was a very bad day for the dinosaurs, and the more special the circumstances that had to come together to cause this event, the less likely that it’ll happen again.”
5-26-20 Dinosaur asteroid's trajectory was 'perfect storm'
A clear picture is emerging of why the asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago was so catastrophic. The space object, which wiped out 75% of all species including the dinosaurs, hit the worst possible place on the planet and - according to new research - at the most lethal angle. Investigations at the crater site, together with computer simulations, suggest the impactor dug into the crust at an inclination of up to 60 degrees. This exacerbated the climatic fallout. We know that the target rocks, in what is now the Gulf of Mexico, contained huge volumes of sulphur from the mineral gypsum. When this material was thrown high into the atmosphere and mixed with water vapour, it produced a "global winter". And the angle of attack ensured this environmental crisis was intense and prolonged. "At 45 to 60 degrees, the impact is very efficient at vaporising and ejecting debris to high altitude. If the impact happens at shallower or much steeper angles, the amount of material that's put into the atmosphere that can then have climate-changing effects is significantly less," explained Prof Gareth Collins from Imperial College London. "It's evident that the nature of the location where this event happened, together with the impact angle, made for a perfect storm," he told BBC News. The majority of plant and animal life on Earth succumbed to the the challenging conditions. Prof Collins' and colleagues' work is published in the journal Nature Communications. Prof Collins is part of an international team that's been studying the anatomy of the crater associated with the calamitous asteroid strike. Today, this 200km-wide structure is positioned under Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, with its best preserved central portions sitting just offshore of the port of Chicxulub. It's hard to grasp the scale of the forces that produced it. The impactor, thought to be about 12km in diameter, punched an instantaneous hole in the crust that was probably some 30km deep. As fluidised rocks at the base of this bowl rebounded, they created in just a few minutes a mountain that was higher than Everest. This didn't last, however, and it fell back, to leave a prominent inner ring of hills, or peaks.
5-25-20 A blood test could reveal how quickly or slowly you are ageing
Age affects us all eventually, but a lucky few seem to stave off the effects of ageing for longer. A new blood test may help us understand why. As well as telling us how fast we are ageing, the test can also predict whether a person is more likely to develop a chronic disease or die in the near future. It is an update on epigenetic clocks, tests that estimate a person’s biological age based on markers thought to control the way genes are expressed. “It’s like a speedometer – it tells you how fast you’re going, in contrast to clocks, which tell you how far you’ve come,” says Daniel Belsky at Columbia University in New York. This means the new test is “a more immediate measure of the ageing rate”, he says. Epigenetic clocks often compare chemical tags on DNA that are markers of gene expression in people of different ages. But these may differ for reasons other than ageing, says Belsky. For example, older people might have had poorer diets or have been exposed to more pollutants and pathogens early in life, he says. To develop the “pace of ageing” test, Belsky and his colleagues followed 954 people and tracked changes in 18 markers of health. These included indicators of participants’ heart, liver, lung and kidney function, as well as their waist-to-hip ratio, blood lipids and markers of inflammation. Each volunteer was assessed at ages 26, 32, 38 and 45. The researchers used all this to get an idea of the average change in participants’ health as they aged and to measure how each person aged biologically. They then used this information to create a single blood test that measures chemical tags on DNA indicating changes in the 18 health markers. To check whether the test could predict how quickly a person ages, the researchers compared the participants’ scores at age 38 with their physical and cognitive health seven years later, when, at age 45, the volunteers took tests of their balance, coordination and cognition and were scored based on how old they looked. “In nearly every case, people whose DNA [markers] suggested they were ageing faster were showing these emerging deficits in function,” says Belsky.3
5-25-20 The surprising cultural contributions of the 1918 influenza pandemic
The 1918 influenza pandemic was a historic event with massive influence. Millions of people died. Roughly one-third of the entire global population was infected. But until the novel coronavirus pandemic struck, odds are you probably haven't thought much about the impact of 1918's flu outbreak. That might be because there seem to be few great works of art that keep the 1918 pandemic alive in cultural memory — the way a novel like "All Quiet On The Western Front," or the haunting paintings of Otto Dix did for World War I. But scholar Elizabeth Outka, author of "Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature," argues the 1918 flu pandemic's influence is an undercurrent that runs through many works of the period. She points to examples like Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway," which follows upper-class London resident Clarissa Dalloway as she makes her way around the city. Though often read as a novel about the aftermath of the war, the pandemic leaves its mark, too. The titular character suffers from heart damage resulting from influenza — as did Woolf, in real life. Another surprising cultural byproduct of the pandemic? Zombies. Outka says the enormous death toll of the war and the pandemic — which required mass graves, delayed funerals, or insecure burials — deprived families of the traditional mourning process. There was also a fear of unwittingly infecting loved ones with a hidden, contagious disease. From these anxieties sprung proto-zombie figures in the works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft, as well as in the 1919 silent film "J'accuse," by French director Abel Gance. "It was a way, I think … of visualizing a monster that was invisible, in the case of the flu," Outka said. The pandemic and World War I also led to a renewed interest in spiritualism, a belief that humans could communicate with the dead through seances, mediums, and objects like Ouija boards. One prominent proponent of spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes series, whose son and younger brother died of influenza.
5-24-20 How pandemics change society
History can tell us a lot about the ways coronavirus might transform how we live. The Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and other widespread disease outbreaks have transformed how people live. Here's everything you need to know:
- Will Covid-19 change the world? Yes, if it's similar to the pandemics of the past. Plagues and viral contagions have regularly blighted the course of human civilization, killing millions of people and wreaking economic devastation. But as each pandemic receded, it left cultural, political, and social changes that lasted far beyond the disease itself.
- When was the first pandemic? The earliest on record occurred during the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C. Now believed to have been a form of typhoid fever, that particular "plague" passed through Libya, Ethiopia, and Egypt before striking the city of Athens, then under siege by Sparta
- What caused the Justinian Plague? Yersinia pestis, a bacterium spread by fleas on rodents — the same culprit behind one of the worst pandemics in human history: the Black Death. Arriving in Sicily on a trading ship in 1347, the Black Death eventually spread throughout Europe and wiped out about 200 million people — up to 60 percent of the global population.
- What other impact did it have? The Black Death's biggest socioeconomic legacy was its role in ending feudalism. Feudalism was a medieval system that empowered wealthy nobles to grant the use of their land to peasants in exchange for their labor — with rent, wages, and other terms determined by the lords.
- What about other epidemics? In 1802, an outbreak of yellow fever in the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti) triggered a chain of events that led to the vast expansion of the United States. The epidemic, caused by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, killed an estimated 50,000 French troops trying to control Haiti, forcing France to withdraw.
- What was the Spanish Flu? It was a virulent strain of H1N1 influenza that may have actually originated on a Kansas poultry farm. One of its first victims was a U.S. soldier stationed in Kansas. Unlike the bacterial plagues of the past, the Spanish Flu was a virus, which became more deadly when it picked up some genetic material from a virus infecting birds.
- COVID-19's possible legacy: The coronavirus has already had a huge and potentially enduring impact on everyday life. Our work and social lives have gone virtual, with even G-7 leaders conducting their meetings via videoconferencing. Movie studios, gyms, musicians, and karaoke bars are streaming their content straight into our homes.
5-24-20 How coronavirus stress may scramble our brains
Imaging studies show we should give ourselves a break. I’m on deadline, but instead of focusing, my mind buzzes with unrelated tidbits. My first-grader’s tablet needs an update before her online school session tomorrow. Heartbreaking deaths from COVID-19 in New York City make me tear up again. Was that a kid’s scream from upstairs? Do I need to run up there, or will my husband take care of it? These hornets of thoughts drive out the clear thinking my job demands. Try as I might to conjure up a coherent story, the relevant wisps float away. I’m scattered, worried and tired. And even though we’re all socially isolated, I’m not alone. The pandemic — and its social and economic upheavals — has left people around the world feeling like they can’t string two thoughts together. Stress has really done a number on us. That’s no surprise to scientists who study stress. Our brains are not built to do complex thinking, planning and remembering in times of massive upheaval. Feeling impaired is “a natural biological response,” says Amy Arnsten, a neuroscientist at Yale School of Medicine. “This is how our brains are wired.” Decades of research have chronicled the ways stress can disrupt business as usual in our brains. Recent studies have made even more clear how stress saps our ability to plan ahead and have pointed to one way that stress changes how certain brain cells operate. Scientists recognize the pandemic as an opportunity for a massive, real-time experiment on stress. COVID-19 foisted on us a heavy mix of health, economic and social stressors. And the end date is nowhere in sight. Scientists have begun collecting data to answer a range of questions. But one thing is clear: This pandemic has thrown all of us into uncharted territory. The human brain’s astonishing abilities rely on a web of nerve cell connections. One hub of activity is the prefrontal cortex, which is important for some of our fanciest forms of thinking. These “executive functions” include abstract thinking, planning, focusing, juggling multiple bits of information and even practicing patience. Stress can muffle that hub’s signals, studies of lab animals and humans have shown.
5-23-20 World faces risk of 'vaccine nationalism' in COVID-19 fight
With so many competing interests facing off, it's far from clear that once an effective vaccine is produced, all of the world's citizens will have equitable access to it. Global competition to find a vaccine to tackle COVID-19 is fierce, with at least 130 groups racing to be first. One U.S.-based company, Moderna, announced preliminary positive results in May, saying a human vaccine trial produced protective antibodies in a small group of healthy volunteers. The Moderna vaccine is one of more than 100 under development intended to protect against the novel coronavirus that has infected more than 4.7 million people globally and killed over 315,000. There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, and experts predict a safe and effective vaccine could take 12 to 18 months to develop. The very early data offers a glimmer of hope for a vaccine among the most advanced in development. And with so many groups around the world working towards an inoculation, the odds of finding a way to put a stop to the pandemic increase. But the competition is also somewhat worrisome. With so many competing interests facing off, it's far from clear that once an effective vaccine is produced, all of the world's citizens will have equitable access to it. It's a problem Jane Halton, a former WHO board member, calls "vaccine nationalism." "I worry that some countries will see that there is strategic advantage in the use of any developed vaccine, if they are successful. I also think that there is, in some cases, a need to deal with domestic concerns," Halton said. "And I understand that being able to balance a need for domestic distribution, particularly for the vulnerable, but at the same time acknowledging that all countries are in this together — I think there's a middle line to be struck here." Halton, who is chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and former head of Australia's health and finance departments, tells The World's host Marco Werman that vaccine production should be globally distributed and initially target the most vulnerable in all nations. "What I hope is that whomever succeeds in this search, the quest for a vaccine, that when that vaccine is actually developed and is approved for use, that it isn't used exclusively for the needs of one population, when in fact, the people who need this vaccine are the vulnerable healthcare workers around the world, the elderly, the immune-compromised. And I think that is going to be the very big challenge we're about to face," she added. (Webmaster's comment: Keep in mind that in America it's always profits first, safety second!)
5-23-20 Coronavirus: Can children catch and pass on coronavirus?
How likely children are to catch and spread coronavirus is talked about a lot when it comes to deciding how and when to reopen schools. The problem is that Covid-19 is a new disease and not something scientists have had long to study - meaning the available data on the subject that's currently available is sparse. Here, BBC's Health Correspondent Laura Foster explains what we do know currently about how children are affected by the virus.
5-23-20 Coronavirus: Protective badges and cannabis claims fact-checked
Social media is awash with posts containing fake and misleading information about the coronavirus pandemic. We've been fact-checking some of those claims most widely shared this week. Bogus 'protective' badges So-called "protective" badges which ward off viruses are being sold around the world. Some of the badges, featuring a white cross design, appear to be of the type falsely marketed as "virus stoppers" in Russia. Some members of the Russian parliament wore them at a recent meeting of the State Duma. However, the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) says the substance released by such badges - the bleaching agent chlorine dioxide - is harmful. It says claims that it helps protect against Covid-19 are "fraudulent". Cannabis treatment Thousands of people have shared articles referencing cannabis as a treatment for coronavirus, but some of the headlines have been misleading. It's true that there are several trials taking place worldwide, including in Canada, Israel and the UK, investigating whether cannabis could be useful as a treatment. Medicinal cannabis has been shown to reduce inflammation and so could, potentially, be used to treat "cytokine storms" - the dangerous immune response sometimes seen in the sickest Covid-19 patients. But these trials are at a very early stage, so it's too soon to draw any conclusions about whether cannabis will prove an effective treatment against coronavirus. Virus origin speculation Speculation about where the new coronavirus first emerged has been rampant online. We looked at a recent video from a Chinese state media outlet which suggests just because the virus was first reported in China, it doesn't mean that the virus originated there. The video references an Italian scientist's comments in a US radio interview about unexplained pneumonia cases in northern Italy in November. The narrator says this "could mean the virus was circulating in parts of Italy before the outbreak in China". "Since early May, China has been increasingly ramping up the rhetoric suggesting that the virus might not have originated in the country," says Kerry Allen, the BBC's China Media Analyst. There's currently no scientific basis for this idea.
5-22-20 There are two versions of the coronavirus. One’s not more dangerous than the other
Factors such as a person’s age and white blood cell counts matter more for disease severity. Differences among patients, not the genetic makeup of the coronavirus, determines how severe COVID-19 will be, a study finds. Factors such as a person’s age and white blood cell counts are associated with disease severity, an analysis of 326 COVID-19 patients from Shanghai shows. Older people and people with low levels of certain immune cells known as T cells and high levels of an immune chemical called IL-6 tended to be sicker. But the version of the coronavirus that people were infected with made no difference in how sick they got, the team reports May 20 in Nature. IL-6 is a protein known as a cytokine, one of many proteins that signal the immune system to rev up defenses. Overactive immune, known as cytokine storms, are a problem for people with severe cases of COVID-19. In the new study, the team identified two major versions of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, called clade I and clade II, by examining the genetic makeup of the virus from 94 of the cases and 221 genomes in the GISAID coronavirus database. GISAID is a repository that maintains hundreds of viral genomes — the complete set of genetic instructions of a virus — compiled by researchers around the world. Those genomes are used in monitoring how the virus is evolving and tracing its path around the world. Two mutations distinguish clade I from clade II. Other researchers had previously found the same genetic changes, and speculated that one version may be more virulent or transmit better among people. But the new data show no difference in contagiousness or disease severity between people infected with either clade. Clade I was associated with six cases from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. Clade II was found in early cases of the disease in Wuhan that weren’t associated with the market. Comparing the genetic makeup of the two versions, researchers conclude that the coronavirus probably made the leap from an animal to humans sometime in late November. The seafood market wasn’t where the virus originated, the team says, but was where people became infected with clade I, drawing attention to the new coronavirus.
5-22-20 Coronavirus: Immune clue sparks treatment hope
UK scientists are to begin testing a treatment that it is hoped could counter the effects of Covid-19 in the most seriously ill patients. It has been found those with the most severe form of the disease have extremely low numbers of an immune cell called a T-cell. T-cells clear infection from the body. The clinical trial will evaluate if a drug called interleukin 7, known to boost T-cell numbers, can aid patients' recovery. It involves scientists from the Francis Crick Institute, King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital. They have looked at immune cells in the blood of 60 Covid-19 patients and found an apparent crash in the numbers of T-cells. Prof Adrian Hayday from the Crick Institute said it was a "great surprise" to see what was happening with the immune cells. "They're trying to protect us, but the virus seems to be doing something that's pulling the rug from under them, because their numbers have declined dramatically. In a microlitre (0.001ml) drop of blood, normal healthy adults have between 2,000 and 4,000 T-cells, also called T lymphocytes. The Covid patients the team tested had between 200-1,200. The researchers say these findings pave the way for them to develop a "fingerprint test" to check the levels of T-cells in the blood which could provide early indications of who might go on to develop more severe disease. But it also provides the possibility for a specific treatment to reverse that immune cell decline. Manu Shankar-Hari, a critical care consultant at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, said that around 70% of patients that he sees in intensive care with Covid-19 arrive with between 400-800 lymphocytes per microlitre. "When they start to recover, their lymphocyte level also starts to go back up," he added. Interleukin 7 has already been tested in a small group of patients with sepsis and proved to safely increase the production of these specific cells. In this trial, it will be given to patients with a low lymphocyte count who have been in critical care for more than three days.
5-22-20 Fake news gets shared more when it is angry and anxiety-inducing
Fake news may go viral more quickly when it uses words associated with anger. Jichang Zhao at the Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Big Data and Brain Computing and Yuwei Chuai at Beihang University in China have analysed the spread of both fake and real news across Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms. They analysed a data set of 22,479 posts from 20,532 users between 2011 and 2016, which Weibo had officially flagged as fake news. They also looked at 10,000 real news posts from 1527 users. The duo tasked a team of nine people with manually identifying the emotional content of posts, by scouring them for words that appear in a list of more than 6000 emotional terms. The reference list included 1323 terms associated with anger, 2066 with joy, 1243 with sadness, as well as terms relating to disgust and fear. Each post was given an emotion rating – for example, if five angry words appeared in a 10-word post, it would be assigned an anger rating of 50 per cent. “Compared with real news, fake news carries much more anger and less joy,” says Zhao. The proportion of anger in fake news that had been widely circulated was three times greater than that in real news with few shares. Across all posts, fake news was nearly 6 per cent angrier than real news and 17 per cent less joyful. The pair then surveyed 1316 active Weibo users to identify people’s motivations for sharing fake news. They found that angry posts evoked greater feelings of anxiety, which created an incentive for sharing. Flagging such angry posts could give social media users pause to critically analyse their content before reposting, say the pair. Labelling posts rated as more than 20 per cent angry would flag about 46 per cent of highly reposted fake news on Weibo, they found – but the catch is that it would also flag an estimated 22 per cent of popular real news.
5-22-20 Scientists sometimes conceal a lack of knowledge with vague words
Language can hinder our understanding of reality – or move it forward. You can’t kill a virus, common wisdom contends, because viruses aren’t alive to begin with. Yet some viruses sure act like they’re alive. And in fact, you can find biologists and philosophers who will insist that viruses do deserve a branch on the tree of life. Still, many other experts refuse to confer viruses with life status. Debates about viruses as life-forms (or not) have raged for decades. But as more and more data on viral vitality accumulate, the disagreements do not diminish. Perhaps that’s because the argument is not really about the nature of viruses. Rather it’s about the definition of life. Scientists can’t agree on that, either. Science’s inability to define life reveals not merely a lack of lexicographic dexterity, but also signifies a broader issue — the peculiar way that science’s relationship with reality is connected to science’s relationship with words. Words are obviously indispensable for scientists, both to communicate among themselves and to report their findings to the rest of civilization. Even in the most mathematical of sciences, words must be attached to symbols in order to relate mathematical relationships to real-world phenomena. Words like energy or force or stress tensor describe a physical entity corresponding to a symbol in an equation. But many scientific ideas do not reduce to a neat mathematical expression, so the words are on their own. And sometimes the ideas originate with the words. Throughout history, scientists have often coined a word before fully formulating the underlying idea. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his poetic play Faust, in the absence of ideas, words can come to the rescue. “With words, the mind does its conceiving,” reads one translation. (Or, in another version, “If your meaning’s threatened with stagnation, then words come in, to save the situation.”)
5-21-20 Coronavirus drugs: how well is the hunt for covid-19 treatments going?
Several hundred trials of potential treatments for the coronavirus are now underway around the world. Early results suggest a few might slightly reduce the risk of dying from covid-19, but we won’t know for sure until larger trials have been completed. “The good news is that there is a lot of activity,” says Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford. “Sadly, however, we don’t actually have anything that works as yet.” There are two main approaches. One is to try to reduce the damage done by the virus, such as by preventing the immune overreaction known as a cytokine storm that is thought to kill many of those who die of covid-19. The idea here is to prevent the immune response ramping up to such a high level that it starts damaging the lungs and stopping people getting enough oxygen. Many different immune signalling molecules, or cytokines, are known to be involved. We have already developed drugs that specifically block some of these signals – for example, to treat autoimmune diseases such as arthritis. One such drug is tocilizumab, which blocks the receptors that respond to a cytokine called interleukin 6, or IL-6. Several initial studies suggest it can somewhat reduce the risk of dying when given to those severely ill with covid-19. For instance, in one study involving 100 covid-19 patients in intensive care, some of whom were on ventilators, 61 per cent of those given tocilizumab survived compared with 48 per cent in the control group. However, this was a retrospective study. We will have to wait for the results of a larger, randomised trial being run by Roche, the manufacturer of tocilizumab, to find out if it really works. Numerous similar trials are getting under way. For example, pharmaceutical firm Novartis is starting a large trial of canakinumab, which blocks another cytokine called interleukin 1 beta, or IL-1ß.
5-21-20 HPV vaccine linked to fewer premature births in Australia
Widespread HPV vaccination appears to have prevented thousands of premature births in Australia, and could lead to improvements in infant health worldwide. Women who have had HPV, the human papillomavirus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer, are at greater risk of having premature babies. This may be because the treatment for high-risk HPV infections involves removing affected cells from the cervix, which can prevent cancer but may sometimes affect the mechanical strength of the cervix. Australia was one of the first countries to introduce a national HPV vaccination programme in 2007, offering free school-based vaccines to girls aged 12 to 13 and a catch-up programme for women aged between 18 and 26. About 80 per cent of eligible Australian girls have since received the vaccine annually, leading to a sharp decline in HPV infections, genital warts and precancerous cervical lesions. Now, research by Karen Canfell at the Cancer Council NSW in Australia and her colleagues suggests it has also cut rates of premature births. Premature births have been steadily climbing in Australia for the past two decades, in line with what has happened in other developed economies, possibly due to reasons such as people having children later in life or IVF conceptions becoming more common. Canfell and her colleagues found that the HPV vaccine seems to have curbed this rise. Using Australian birth data from 2000 to 2015, they found that women from vaccinated cohorts had 3 per cent fewer premature babies than those from unvaccinated cohorts after adjusting for the age of women and the years they gave birth. In other words, the vaccination programme has probably prevented at least 2000 premature births in Australia since it began, says Canfell.
5-21-20 As we wait for a vaccine, here’s a snapshot of potential COVID-19 treatments
Aggressive public health measures to stem the tidal wave of coronavirus infections have left people isolated, unemployed and wondering when it will all end. Life probably won’t go completely back to normal until vaccines against the virus are available, experts warn. Researchers are working hard on that front. At least six vaccines are currently being tested in people, says Esther Krofah, chief executive of the FasterCures center at the Milken Institute in Washington, D.C. “We expect about two dozen more to enter clinical trials by this summer and early fall. That is a huge number,” Krofah said at an April 17 briefing. Dozens more are in earlier stages of testing. In unpublished, preliminary results of a test of one vaccine, inoculated people made as many antibodies against the coronavirus as people who have recovered from COVID-19 (SN: 5/18/20). The mRNA-based vaccine induces human cells to make one of the virus’s proteins, which the immune system then builds antibodies to attack. That study was small, only eight people, but a second phase of safety testing has begun. But vaccines take time to test thoroughly (SN: 2/21/20). Even with accelerated timelines and talk of emergency use of promising vaccines for health care workers and others at high risk of catching the virus, the general public will likely wait a year or more to be vaccinated. In the meantime, new treatments may help save lives or lessen the severity of disease in people who become ill. Researchers around the world are experimenting with more than 130 drugs to find out if any can help COVID-19 patients, according to a tracker maintained by the Milken Institute. Some of those drugs are aimed at stopping the virus, while others may help calm overactive immune responses that damage lungs and other organs. Although researchers are testing a battery of repurposed drugs and devising new ones, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over whether the drugs help, or maybe even hurt.
5-21-20 The oldest genetic link between Asians and Native Americans was found in Siberia
DNA from a 14,000-year-old tooth sheds new light on the first Americans’ ancestry. DNA gleaned from a roughly 14,000-year-old fragment of a human tooth suggests that people inhabiting a surprisingly large swath of Asia were the ancestors of the first Americans. This tooth, unearthed at a site just south of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia, provides the oldest known genetic link between Stone Age Asians and ancient American settlers, scientists report May 20 in Cell. Present-day Native Americans in North and South America are partly related to those early arrivals, the team says. Like a previously studied, nearly 10,000-year-old man in northeastern Siberia (SN: 6/7/19), the southern Siberian individual inherited genes from two Asian populations that contributed to the genetic makeup of Native Americans (SN: 2/10/10). Using DNA already extracted from human remains at several ancient Siberian sites, archaeogeneticist He Yu of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and her colleagues conclude that one of those ancestral populations originated in northeastern Asia, east of Lake Baikal. The other hailed from north-central Asia, west of the lake. It’s unclear where and when members of those two populations met up and mingled. But mating between them produced a mix of DNA that characterized people who crossed a land bridge to what’s now Alaska perhaps 16,000 years ago or more, the researchers say (SN: 8/8/18). Until now, many researchers have assumed that Native Americans’ genetic roots lay only in northeastern Asia.
5-20-20 Coronavirus is evolving. Knowing how could help us stop the pandemic
Viruses, like the coronavirus causing covid-19, can evolve rapidly. Knowing how and why they change should help us beat this pandemic and prevent future ones. SEVERAL weeks before the novel coronavirus became a serious issue in the UK, I attended a friend’s birthday party. Already, much of the conversation centred on the virus and the illness it causes, covid-19. While most people were talking about how to avoid catching it, one guest suggested that everybody “get infected to boost their immune system”. As a student of evolutionary biology, the idea alarmed me. I became even more concerned when, in early March, the UK’s chief scientific adviser recommended that 60 per cent of the population be infected with the coronavirus to build up herd immunity. Of course, the government rapidly ditched the policy and put the UK into lockdown. However, now that infection rates seem to have plateaued in several countries and governments around the world are looking for “exit strategies” from lockdown, talk of exposing people to the virus to build up herd immunity has returned. It remains a dangerous idea. To understand why, it is crucial to think about how the virus is changing as it jumps from host to host and circulates in the human population. As biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said almost half a century ago: “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” It may not seem obvious, but evolutionary processes have profound implications for pandemics. As well as helping us think clearly about herd immunity, they can explain where new diseases come from and help predict where they are going. Yet, an evolutionary perspective has been lacking in the current crisis. As we marshal all our reserves to fight this pandemic, evolution helps us better understand the enemy. We tend to think of a virus as a sort of clone, replicating over and over again in thousands, or even millions, of hosts. In fact, each viral species comprises a group of closely related strains that are constantly changing in tiny ways. Virologists call these strains quasi-species or swarms, and they arise as a result of random mutations that occur when the viral genes are copied. Such copying errors are rife because viruses replicate so rapidly – up to a million times faster than we produce offspring. And viruses that encode their genes in RNA rather than DNA change even more quickly because RNA lacks DNA’s ability to repair mutations when they occur. RNA viruses include coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes covid-19, and the more familiar influenza virus. The latter has just eight genes that encode 10 proteins, but it changes so much that it keeps infecting us anew each year.
5-20-20 You have five appetites, not one, and they are the key to your health
Forget the idea of a single drive to eat – you have evolved distinct appetites for various foods. This makes it easier to eat exactly what you need, and helps explain the obesity epidemic. STELLA lived on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. It was a beautiful, rural setting just below Table Mountain, surrounded by vineyards, trees, wild fynbos heathland and scattered settlements. In 2010, Caley Johnson, a graduate student of anthropology at City University of New York, arrived to study Stella. For 30 consecutive days she followed her, watching and recording exactly what, and how much, she ate. Stella’s diet was extremely diverse: almost 90 different foodstuffs over that time. On the surface, she didn’t appear particularly discerning. And indeed, the ratio of fats to carbohydrates in her diet varied widely from day to day. But when Johnson crunched the numbers, something interesting popped out. When she looked at the ratio of combined daily calories from carbs and fats to calories from protein, she always got close to 4:1. This happened every day, regardless of what Stella ate. Even more interestingly, this ratio was very similar to what is considered nutritionally ideal for a female of Stella’s size. Far from being indiscriminate, Stella was a meticulously healthy eater. How did she calibrate her diet so precisely? Doing so is difficult, and even professional dieticians have to use computer programs to do it. But Stella didn’t have access to a program because she was a wild Cape baboon. The Stella study is one of many that we have been involved with over the course of our 30-year scientific collaboration. As a result, we think we have discovered something profoundly important about human nutrition, which changes how we understand appetite, explains the obesity epidemic – and suggests a way of solving it.
5-20-20 Our five appetites mean our hunger is far more complex than we thought
It is crucial to understand your five-appetite system and how ultraprocessed foods have crashed this set-up – especially as they are so popular in lockdown. IF YOU feel like your diet has completely gone to pot during lockdown, you probably aren’t alone. Stress and boredom are known risk factors for overeating, and there is emerging evidence that many people, in the UK at least, are struggling to resist the comforts of food. Medical authorities are already worried about a parallel pandemic of mental illness. Maybe they should add weight gain to the list. An unhealthy diet is often blamed on poor choices and a lack of willpower. These can play a part, but new research on appetite tells us that they are far from the whole story. Appetite is conventionally viewed as a single, powerful drive to eat. But it isn’t so simple. Some animals, including humans, appear to actually have five separate appetites that work together to calibrate an individual’s food intake. That set-up works in natural food environments, but many people stopped living in such an environment decades ago. “Ultraprocessed foods” made from cheap fats and carbs – which are pulverised, mixed with additives and then cooked up into finished products – now make up more than half of the typical Western diet and are the quintessential lockdown foods: ready meals, savoury snacks and ice cream. These foods have long been blamed for diet-related diseases, and they are guilty as charged. Yet not for the reasons we assume. Ultraprocessed foods tend to be high in fats and sugar, but while they are low in protein, they tend to taste as if they are high in protein. This subtlety has crashed our five-appetite system and is why our instinct to eat the correct amount of protein may now be leading us to gorge on junk. It turns out that understanding all your different appetites is crucial. Whether you choose to act on the knowledge now or after the lockdown is, of course, up to you.
5-20-20 Tiny robots can travel through rushing blood to deliver drugs
Tiny drug-carrying robots that can move against the direction of blood flow could one day be used to deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to cancer cells. Metin Sitti at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, and his colleagues have developed tiny robots called “microrollers” that can carry cancer drugs and selectively target human breast cancer cells. The team drew inspiration for the design of the robots from white blood cells in the human body, which can move along the walls of blood vessels against the direction of blood flow. The microrollers are spherical and made from glass microparticles. One half of the robot was coated with a thin magnetic nanofilm made from nickel and gold. The other half was coated with the cancer drug doxorubicin as well as molecules that recognise cancer cells. The team tested the robots in a simulation using mouse blood and synthetic channels lined with human endothelial cells – the kind of cells that line the inner walls of our blood vessels. The robots were exposed to a mixture of cancerous and healthy tissue. The microrollers selectively attached to the cancer cells and were activated using UV light to release the doxorubicin. By applying magnetic fields, the team was able to steer the movement of the microrollers, both with and against the flow of blood. The microrollers can reach a speed of up to 600 micrometres per second. “If you come to a junction in a vascular system where you need to take the right path and if you miss it, then you could go back and go to the right one,” says Setti. The team tested robots ranging between 3 and 7.8 micrometres in diameter. Human red blood cells, by comparison, are up to around 8 micrometres in diameter.
5-20-20 Human-like cyborg eye could power itself using sunlight
A human-like artificial eye capable of being powered by sunlight could eventually be used as a visual aid for people who cannot see. Zhiyong Fan at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and his colleagues have developed a spherical visual sensor that mimics the structure of the human eye. Like the real thing, the artificial eye contains a lens to focus light and a hemispherical retina, the region at the back of the eye where photosensitive cells generate electrical impulses to be sent to the brain. The artificial eye is 2 centimetres in diameter, with its hollow centre filled with a conductive fluid. An adult human eye is a similar size and is filled with a clear gel called vitreous humour. The artificial retina is made from porous aluminium oxide filled with densely packed nanowires. These wires are light-sensitive and made from a compound called perovskite, which is commonly used in solar cells. They act in a similar way to nerve cells in the human eye, transmitting electrical signals when they are activated by light. The team projected images of letters onto the artificial lens to test how well it worked. A computer hooked up to the eye successfully recognised the letters E, I and Y. The team says it could, in theory, be connected to an optic nerve to do the same, to test whether the device was medically safe. The current version of the eye requires an external power source, but the team plans to make it self-sufficient in future. “Each nanowire can function as a small solar cell,” says Fan. “In that case, we don’t need any external power at all.” Another limitation is the eye’s low image resolution compared with commercial sensors such as those in smartphones. On the other hand, existing visual prosthetic devices use a flat object for image sensing, which doesn’t conform to the human eye’s spherical shape, says Fan. As a result, this limits the possible field of view compared with a human eye, which normally has a field of vision of around 150 degrees.
5-20-20 A new artificial eye mimics and may outperform human eyes
The high-tech device boasts a field of view and reaction time similar to that of real eyes. Scientists can’t yet rebuild someone with bionic body parts. They don’t have the technology. But a new artificial eye brings cyborgs one step closer to reality. This device, which mimics the human eye’s structure, is about as sensitive to light and has a faster reaction time than a real eyeball. It may not come with the telescopic or night vision capabilities that Steve Austin had in The Six Million Dollar Man television show, but this electronic eyepiece does have the potential for sharper vision than human eyes, researchers report in the May 21 Nature. “In the future, we can use this for better vision prostheses and humanoid robotics,” says engineer and materials scientist Zhiyong Fan of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The human eye owes its wide field of view and high-resolution eyesight to the dome-shaped retina — an area at the back of the eyeball covered in light-detecting cells. Fan and colleagues used a curved aluminum oxide membrane, studded with nanosize sensors made of a light-sensitive material called a perovskite (SN: 7/26/17), to mimic that architecture in their synthetic eyeball. Wires attached to the artificial retina send readouts from those sensors to external circuitry for processing, just as nerve fibers relay signals from a real eyeball to the brain. The artificial eyeball registers changes in lighting faster than human eyes can — within about 30 to 40 milliseconds, rather than 40 to 150 milliseconds. The device can also see dim light about as well as the human eye. Although its 100-degree field of view isn’t as broad as the 150 degrees a human eye can take in, it’s better than the 70 degrees visible to ordinary flat imaging sensors.
5-20-20 Earliest known man with Native American DNA ancestry lived in Siberia
A man who lived in Siberia about 14,000 years ago is the earliest known person in the world to have the specific mix of genes seen in people with Native American ancestry, analysis of DNA from a fossilised tooth has revealed. This suggests the link between ancient Siberian and Native American people is much deeper and stronger than previously thought, says He Yu at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Yu and her colleagues dated the fossilised tooth, originally found near Lake Baikal in southern Siberia, to about 14,000 years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic era. They then extracted and sequenced DNA and compared it with sequences from ancient and modern Native American people. Their analysis revealed the man as the earliest ever discovered with the specific mixture of ancient north Eurasian and north-east Asian ancestry commonly present in Native American people. The earliest previously known individual in the world with similar ancestry lived about 11,500 years ago. Traces left in the man’s DNA also indicate that the people with this ancestry, who gave rise to Native American people, were much more widely distributed than first thought. “It’s not a population that moved to America and then just disappeared in the Eurasian continent,” says Yu. There was still a large gene pool spanning across ancient Siberia and continued mixing with north-east Asian populations, she says. These results add to growing evidence that the Americas were populated by people from north-east Asia, says Anders Bergstrom at the Francis Crick Institute in London. It is thought that the ancestors of modern Native Americans first migrated to North America from Siberia at least 15,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge – a piece of dry land that at that time connected modern Russia and Alaska.
5-20-20 New data suggest people aren’t getting reinfected with the coronavirus
People who test positive after recovering from COVID-19 don’t appear to carry infectious virus. People who test positive again for the coronavirus, despite having already recovered from COVID-19, aren’t being reinfected, a new study finds. Reports of patients discharged from hospitals in South Korea testing positive after their apparent recovery had raised concerns that people could get infected by the virus in the short term more than once or that the infection could come back. But diagnostic tests for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 rely on detecting the virus’s genetic material (SN: 4/17/20). A positive result does not indicate whether a person is shedding viruses capable of infecting cells — which would signal an active infection. Now, a May 19 report from the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that samples from “reinfected” patients don’t have infectious viruses. The finding hints that the diagnostic tests are picking up on the genetic material from noninfectious or dead viruses. That lack of infectious virus particles means these people aren’t currently infected and can’t transmit the coronavirus to others, the researchers say. “It’s good news,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “It appears people are not being reinfected, and this virus is not reactivating.” In the study, researchers tried to isolate infectious coronaviruses from samples taken from 108 people who retested positive. All of those samples tested negative. When the scientists examined 23 of those patients for antibodies against the coronavirus, almost all had neutralizing antibodies that can stop the virus from getting into cells (SN: 4/28/20). That immune response may protect a person from getting reinfected, at least in the short term.
5-20-20 Indoor, high-intensity fitness classes may help spread the coronavirus
Some states are letting gyms reopen, but there many unanswered questions about if that’s safe. As more U.S. states reopen and people return to public life, dance fitness classes in South Korea tell a cautionary tale. A workshop to train instructors for the classes, which are similar to Zumba, ultimately led to more than 100 people falling sick with COVID-19, a new study finds. Nearly 30 teachers participated in the Feb. 15 workshop, which involved intense physical activity for four hours. Later, it was revealed that eight of the participants were infected with the coronavirus, though none had symptoms at the time. By March 9, scientists had identified 112 cases linked to roughly hour-long dance classes at 12 sports facilities and traced them back to the workshop. The turbulent air flow caused by intense physical exercise in densely populated sports facilities could help spread the virus, the researchers report in the August Emerging Infectious Diseases. Curiously, one infected instructor taught Pilates and yoga classes of about eight people, but none of those students tested positive for the virus. Those classes’ lower aerobic intensity may be why the virus didn’t spread as easily, the researchers speculate. Class size may also be a factor. Some states are letting gyms reopen, but there are lots of unanswered questions about whether that’s safe, as detailed by female powerlifter Casey Johnston in Vice.
5-19-20 Smoking probably puts you at greater risk of coronavirus, not less
A number of studies suggesting smokers are less likely to catch coronavirus have led to headlines saying that smokers are “protected” against covid-19 – but this probably isn’t the case. Cigarettes seem like an unlikely ally against a respiratory virus. Tobacco smoke damages the tiny air sacs in the lungs where oxygen enters the blood, and slows down the hairs lining the body’s air passages that gently waft along mucus. Smokers are affected more severely by colds and flu, and years of smoking can lead to a type of lung failure known as emphysema, which is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But data emerging from the countries first hit by coronavirus gave doctors pause: the proportion of smokers among those being hospitalised for covid-19 was lower than in the general population. In China, for example, about 8 per cent of people in hospital with covid-19 were smokers, while 26 per cent of the general population smoke. The equivalent figures for Italy are 8 and 19 per cent respectively. “The data seem to be repeated in different countries,” says Alberto Nájera at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, whose team analysed figures from 18 of the first such reports (Preprints, doi.org/dv8f). He says nicotine may reduce the immune system’s tendency to overreact to the virus and cause a cytokine storm, an inflammatory response that can be deadly. A different idea, put forward by Jean-Pierre Changeux at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, is that nicotine lowers the amount of a molecule on lung cells called ACE2, which the coronavirus uses to gain entry into those cells (Qeios, doi.org/dv8h). But many of the reports that find lower rates of smoking among covid-19 patients also suggest that smoking is more common among people who get sickest and die (Qeios, doi.org/dv8j). This is hard to explain if nicotine really protects against the coronavirus.
5-20-20 Births in the United States have dropped to a 34-year low
Lingering financial worries from the recent recession and now COVID-19 could extend the trend. For the fifth year in a row, the number of babies born in the United States has declined. It’s the lowest number of births — just under 3.75 million in 2019, gleaned from birth certificate data — since 1985, according to the report published online May 20 from the National Center for Health Statistics. Since 2014, that number has been dropping 1 percent on average per year. There’s been a general downward trend in births since the Great Recession, which lasted from 2007 to 2009. In periods of economic uncertainty, births tend to drop, says family demographer Karen Benjamin Guzzo of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. But rather than rebounding after the recession ended, as would be expected, births have continued to fall. It’s an indication that not everyone’s prospects improved as the economy recovered, she says. People like to feel certain about their coming years before they have children, says Guzzo, who was not involved in the new report. But many younger adults struggle with student loan debt, face soaring home prices and hold jobs that lack health benefits or sick days, she says. Considering the costs for childcare and providing for their children’s education on top of that leads some people to question whether they can afford to be a good parent. “When the economy sort of writ large looks good,” Guzzo says, “it doesn’t necessarily mean it looks good for individuals and particularly for younger folks in their child bearing years.” Even if young people are working, she says, “they’re just not in a place where they feel confident in their future.” And, she adds, “this is all pre-COVID, so you can imagine this [uncertainty] is only going to get worse.”
5-19-20 Megaraptor: Fossils of 10m-long dinosaur found in Argentina
Palaeontologists have found the fossils of a new megaraptor in Patagonia, in the south of Argentina. Megaraptors were large carnivorous dinosaurs with long arms and claws measuring up to 35cm (14in) in length. They also had powerful legs and long tails which made them more agile than the Tyrannosaurus rex and allowed them to catch smaller herbivorous dinosaurs. The new megaraptor is one of the last of its group, before dinosaurs became extinct, the scientific team says. The team led by Fernando Novas from the Natural Sciences Museum in Buenos Aires discovered many fossils during its month-long field work in Estancia La Anita, in southern Santa Cruz province. The most unusual ones were the remains of a large carnivorous dinosaur belonging to the Megaraptoridae family. The scientists uncovered vertebrae, ribs and part of what would have been the dinosaur's chest and shoulder girdle. The fossils they found belonged to a specimen measuring approximately 10m (33ft) in length, one of the largest of the Megaraptoridae found so far. In a statement [in Spanish], the team said that the remains date back 70 million years - towards the end of "the age of the dinosaurs". Fernando Novas told Reuters news agency that "this new megaraptor that we now have to study would be one of the last representatives of this group" before the dinosaurs became extinct. The megaraptor had long, muscular arms with sickle-like claws and a long tail which provided it with balance. Slimmer and more agile than the T. rex it is thought to have used its arms and claws rather than its jaw as its main weapon when hunting its prey. "It had powerful and elongated legs which allowed it to take big steps," palaeontologist Aranciaga Rolando said. The scientists from the Natural Sciences Museum believe it would have used its speed to hunt ornithopods, plant-eating dinosaurs which walked on two legs.
5-19-20 Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine stimulates an immune response in people
Early results suggest a coronavirus vaccine works, but more human trials are needed. An experimental vaccine may help protect against a coronavirus infection, preliminary results from people and mice suggest. One or two doses of an mRNA vaccine prod people’s bodies to make as many or more antibodies against the coronavirus as are made by people who have recovered from COVID-19, researchers from Moderna, Inc., announced May 18. Moderna, based in Cambridge, Mass., and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., worked together to develop the vaccine, known as mRNA-1273 (SN: 2/21/20). Their approach uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, a genetic molecule that cellular machinery reads in order to build proteins. In this case, the mRNA contains instructions for building the coronavirus’ spike protein, which helps the virus enter human cells. The vaccine induces human cells to make the spike protein. The immune system then makes antibodies to latch onto the spike proteins. Should a vaccinated person encounter the virus later, those vaccine-stimulated antibodies may prevent the virus from infecting healthy cells. Mice vaccinated with these mRNAs were protected against lung infection when researchers later exposed the rodents to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the researchers also report. None of the data has been reviewed by independent scientists, and has not yet been made publicly available. The new data “give us confidence that mRNA-1273 has a high probability of providing protection against COVID-19 disease in humans,” said Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer at Moderna. Researchers in Seattle and Atlanta began injecting human volunteers with the experimental vaccine in March (SN: 4/10/20). This first phase of testing was designed to determine safety, help researchers determine what dose to use, and to measure people’s immune response.
5-19-20 Past plagues offer lessons for society after the coronavirus pandemic
Starting with the Roman Empire, societies have often dealt resiliently with deadly outbreaks. It was an optimistic time. A healthy economy showered wealth on elites and allowed many ordinary citizens to live comfortably. Local goods and exotic imports filled shops and markets. Political leaders ruled a vast network of cities and trade routes. Then the enemy attacked. An infectious disease leapfrogged from one population center to another. People died in droves. Political leaders scrambled to recover from a dizzying sucker punch to public and economic health. This is not a tale about the United States or any other nation besieged by the new coronavirus. Instead, it’s a story about the ancient Roman Empire, where a contagion known as the Antonine Plague felled victims throughout the realm, from Egypt to continental Europe and the British Isles in the late 160s. Accurate mortality data for the Antonine Plague don’t exist. But written accounts from that time point to mass deaths. Physician and philosopher Galen described victims as suffering from open sores in the windpipe, rashes of dark blisters, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and other symptoms of what may have been smallpox. Perhaps 7 million to 8 million people perished in what some consider to be history’s first pandemic, says Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Harper is a historian of the Roman Empire and ancient epidemics. The Antonine Plague and other epidemics and pandemics that struck before 20th century vaccines and medical knowledge hold lessons, but no easy answers, for governments and people today grappling with COVID-19. One lesson looms large: Societies can’t indefinitely avoid outbreaks, but they can withstand even severe pandemics. Past political systems have found ways to bounce back from mass illness and unthinkable numbers of deaths.
5-19-20 Astronauts may be able to make cement using their own pee
Future lunar dwellings could mostly be made with materials found on the moon. Future astronauts could make lunar buildings out of moon dust and pee. That’s the suggestion of chemist Anna-Lena Kjøniksen and her colleagues, who made a cement from urea — a major component of urine — and faux lunar soil. When humans take up long-term residence on other planets or the moon, they will need to pack light, in part because shipping materials from Earth is expensive. NASA has estimated that every pound of material sent into orbit around the Earth costs around $10,000. Tapping into local resources could keep costs down. Researchers have suggested using lunar soil to make concrete or cement to 3-D print dwellings for astronauts (SN: 2/21/13). But most cement recipes require a lot of water, which is scarce on the moon and awfully heavy to blast into space (SN: 4/15/19). On Earth, adding a chemical called a superplasticizer to a cement mix reduces the amount of water needed by keeping a drier mix from getting too crumbly, while leaving it flexible enough to be used in a 3-D printer. But most superplasticizers are organic compounds, also in short supply on the moon, says Kjøniksen, of Østfold University College in Halden, Norway. Then it hit her. “I was thinking, what’s available on the moon? If you add humans, then what do you have available?” she says. Maybe human waste could turn into something useful. Kjøniksen had previously used urea to make plastic mixtures less viscous. Urea breaks hydrogen bonds between molecules, reducing friction and letting the molecules slide past each other more easily. She’d never heard of someone using it in cement, “but I thought it was worth a try.” A silica and aluminum oxide powder — a stand-in for lunar dust — is the main ingredient in Kjøniksen’s cement. Its chemical content is similar to fly ash, the main component of common cement mixtures, but with larger and more crystalline grains. The team mixed that powder with powdered urea bought from a chemical supply company, not distilled from real urine, along with some water to make the cement. Compared with two other superplasticizers used in construction on Earth, “the urea worked very well,” Kjøniksen says.
5-18-20 Elaphrosaur: Rare dinosaur identified in Australia
A fossil unearthed in Australia by a volunteer digger has been identified as a rare, toothless dinosaur that roamed the country 110 million years ago. The elaphrosaur, whose name means "light-footed lizard", was related to the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptor. The five-centimetre (two-inch) vertebrae fossil was discovered during a dig near Cape Otway in Victoria in 2015. It is the first elaphrosaur bone ever to be found in Australia. The fossil was discovered by volunteer Jessica Parker, who was taking part in an annual dig led by Melbourne Museum. At the time, it was thought to be from a flying reptile called a pterosaur. But when palaeontologists at Swinburne University in Melbourne studied the fossil further, they realised it was a delicately-built dinosaur. "Elaphrosaurs had long necks, stumpy arms with small hands, and relatively lightly-built bodies," Dr Stephen Poropat said. The fossil indicated the animal was about two metres (6.5ft) long. However, other fossils previously found in Tanzania, China and Argentina show that they could reach up to six metres in length. Adult elaphrosaurs probably didn't eat much meat, Dr Poropat said. "As dinosaurs go, they were rather bizarre. The few known skulls of elaphrosaurs show that the youngsters had teeth, but that the adults lost their teeth and replaced them with a horny beak. We don't know if this is true for the [Australian] elaphrosaur yet - but we might find out if we ever discover a skull," he said. Cape Otway, where the fossil was located, is a rich area for discoveries. About a dozen animals and five dinosaur species have been identified there, according to ABC News. Those discovered include a plant-eating dinosaur found in 2018.
5-18-20 Saber-toothed anchovy relatives hunted in the sea 50 million years ago
Fossils suggest these ancient animals grew up to a meter long and ate other fish Less pizza topping and more toothy hunter, ancient anchovy kin once had quite the bite. Fossils show that these fish were armed with a mouthful of fearsome teeth. Each of the two newly analyzed specimens sport spiky teeth along the lower jaw and one giant dagger jutting down from the top jaw. Stranger still, the single sabertooth sits off-center. Such chompers suggest that the now-extinct fish were predators, possibly feeding on other fish, scientists report May 13 in Royal Society Open Science. Today’s anchovies feast mostly on plankton. “They have super tiny teeth. They look nothing like these things,” says paleontologist Alessio Capobianco of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The ancient fish were also large compared with their modern relatives, which top out at around 37 centimeters. One of the fossil fish may have stretched nearly a meter long, the researchers estimate. Using CT scans to peer into the fossils, Capobianco and his team discovered shared physical features that tie the ancient fish to their modern kin. Just like today’s anchovies, which open wide to gulp food, these fossil fish had a gaping maw, Capobianco says. “Probably that mouth opening helps to catch fish … because those teeth are so large.” The fossils, which date from roughly 50 million years ago, are helping fill in a picture of marine life during the Eocene Epoch. At that time, predatory fish like these may have evolved to fill voids left by the massive extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs along with many marine species about 66 million years ago (SN: 8/2/18). Fish from groups still around today, such as tuna, barracudas and mackerel, also swam the seas with the anchovies. “There were sort of failed experiments going on at the same time,” Capobianco says, including “these saber-toothed anchovies that didn’t survive to the modern day.”
5-16-20 T cells may help COVID-19 patients — and people never exposed to the virus
How important certain immune cells are for those fighting the coronavirus remains unclear. People infected with the coronavirus carry immune cells known as T cells that help the body fight off the infection, a study suggests. These cells may help people recover from COVID-19, but their exact role is still unknown. Researchers found T cells that target SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the blood of people who had recovered from a coronavirus infection. Some people who had never been exposed to the virus also had T cells that could recognize the virus, researchers report May 14 in Cell. That finding suggests that previous infections with other coronaviruses, like the ones that cause common colds, could provide some level of protection against the new coronavirus, such as keeping people from developing severe disease. It remains unclear whether these defenses can protect people from a reinfection with SARS-CoV-2, and, if so, for how long. A key part of the immune system, T cells can recognize fragments of viruses. When the cells identify a viral protein, helper T cells release chemical signals that trigger other parts of the immune system to kick into gear. Others, called killer T cells, hunt down and kill infected cells. The team first predicted which viral proteins from SARS-CoV-2 might represent the best target for T cells to recognize. Then it mixed those viral fragments with immune cells extracted from blood samples from 10 COVID-19 patients who had recovered from the disease as well as 11 healthy people. Those healthy people had participated in unrelated studies from 2015 to 2018 — before the pandemic began — and could not have been previously exposed to the coronavirus when their blood was sampled.
5-16-20 'Golden tongue' helps ensure maple syrup quality
Scientists have developed a "golden tongue" to help producers test the quality of maple syrup. A team of researchers from Canada used the precious metal to develop a way of checking whether samples were "off flavour". The test used nanoparticles of gold, which normally looked red but appeared blue when the sample of syrup was deemed to be below a premium grade. The details have been published in the Analytical Methods journal. Maple syrup is synonymous with the north-eastern reaches of North America. Its production is one of the oldest agriculture enterprises in the US and Canada, with a history stretching back hundreds of years. Native Americans first discovered the elixir made from the sap of sugar maples, before passing on the technique to settlers. Today, the global market for maple syrup is estimated to be in excess of US$1.2bn (£970m). Once the first signs of spring are on the temporal horizon and the sap in the sugar maples (Acer saccharum) begins to rise, farmers set up a network of taps in the trunk of the trees to draw off the sweet produce. On average, the maple syrup season lasts for four to six weeks, with the sweetness and robustness of flavour changing over that period. In order to produce the maple syrup that we pour over pancakes or use in cooking, the sap flows from the trees to sugar shacks or sugar huts, where the fluid is boiled and much of its water content is evaporated. From an initial mixture of 98% water and 2% sugar, the finished syrup consists of 33% water and 67% sugar. On average, 40 litres of sap is needed to produce one litre of syrup. Just as the characteristic of wine is determined by the "terroir", in other words the unique aspects of the vineyard, such as temperature, soil, slope of the land, rainfall; the same is true with maple syrup. Each farm's produce has its own signature flavour.
5-15-20 Coronavirus and chloroquine: Is there evidence it works?
Drugs developed to treat malaria have been touted by President Trump as treatment for Covid-19, despite scientists saying there's no definitive evidence they work. DStudies are underway to examine the efficacy of chloroquine and its derivatives, but the World Health Organization says it's concerned by reports of individuals self-medicating and causing themselves serious harm. These safety concerns have been echoed by a former top US health official. Dr Rick Bright, who was removed from his post in April leading the government's vaccine development efforts, says President Trump's focus on these drugs has been "extremely distracting to dozens of federal scientists". As a result of the publicity given to these drugs as a possible treatment, there has been a global surge in demand for them. President Trump has frequently referred to the potential of hydroxychloroquine in White House briefings. At one press conference, he said: "What do you have to lose? Take it." Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro claimed in a video that "hydroxychloroquine is working in all places", although that was subsequently removed by Facebook for breaching its misinformation guidelines. Following Mr Trump's reference to the drugs in late March, there was a sharp increase reported in prescriptions in the US for both chloroquine and hydrochloroquine, although demand has since declined. (Webmaster's comment: The doctors who wrote these prescriptions should be fired and imprisoned!) Tablets containing chloroquine have long been used in the treatment of malaria to reduce fever and inflammation, and the hope is that they can also inhibit the virus that causes Covid-19. There is insufficient evidence at the moment from current trials as to their effective use in treatment of patients with Covid-19. There are also risks of serious side effects, including renal and liver damage. "We need larger, high-quality randomised clinical trials in order to better evaluate their effectiveness," says University of Oxford's Kome Gbinigie, author of a report on anti-malarial testing for Covid-19.
5-15-20 Wound-healing patch of blue-green algae mends skin quickly
A skin patch made of living blue-green algae speeds up wound healing in mice, and may help to treat chronic wounds in people with diabetes. About a quarter of people with diabetes develop chronic wounds because they have poor circulation and other complications that make it harder for their skin to heal following cuts and scrapes. In severe cases, the affected body part has to be amputated. Diabetic wounds are sometimes treated with oxygen gas, as oxygen is known to assist with skin healing. But often it doesn’t work because only a small amount of oxygen gas is able to penetrate the skin. To improve oxygen delivery into the skin, researchers at Nanjing University in China developed a wound patch filled with living Synechococcus elongatus bacteria – more commonly known as blue-green algae – that naturally produce oxygen in the presence of sunlight via the process of photosynthesis. The wound patch also contained hydrogel beads designed to soak up oxygen produced by the bacteria and carry it deep into the skin by seeping into sweat ducts and hair follicles. The cost of making one patch was less than £0.82. The researchers compared the effectiveness of the bacterial patch to standard oxygen gas therapy in mice with diabetes that had skin wounds measuring 1 centimetre in diameter. After six days, the wounds treated with the bacterial patch had shrunk by 45 per cent, compared to only 20 per cent for those treated with oxygen gas. The wounds treated with the bacterial patch also closed completely about three days earlier, and no side-effects were observed. The superior performance of the bacterial patch seemed to be related to better oxygen delivery, as it was found to carry about 100 times more oxygen into the mouse skin than oxygen gas. The researchers are now hoping to test the patch in larger animals before progressing to human clinical trials.
5-15-20 No evidence 'Madagascar cure' for covid-19 works, says WHO
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that a herbal drink promoted by the president of Madagascar as a cure for covid-19 should be tested to see if it is effective. The WHO has no evidence the drink works, according to the head of the group’s Africa office. Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, this week defended the unproven Covid-Organics drink, which is reportedly made from Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood) and herbs, telling France 24 it was a “preventive and curative remedy” and “works really well”. However, when Matshidiso Moeti at the WHO Regional Office for Africa was asked during a press conference yesterday whether the WHO had any data or evidence of its efficacy, she said: “No, we do not.” She said the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus would soon be speaking with Rajoelina about the purported remedy. Moeti said the WHO supported the use of traditional medicine in African healthcare systems but studies must be carried out to see if they work. In the case of Covid-Organics, she said the WHO wanted to see an assessment of its efficacy, and that the work could be undertaken by Madagascan scientists. “We have offered to support the design of a study to look into this product.” The WHO is in discussions with the Madagascan government, she said. She added: “We are not discouraging the use of a product, but would like to advise that it be tested.” The drink was developed by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research and launched by Rajoelina last month. Orders have since been dispatched to several other countries, including Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Tanzania. While the WHO says it isn’t discouraging use of the herbal drink, it has paid for advertisements to appear alongside Google searches for Artemisia annua. The advertisements lead to a WHO page that says such medicinal plants should be tested for efficacy and negative side effects. “Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world,” a statement says.
5-15-20 Malaria parasites may have their own circadian rhythms
Plasmodium pathogens don’t depend on a host’s biological clock, studies suggest. The parasites that cause malaria may march to the beat of their own drum. New genetic analyses suggest that Plasmodium parasites possess their own circadian rhythms, and don’t depend on a host for an internal clock, researchers report May 15 in Science. Figuring out how Plasmodium’s clock ticks may lead to ways to disrupt it, potentially adding to the growing arsenal of treatments for malaria (SN: 11/27/13). In 2018, the mosquito-borne illness sickened an estimated 228 million people worldwide and caused more than 400,000 deaths. A malarial infection is a series of cyclical symptoms. Depending on the Plasmodium species involved, fever and chills return roughly every 24, 48 or 72 hours, thanks to the parasites’ synchronized reproduction within and destruction of a host’s red blood cells. Researchers had long thought that the rhythmic nature of an infection was likely driven by a host’s circadian rhythms, says molecular parasitologist Filipa Rijo-Ferreira, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute associate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Circadian clocks help organisms anticipate regular, cyclic changes in their environment, like day and night cycles and daily fluctuations in temperature. These clocks are made up of genes and proteins that drive daily rhythms (SN: 10/2/17), such as the release of hormones, and typically operate on 24-hour cycles in many animals. Rijo-Ferreira and colleagues recently showed that the Trypanosoma parasite behind the illness known as sleeping sickness has its own internal clock. So the team decided to look for a similar ability in Plasmodium. The scientists tracked rhythms of how genes were turned on and off in malaria parasites in infected mice hosts. The researchers put some mice in constant darkness, eliminating day and night cues and throwing off the animals’ circadian rhythms. But the timing of changes in the parasites’ gene activity levels in those mice was similar to that of mice exposed to regular day-night cycles.
5-15-20 50 years ago, explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s Atlantic crossing hit a snag
50 years ago, explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s Atlantic crossing hit a snag. Last year … a seven-man international crew was abandoning a disabled boat made of papyrus that in two months had taken them 2,700 miles westward in the Atlantic toward Mexico…. Nevertheless explorer-anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, designer and pilot of the Ra, refused to admit defeat…. Late this week, Heyerdahl and his crew were awaiting suitable weather to set off on a second attempt at an Atlantic crossing. On July 12, 1970, Heyerdahl’s crew crossed the Atlantic in a second papyrus vessel called Ra II. Heyerdahl wanted to show that ancient Egyptians could have reached the Americas centuries before Europeans did. No evidence of ancient New World Egyptians has been found. But the idea that early civilizations traveled long distances by sea was right. Egyptian and Mesopotamian glass beads reached southern Scandinavia via sea trade by around 3,400 years ago. And seagoing traders connected Viking Age Scandinavians with Muslims in West Asia and the Mediterranean more than 1,000 years ago.
5-15-20 Africa’s biggest collection of ancient human footprints has been found
Hundreds of fossilized impressions are providing a glimpse into ancient human behavior. More than 400 human footprints preserved in hardened volcanic sediment are providing a rare peek at social life among ancient East African hunter-gatherers. These impressions, found in northern Tanzania near a village called Engare Sero, add up to the largest collection of ancient human footprints ever found in Africa, say evolutionary biologist Kevin Hatala of Chatham University in Pittsburgh and his colleagues. People walked across a muddy layer of volcanic debris that dates to between around 19,100 and 5,760 years ago, the researchers report May 14 in Scientific Reports. Dating of a thin rock layer that partly overlaps footprint sediment narrows the age range for the footprints to between roughly 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, the team says. Engare Sero lies in the vicinity of two much older hominid footprint sites — nearly 3.7-million-year-old Laetoli (SN: 12/16/16) in Tanzania and 1.5-million-year-old Ileret (SN: 4/16/12) in Kenya. At Engare Sero, Hatala’s team analyzed foot impression sizes, distances between prints and which way prints pointed. One collection of tracks was made by a group of 17 people walking southwest across the landscape, the researchers found. Comparisons with modern human footprint measurements indicate that this group consisted of 14 women, two men and one young boy. The women may have been foraging for food, while a few males visited or accompanied them, the researchers speculate. Some present-day hunter-gatherers, including Tanzania’s Hadza people, form largely female food-gathering groups. In another set of six tracks, the footprints point northeast. Those tracks probably weren’t made by people traveling in a group. Instead, the impressions suggest that two women and a man had ambled along leisurely, a woman and a man had walked briskly, and another woman had run across the area, the researchers say.
5-15-20 Blind people can ‘see’ letters traced directly onto their brains
Findings point to a way to bypass damaged eyes and deliver ‘sights’ directly to the brain. Scientists have developed a new way to create “sights” for blind people. It’s like skywriting, but instead of blue sky, the letters are written on the brain itself. The new approach, described May 14 in Cell, bypasses the eyes and delivers a sequence of electrical signals to the brain, creating the perception of a glowing light that traces a shape. With further refinements, the method might one day restore aspects of vision to people with damaged eyes or optic nerves. Scientists have been able to create artificial visions by manipulating the brains of mice, but advances for people have been slower (SN: 7/18/19). Tiny jolts of electricity to the visual cortex, a span of neural tissue at the back of the brain, can make a person “see” small bursts of light called phosphenes. Previous attempts to restore vision involved creating multiple phosphenes at the same time, like light bulbs on movie marquees. But those signals were hard to interpret, forming smatterings of lights or a blob of coalesced lights. A clearer signal comes from using electricity as a stylus, essentially tracing lines onto the visual cortex with electric current. In tests with six volunteers who had grids of electrodes implanted in their brains, researchers activated the electrodes in a sequence that traced the lines of alphabet letters. The process is akin to someone writing the letter N on someone’s palm by making an upward line, then a downward swoop and then moving back up again. This sequential writing method allowed recipients to quickly perceive intended shapes, Michael Beauchamp of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and his colleagues found. Two participants were blind; four sighted participants had electrical grids implanted in their brains as part of treatment for epilepsy. One blind participant could recognize 86 shapes a minute with the technique.
5-14-20 People ‘see’ letters traced on their brain’s surface by an implant
People who have lost their sight are able to “see” letters that have been traced on the surface of their brain using electrical stimulation. It is an early step towards implants that could allow more complex vision. “The finding that we can make blind patients ‘see’ letters is very exciting, because we hope to build on this and do much more in the future,” says Daniel Yoshor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Ultimately, we want to restore some useful visual function to blind patients and hopefully improve their lives,” he says. Yoshor and his colleagues worked with five people who had electrodes implanted in their brains on the surface of a region required for vision, called the visual cortex. Two participants had lost their sight and had received their electrode implants as part of a clinical trial to treat blindness. The other three were able to see and had received implants as part of epilepsy treatment. When the researchers stimulated the electrodes in sequence to trace the shapes of specific letters on the surface of the brain, all the participants reported seeing glowing spots or lines forming the same letters. This study suggests that this type of vision may require multiple brain cells to be activated in sequence, rather than simultaneously, says György Buzsáki at New York University. The situation is similar to someone tracing a shape on the surface of your skin, says Buzsáki. It is much easier for the brain to identify the shape when it is traced compared with when many sites are simultaneously pressed at the same time, he says. “Future designs of virtual cortical prosthetic devices will likely employ many thousands of electrodes on a much finer scale,” says Michael Beauchamp at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who worked with Yoshor on the study. “An early iteration would provide detection of the contours of shapes encountered. The ability to detect the form of a family member or to allow more independent navigation would be a wonderful advance for many blind patients,” says Beauchamp.
5-14-20 Planes and offices must improve ventilation to reduce coronavirus risk
Ventilation must be improved in buildings and aeroplanes to reduce the risk of covid-19 spreading via the air, according to recommendations from several organisations, including the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. However, it is unclear if this advice is being followed. We know the coronavirus can spread via air, but there is still debate about the details and how much this form of transmission contributes to the disease’s spread. What is clear is that the risk is greatest if you spend a long time in a confined, poorly ventilated space with others who might be infected – something that many workers cannot avoid. For this reason, scientists and safety experts think there should be more emphasis on improving ventilation, in addition to measures such as handwashing and social distancing. “The most significant measure is to increase ventilation to remove the virus-laden droplets from the indoor environment where they were exhaled,” says Lidia Morawska at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, who thinks much more needs to be done to prevent the spread of covid-19 via air. When infected people cough, sneeze, shout, sing, talk or even just breathe, they emit droplets containing the coronavirus into the air. The closer you are to them, the more likely these droplets are to end up in your eyes, nose or mouth. This much everyone agrees on. In January, 10 people from three different groups became infected after eating at a restaurant in Guangzhou, China. It is thought the air flow from an air conditioner blew droplets from an infected person to nearby tables. And in March, a single person infected at least 32 of the 61 people at a choir practice in a small church in Washington state, according to a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The choristers say they used hand sanitiser, didn’t touch and tried to maintain social distancing.
5-14-20 How fear and anger change our perception of coronavirus risk
A behavioral scientist discusses the role of emotions in assessing risks and making decisions. Even as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in many places, some U.S. states are starting to relax social distancing guidelines. With public health experts often disagreeing with politicians pushing for reopening, in many cases individuals may decide for themselves when and how to return to society. To be clear, for many people, the decision to re-enter society isn’t much of a choice. As states reopen businesses, furloughed workers no longer eligible for unemployment are returning to work for a paycheck. The public overall remains wary of frequenting businesses, with 44 percent saying they would be uncomfortable visiting a grocery store and 78 percent saying they would be uncomfortable eating at a restaurant, according to a Washington Post–University of Maryland poll released earlier this month. Those numbers break down along partisan lines, with Republicans more comfortable than Democrats with increased social interaction. For instance, just 10 percent of Democrats said they would be comfortable eating out at a restaurant compared with 36 percent of Republicans. Some of the partisan divide could come down to emotions. People who respond to threats with anger, for instance, tend to downplay risks and resist risk-reduction policies — sentiments that have been playing out at “reopening” rallies. Those attending such rallies have often expressed anger and frustration at states’ stay-at-home orders, with President Donald Trump this month tweeting, “These are very good people, but they are angry.” And a second Washington Post–University of Maryland poll, released May 13, found that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were much less worried about becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 than Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents — 44 percent compared with 68 percent.
5-14-20 Ancient Tap O' Noth hillfort in Aberdeenshire one of 'largest ever'
A hillfort in Aberdeenshire is one of the largest ancient settlements ever discovered in Scotland, researchers have said. University of Aberdeen archaeologists say 4,000 people may have lived in more than 800 huts perched high on the Tap O' Noth near Rhynie. Many had thought it dated from the Bronze or Iron Age. The team said carbon dating suggested it was likely to be Pictish, dating back as far as the third century AD. They believe at its height it may have rivalled the largest known post-Roman settlements in Europe. Archaeologists from the university have conducted extensive fieldwork in the surrounding area since 2011. Prof Gordon Noble, who led the research, described the discovery that activity at the site extended into the Pictish period as the most surprising of his career. "I was absolutely stunned when I read the results," he said. "We took samples from the site really just to begin placing the important discoveries we have made at Rhynie over the last few years in a broader geographical context. The results of the dating were simply incredible. "The Tap O' Noth discovery shakes the narrative of this whole time period. If each of the huts we identified had four or five people living in them then that means there was a population of upwards of 4,000 people living on the hill. "It is truly mind-blowing and demonstrates just how much we still have to learn about settlement around the time that the early kingdoms of Pictland were being consolidated." Aberdeenshire Council leader Jim Gifford said: "This find of historic importance will be of huge significance. "I am hopeful that once restrictions start to be lifted, and of course when it is safe to do so, visitors from far and wide will flock to Aberdeenshire to explore this find."
5-14-20 Covid antibody test a 'positive development'
A test to find out whether people have been infected with coronavirus in the past has been approved by health officials in England. Public Health England said the antibody test, developed by Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, was a "very positive development". The blood test looks for antibodies to see if a person has already had the virus and might now have some immunity. Until now, officials have said such tests are not reliable enough. The government previously spent a reported £16m buying antibody tests which later proved to be ineffective. Sources told the BBC the Roche test was the first one to offer serious potential. Antibodies are made by our immune system as it learns to fight an infection. Finding antibodies that attack the coronavirus show that person has been infected in the past, but they do not prove they are protected against it in the future. Experts at the government's Porton Down facility evaluated the Roche test last week, Public Health England said. Roche found that if someone had been infected, it gave the correct result 100% of the time. If someone had not caught coronavirus then it gave the correct result more than 99.8% of the time. It means fewer than two in 1,000 healthy people would be incorrectly told they had previously caught the coronavirus. Health minister Edward Argar said the tests would mainly be used on those in the NHS and social care settings to begin with. He could not give an exact date for when the testing could start. Prof John Newton, national coordinator of the UK coronavirus testing programme, said: "This is a very positive development because such a highly specific antibody test is a very reliable marker of past infection. "This in turn may indicate some immunity to future infection, although the extent to which the presence of antibodies indicates immunity remains unclear." Roche is understood to be in talks with the Department of Health and Social Care about possible use by the NHS in England, though other testing products are also being assessed.
5-14-20 The strange conflation of masks and masculinity
Why even traditionalists should have no problem with the practice. That the coronavirus pandemic would be shoehorned into our perpetual culture war was all but inevitable, but that masks would be a major point of contention has come as a surprise. That they would occasion a new discussion of masculinity is a stranger plot twist still. The advice of wearing a mask in public to limit COVID-19's spread may be the most innocuous of the standard retinue of mitigation efforts: It doesn't interfere with our work or limit our movement, keep us from worship or separate us from extended family. In many places, you can get a mask for free. And as it reassures strangers we're acting responsibly, masking is a step, however counterintuitive, toward normalcy. Yet since masks became widely used, they acquired symbolic meaning for their skeptics. Among those skeptics is R.R. Reno, the editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, who argued masking signals unmanly cowardice. There are two grounds on which to reject Reno's framing, which lionized President Trump and a group of elderly World War II veterans who met with the president last week, none of them masked. The first is a bare accounting of the real rationale behind masking: It is a precaution we take not for our own safety but because it eases others' minds and may help to keep them healthy. This allows us to avoid hysteria and return to more usual habits of life. Though some may be misinformed about this rationale, and though the evidence for the value of masking is not unassailable, the reason masking is being promoted is not about "terror" for oneself, the mask-wearer. It is an act of care for others. (It is also not expected in outdoor spaces where social distance can be maintained — like going for a run on an empty street, or the apparent arrangement of Trump's meeting with the vets.) The more interesting conversation Reno raised is about masculinity: Is it unmanly to wear a mask? Though he was more explicit and accusatory than some, Reno isn't the first to connect masks and masculinity. Trump's refusal to wear a mask has been widely read as a statement about manliness by his supporters and critics alike. Masking "looks weak — especially for men," an Arizona protester declared. One Federalist piece said Trump in a mask would be a "searing image of weakness," and another satirically derided the "fragile masculinity" of any public figure who isn't constantly masked. The charge of "fragile masculinity" has been leveled sincerely as well. Trump's "warrior" rhetoric, his reported assertion that masking would "send the wrong message," and his long record of attention to the perceived manliness of himself and his political opponents all serve as suggestions he won't wear a mask because it doesn't feel macho. "[A]ppearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: Show no weakness," argued a social scientist in Scientific American. "In short, wearing a mask emasculates."
5-14-20 The conservative victimhood complex has made America impossible to govern
It's an obstacle to fighting coronavirus or any other crisis. The United States has had the worst national response to the coronavirus pandemic among rich nations largely because President Trump is an incompetent leader whose narcissism means he can focus on little beyond his own approval ratings. From the start of the crisis to today, he has completely failed to take the virus seriously, and refused to do anything meaningful to stop it. It was his job to protect America, and he can't do the job. But Trump's appalling failure is only the most visible part of a vast ocean of right-wing dysfunction. For conservative zealots and media figures, the pandemic is quickly becoming just another culture war battleground — an axis of postmodern symbolic conflict, another vent for bottomless grievance, and fuel for a screeching victimhood complex. The practical effect will be to fuel infection and hamstring economic recovery. It's a stark obstacle before fixing this or any other crisis. Let's take mask-wearing. As research about the coronavirus has developed, the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of the disease has become clear, above all in confined indoor spaces. Studies have found that being outdoors is relatively low-risk, and most infections happen when people are in proximity to each other indoors for a long time — but also that masks can drastically reduce the possibility of infecting others if you happen to be contagious. Offices, public transportation, stores, restaurants, church services, and especially homes are where most transmission happens. Wearing a mask whenever one is indoors around strangers is a cheap and no-consequence way of protecting one's community — even if it only helps a little, it's a minuscule inconvenience. Yet a developing narrative on the right holds that masks are a sign of weakness and cowardice. Trump refuses to wear one even to set an example, reportedly because he thinks it will make him look bad. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) refuses to wear one even though it is not clear he is permanently immune after recovering from the disease. Vice President Pence refused to wear one even while visiting COVID-19 patients. On Fox News, Laura Ingraham defended Pence from critics, saying "They'll say this whole mask thing is settled science just like they do with climate change. Of course, it's not and they know it," despite having previously endorsed wearing them. (Naturally, after two cases of coronavirus cropped up in the White House last week, all staffers are now required to wear masks when in the building.) Further down the conservative food chain, anti-mask fulmination has gotten more extreme and much weirder. First Things editor R.R. Reno claimed on Twitter that "Masks=enforced cowardice." A city order in Stillwater, Oklahoma requiring masks in businesses was quickly reversed when conservative lunatics threatened violence against workers trying to enforce the rule. The conservative base is taking the elite cue — in a recent poll, just 47 percent of Republicans report wearing masks in public, against 69 percent of Democrats. At New York, Ed Kilgore reports that in a suburban Georgia grocery store, conservatives glared daggers at him for wearing a mask.
5-14-20 Shock therapy temporarily improves woman’s colour blindness
A shock of electricity to the temples can be a powerful, last-resort treatment for some people who have mental health conditions that don’t respond to other treatments. But it can have surprising side effects – it seems to have improved the colour vision of a woman with colour blindness in the hours after each treatment. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can be recommended for people with severe depression, schizophrenia or mania. The procedure typically involves giving someone anaesthesia and a muscle relaxant, before applying a pulse of electric current to one or both sides of the head. The pulse lasts for between 6 and 8 seconds, during which time it triggers brain seizures, says Kristian H. Reveles Jensen at the Psychiatric Centre Copenhagen in Denmark. Jensen and his colleagues offered this treatment to a 30-year-old woman experiencing severe symptoms of post-natal depression. Since the woman had given birth six months previously, she had been experiencing symptoms of depression. Group therapy, speech therapy and anti-depressant drugs didn’t improve her symptoms, and the woman was hospitalised when she started having suicidal urges. Even then, she continued to deteriorate, says Jensen. “She was experiencing sleep disturbance, low mood, shame, feelings of inadequacy – the classic symptoms of depression,” he says. “She was in quite a lot of distress.” The woman accepted the offer of ECT, and underwent a series of treatments. After her sixth, she mentioned in passing to one of the nurses that her colour vision seemed to have changed. The woman, who was red-green colour blind, said she was able to pick out red berries in a green bush for the first time, says Jensen. The effect was only temporary. After a morning treatment, the woman could experience these colours in the afternoon and evening. But when she woke up the next morning, she once more found it difficult to distinguish red and green, says Jensen. To find out if the woman’s colour perception was changing in a measurable way, Jensen and his colleagues administered a classic test for red-green colour blindness. The Ishihara test involves presenting images made up of coloured dots in shades of red and green, and asking a person to pick out a pattern among the dots.
5-14-20 A gene variant partly explains why Peruvians are among the world’s shortest people
A common variation in DNA reduces some people's height by about 2 centimeters, on average. Nearly 4,000 common variations in DNA are known to affect height, with each one nudging stature up or down a millimeter or so. But a gene variant found in almost 5 percent of Peruvians reduces height by 2.2 centimeters, on average. That’s the biggest effect on stature recorded to date for a common version of a gene. Some rare variations in DNA have much larger effects on height, but they tend to be found in less than 1 percent of people. People who carry two copies of the gene variant — one inherited from each parent — are, on average, about 4.4 centimeters shorter than the average height of people who don’t carry the variant, researchers report May 13 in Nature. The finding partially explains why the Peruvian people are among the shortest in the world. Men average 165.3 centimeters (about 5 feet, 4 inches) tall and women 152.9 cm (about 5 feet) tall. The variant is located in the gene known as fibrillin 1, or FBN1, which produces a protein involved in forming bone, connective tissues, skin and other tissues. Some rare FBN1 variations lead to Marfan syndrome, a disorder that leads people to be tall, lanky and prone to heart and blood vessel ruptures and other health problems (SN: 6/25/08). “But those 5 percent of Peruvians who carry [this common variant] are not sick by any pathological definition,” says statistical geneticist Samira Asgari of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Asgari and colleagues found evidence that natural selection has favored the short-stature variant, although exactly what evolutionary advantage it gives the Peruvians who carry it is not clear.
5-14-20 New hybrid embryos are the most thorough mixing of humans and mice yet
Chimeras could usher in a deeper understanding of how cells build bodies. Scientists have made embryos that are a lot mouse and a little bit human. With a little help, human stem cells can knit themselves into growing mouse embryos, populating the developing liver, heart, retina and blood, researchers report May 13 in Science Advances. Finicky human cells don’t tend to grow well in other animals. But in one of the new mouse embryos, 4 percent of its cells were human — the most thorough mixing between human and mouse yet. That level of integration is “quite striking to me,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a stem cell and developmental biologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. If other scientists can replicate the findings, “it potentially represents a major advance,” says Izpisua Belmonte, who was not involved in the study. Such chimeras could help reveal how a single cell can give rise to an entire organism. More humanized animals could also prove valuable in studying diseases such as malaria that affect people more than other animals. And with more advances, chimeras could ultimately turn out to be a source of human organs. Many scientists have hit roadblocks in growing human stem cells in mice or other animals, including pigs and cows (SN: 1/26/17). “We have analyzed thousands of embryos but never saw robust chimeric contribution” of human stem cells to mouse embryos beyond day 12, says stem cell and developmental biologist Jun Wu of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who wasn’t involved in the study. The new method’s success comes down to timing, says neuroscientist and stem cell biologist Jian Feng. To grow and thrive in a mouse embryo, human stem cells’ developmental clocks must be turned back to an earlier phase called the naïve stage. “You need to basically push the human cells back” to that phase, says Feng, of the University at Buffalo in New York.
5-13-20 Mouse embryos that are 4 per cent human are step towards spare organs
Biologists have created mouse-human chimeras whose bodies were composed of up to 4 per cent human cells when the early embryos were destroyed after 17 days. The highest proportion previously achieved is around 0.1 per cent. The reason for creating the chimeras is to find ways to grow organs for people who need transplants, says Jian Feng at the University at Buffalo in New York. Feng’s team injected around 10 human stem cells into 3.5-day-old mouse blastocysts, bundles of many cells. The human cells contributed to all kinds of tissues in the developing mouse embryo, including forming eye, liver and red blood cells. In one mouse embryo, around 4 per cent of all the cells were human. The proportion probably varied from tissue to tissue, but the team didn’t look at the proportion in specific tissues such as the brain. “My immediate reaction is ‘wow’,” says Pablo Ross at the University of California, Davis. “This is great if we want to generate human organs in animals.” Previous studies have shown that the reason why attempts to create mouse-human chimeras haven’t been very successful is that human stem cells are in a more developmentally advanced “primed” state, whereas the mouse stem cells are in a “naive” state. If mouse stem cells in a primed state are added to a mouse blastocyst, many of the embryos end up dying, just as when human stem cells are added. Feng’s team has found a way to make human stem cells revert to the naive state by inhibiting a molecule called mTOR kinase for 3 hours. Another reason for their success, says Feng, is that the ethics committee allowed the team to let the embryos grow for 17 days, a week longer than most previous studies. Such chimeras aren’t allowed to develop longer because of concern that they are more human than normal mice.
5-13-20 Millions of us take drugs for high blood pressure – is it worth it?
Hypertension affects one in four adults and is usually treated with medication, even though lifestyle changes can reduce blood pressure. Here's what you need to know. LAST year, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension. “Why me?” I asked. “I exercise regularly, I’m not overweight, I don’t smoke and I don’t drink excessively. I even meditate.” At first, I doubted the diagnosis. Admittedly, my blood pressure had been up in a routine consultation. But when I monitored it at home over the following week, the measurements differed every time, even from one minute to the next. Besides, the average of these readings wasn’t much above the normal range. Yet my doctor had recommended pills to bring the pressure down. Why act on such shifting figures? How do the pills work? Are they safe? Is high blood pressure really a problem anyway? And, again, why me? Now I know that hypertension increases the risk of death from covid-19, I am even more motivated to get to the bottom of it. And I am surely not alone. One in four adults have high blood pressure – that is some 16 million people in the UK and around a billion worldwide – and, globally, its prevalence is rising, especially in the developing world. It is linked with stress and occurs more often among certain groups of people, including smokers, heavy drinkers and those who are pregnant, inactive or overweight. But there is so much about this common condition that remains a mystery, even to people diagnosed with it. That wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted answers, so I decided to look into it myself. The first thing I discovered was that the quest to quantify blood pressure has a colourful history. English physician William Harvey established that the heart pumps blood around the body in 1628, but it would be a century before another Englishman, clergyman Stephen Hales, became the first to successfully measure the pressure of the blood in the circulatory system. He took a simple and direct approach, inserting a brass pipe into a horse’s femoral artery and connecting it to a tall vertical glass tube. The column of blood went up almost 2.5 metres. The horse died, of course.
5-13-20 The new COVID-19 drug remdesivir is here. Now what?
Short supplies and limits on who qualifies mean more options are needed to end the pandemic. Though remdesivir, a new treatment for COVID-19, has been hailed as a game changer, most people sick with the coronavirus will have to recover or die without getting the drug. “Everyone won’t be able to get it, because there just isn’t enough of it at this point in time,” says Raymond Woosley, a cardiologist and clinical pharmacologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix. Supplies are limited and the federal government is asking state health departments to distribute the drug to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Vials of the still-experimental medication have been distributed to 13 states so far. But the Infectious Diseases Society of America has warned that tens of thousands of people each month may need the treatment throughout the summer. Remdesivir shortened recovery time for seriously ill patients by four days in a clinical trial comparing the drug with a placebo. Those results were considered so promising that a safety oversight committee stopped the clinical trial early to give people taking the placebo a chance to get the drug. Remdesivir will become the standard of care for the coronavirus, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted at a news conference at the White House on April 29 announcing the results (SN: 4/29/20). On May 1, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization, allowing remdesivir to be used for hospitalized people with confirmed cases of COVID-19, whose blood oxygen levels fall to 94 percent or lower. Remdesivir is an antiviral drug that works by mimicking building blocks of the coronavirus’s genetic material, RNA. As the virus copies its RNA, remdesivir takes the place of some building blocks, stopping or slowing viral replication. In laboratory and animal tests, remdesivir has been effective against a wide variety of coronaviruses, and human trials showed that it helped some people survive Ebola (SN: 3/10/20). Now, the new trial suggests the drug can also fight SARS-CoV-2 infections.
5-13-20 What the latest research suggests about the coronavirus in pregnancy
A GROWING number of case studies suggest that, while pregnant people don’t seem to be at greater risk of the coronavirus, covid-19 is linked to a higher rate of caesareans and preterm births, and the virus may be able to cross the placenta to a fetus. In March, the UK government classed pregnant people as “vulnerable” as a precaution. Back then, much of what we knew about covid-19 in pregnancy came from data from only around 20 pregnancies, but it didn’t look like the virus could pass from a woman to a fetus. As more cases are collected, the picture is beginning to change. So far, several hundred births affected by covid-19 have been reported. Based on these, many doctors and researchers say they are relieved to see that covid-19 doesn’t appear to be as deadly in pregnancy as SARS, which killed a quarter of the pregnant women who had it. In fact, the virus doesn’t seem to produce any symptoms at all in most pregnant women. When a team at a New York medical centre administered a test to 215 women who gave birth over a two-week period, it found that four women with a fever or other symptoms tested positive for the coronavirus, but so did 29 women who had no symptoms whatsoever (NEJM, doi.org/ggr28f). Research seems to suggest that pregnant people are at no greater risk than the general population when it comes to catching the virus or developing a severe illness. But some pregnant women have become very sick, and some have died. Marian Knight at the University of Oxford and her colleagues have collected data from 427 pregnant women admitted to UK hospitals with covid-19. Of these, three have died with the virus, while another nine remain in critical care. We won’t know how the risk to pregnant women compares with the general population until we have been able to compare pregnant and non-pregnant people of similar ages and backgrounds, says Sonja Rasmussen at the University of Florida.
5-13-20 Kids can develop severe complications from COVID-19 in rare cases
A severe inflammatory syndrome may also be related to a coronavirus infection. Although severe illness with COVID-19 remains rare among children, they are not immune from life-threatening complications. And an emerging inflammatory syndrome may also be connected to the coronavirus. New York has 93 children with the syndrome, called pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome, which appears to be related to having had COVID-19. Three children have died, and two more deaths are being investigated, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a news conference May 10. Physicians are also reporting children with the syndrome — which occurs four to six weeks after an infection — in a few other states as well as some European countries. Symptoms of the inflammatory illness include a persistent high fever, low blood pressure and abdominal pain. The illness can look similar to other inflammatory conditions in children, including toxic shock syndromes and Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation in the blood vessels. Overall, though, severe illness has been less frequent in children than adults with COVID-19, researchers say. A study that looked at 46 North American pediatric intensive care units from March 14 to April 3 documented just 48 children with COVID-19 admitted for intensive care at 14 of the hospitals. The kids were largely in the age range of 4 to 16, and some became very sick. Thirty-five of the children had respiratory symptoms, with 18 needing ventilation, researchers report May 11 in JAMA Pediatrics. Seventeen became critically ill, developing respiratory failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome, severe inflammatory symptoms, multi-organ failure or several of these complications. Forty of the children had underlying medical conditions, such as cancer or obesity (SN: 4/22/20).
5-13-20 How accurate are the results from self-testing for covid-19 at home?
IN THE UK, essential workers are now among those being sent home testing kits for coronavirus. This involves swabbing the inside of your own nose and the back of your throat, but how useful are the results? Studies from early in the outbreak in China have suggested that swabs taken by healthcare professionals may give a 30 per cent “false negative” rate, where infected people are told they don’t have the virus (NEJM, doi.org/ggmzsp; medRxiv, doi.org/dvfr). This has prompted claims that self-testing will give even more false negatives and could raise the risk of infected people spreading the virus. No test is perfect – swabbing technique and analysis errors can lead to inaccurate results. There is no defined false negative level at which covid-19 tests become worthless. “It depends what question you’re asking,” says Graham Cooke at Imperial College London. On a national level, false negatives matter less, as testing can still give a useful indication of the rates and levels of infection, providing the false negative rate isn’t too high. False negatives are more of a concern at the individual level. In a hospital setting, if someone tests negative for coronavirus but is showing the symptoms, doctors will weigh up whether they think the person should still be placed in a covid-19 ward. “If you’re confident someone’s got covid, you would still ignore a negative,” says Cooke. However, false negatives in infected but symptomless people are more of an issue, as they may encourage changes in behaviour that spread the virus. If trained healthcare workers get a 30 per cent false negative rate when administering tests, how bad might self-testing be? There is reason for optimism. Yi-Wei Tang at Cepheid, a diagnostics company in California, says the false negative rate of around 30 per cent recorded early in China’s outbreak may have been higher than it is now. For instance, he says, throat swabs were initially recommended. We now know these aren’t as effective as nasal swabs.
5-13-20 Cheap and easy $1 coronavirus test to undergo trials in Senegal
TRIALS to develop a $1 covid-19 testing kit that produces results in less than 10 minutes are under way in Senegal. If it works, the test could be a vital tool in sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers at DiaTropix, an infectious disease testing facility run by the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, are working alongside UK-based company Mologic to manufacture the diagnostic kits. The prototype is similar to a home pregnancy kit and can be used either to detect current infections through saliva antigens or previous infections by blood antibodies. The institute says it could be rolled out next month if the trials show it works well enough. Amadou Sall, director of the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, said that 500 to 1000 tests a day could be analysed at the facility and that up to 4 million could be made annually. “There is no need for a highly equipped lab,” he says. “It is a simple test that can be done anywhere.” Most coronavirus tests use a technique called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to detect sequences of viral RNA. Each test costs hundreds of dollars and takes several hours to process using sophisticated equipment. The team behind the new pocket-sized test say it would be much cheaper and easier to distribute across sub-Saharan Africa. “Existing systems are not fit for purpose,” says Joe Fitchett at Mologic. Testing regimes that are decentralised and not required to turn a profit are essential to addressing covid-19 and future pandemics, he says. Justine Davies, a global health researcher at the University of Birmingham, UK, says the tests could allow some economic activity to continue in the region while reducing the burden on Africa’s limited health services. “If it is properly validated and found to be reliable, then it could have major positive impacts, allowing contact tracing and limiting the spread of the virus,” she says.
5-13-20 Which countries are the unsung coronavirus stars?
Parts of Eastern Europe and Africa are proving it's better to be smart than rich in the fight against COVID-19. Southeast Asian countries have been the star performers during the coronavirus pandemic. Countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand have managed to contain their outbreaks almost entirely. Almost all Western nations, by contrast, have humiliated themselves. None have bungled things worse than the United States (with the possible exception of the U.K.), but France, Belgium, Spain, and Italy all had terrible outbreaks. Even Germany, which managed to keep mortality numbers low through a combination of advance preparation and aggressive response measures, did not do nearly as well as South Korea. However, it is not only Asian countries that have so far done comparatively well. Many poorer or middle-income countries elsewhere in Europe and Africa have so far managed to avoid shattering outbreaks as well. It's worth considering what lessons might be learned from these neglected success stories. Let's examine the global coronavirus map. Immediately it jumps out that Western Europe and the United States are the epicenters of the pandemic, with major outbreaks still gaining strength in Brazil, Russia, the Middle East, and India. Yet much of Central and Eastern Europe, most of Africa, Central Asia, and parts of South America are doing remarkably well. While the U.S. has recorded over 83,000 COVID-19 deaths at time of writing, Greece has just 152 deaths, Bulgaria 95, Croatia 91, Lithuania 50, and Slovakia 27. In Africa, Egypt and Algeria are the worst-hit thus far, with 533 and 507 deaths respectively. South Africa has 206. But nowhere else on the continent has recorded more than 200 official deaths so far. It's quite remarkable given the limited resources of almost all these countries, weak medical capacity, and the cramped conditions of most of its cities. A few caveats are in order, of course. Poorer countries generally have less international travel, especially in Africa, and hence less exposure to infection from outside sources. Their populations are generally younger and hence less vulnerable to COVID-19. Some of their statistics are probably unreliable, given limited state capacity or corruption. Hotter temperatures and sunshine also seem to slow the spread of the disease somewhat — though not that much, as Brazil and Ecuador (over 12,000 and 2,300 deaths, respectively) prove. Still, cases have been recorded in every one of these countries for over a month, and they surely couldn't be hiding a gigantic pandemic. An uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak would kill thousands of people, and overwhelm hospitals. (Even the much-discussed example of Sweden, held up by lockdown opponents as an alternative approach, has 3,300 deaths, a higher per capita rate than the U.S.) It would be too obvious to miss, even in a dictatorship. So these countries are certainly doing something right. It seems that by and large, they quickly implemented the same lockdowns, mask requirements, mass testing, contract tracing programs, and isolated quarantines that Taiwan has done, to the best of their abilities.
5-13-20 Coronavirus will win. America needs to make a plan for failure.
The United States has failed in its response to the coronavirus. I don't simply mean the United States has suffered the world's worst outbreak — by far the most total confirmed cases, as well the most deaths, both figures surely underestimates of the true total — because there are counterarguments ready to hand on that score. The per-capita death rate for the U.S. still trails a host of European countries, including Belgium, Spain, Italy, the U.K., and France, and while many of the worst-hit European countries have seen their death rates plummet in recent weeks, other countries, like Canada and Sweden, have failed to bring their death rates down, and new cases are cropping up in countries that previously had been highlighted for their successful containment of the virus, like South Korea and Germany. The fact is, apart from island nations like New Zealand, we really don't know which countries have done the best job of combating the pandemic. Nonetheless, we can say the United States has failed for a simple reason: We have not done what we needed to do and said we needed to do while we shut down our economy, and now we are reversing course with no coherent strategy remaining for victory. The original purpose of the orders to shelter in place was not to eliminate the virus entirely, but to buy time. Time to slow the rate of infection so our health-care system would not be overwhelmed. Time to expand our health-care system's capacity to handle future surges of cases, and to retool manufacturing toward necessary medical supplies. Time to ramp up a testing and contact-tracing infrastructure that would enable us to rapidly contain future outbreaks without having to shut down much of the economy once again. That time was largely wasted. None of the key pieces of infrastructure are in place to allow us to relax restrictions while still containing the spread of the virus. We have taken an enormous hit to our economic well-being with very little to show for it. So what do we do now? We could extend the lockdowns indefinitely without any clear exit strategy — but eventually we will reach the fiscal or psychological breaking point, if we haven't already, and then we'd be right where we are now but with even greater economic and human costs accrued. We could simply give up the collective fight, and leave individuals to their own devices — but the only way for most individuals to protect themselves is to continue to hunker down, which will turn our still-temporary economic crisis into a semi-permanent depression. Or we could do what we so rarely do in our foreign policy: make a plan for failure. By failure I mean a collective recognition that we will not successfully contain the virus, and will have to learn how to live under its deadly shadow. That requires a strategy, because without one neither our economy nor our society will recover their resiliency. We can reopen the restaurants and the stores, but as we're already seeing in Texas, not enough people will come out to eat and shop in caldrons of contagion. We can reopen the factories, but if workers don't feel safe the result will be rampant absenteeism and even wildcat strikes. And we can let hospitals perform elective surgeries and other non-emergency procedures again, but when people with heart attacks are avoiding emergency rooms, how likely is it that patients will risk their lives to seek non-emergency medical care? A plan for failure would address each of these issues, not with a view to defeating the virus — we failed at that — so much as with a view to keeping our society functioning despite the virus.
5-13-20 Ancient anchovies were huge and used sabre teeth to eat other fish
Huge sabre-toothed anchovies once hunted other fish through the seas. They may have evolved because the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs also wiped out many of the world’s marine predators, providing an opportunity for the metre-long anchovies to take their place. Alessio Capobianco at the University of Michigan and his colleagues used a technique called micro-computed tomography, similar to the sort of CAT scan you might get at the hospital, to examine two fossilised fishes that lived about 55 million years ago. This allowed them to examine the fossils in more detail than has been possible before. They found that both fossils – one found in Belgium and the other in Pakistan – bore many similarities to modern anchovies. But there were two surprising differences: each of the fossilised skulls had teeth similar to carnivores with one long sabre tooth at the front of its mouth, and they were both far larger than modern anchovies. One was nearly half a metre long, and the other a full metre Anchovies today have tiny teeth that are mainly used to eat plankton, but these early anchovies probably preyed on other fishes. The sabre tooth may have been used to trap other fish in the anchovies’ mouths or to stab prey. Capobianco says that they may have evolved to become predators because the mass extinction event about 10 million years earlier killed off many of the other marine predators. “After that mass extinction, there was this juxtaposition of very familiar fishes and completely weird offshoots, bizarre evolutionary experiments,” he says. Figuring out how marine life evolved and adapted around this time period could help us understand how evolutionary processes proceed after a mass extinction event.
5-12-20 Bluetooth may not work well enough to trace coronavirus contacts
The UK’s upcoming contact tracing app aimed at limiting the future spread of coronavirus may not be an effective tool for identify whether users have had close contact with someone carrying the virus, and should not seen as a panacea, according to a study of how Bluetooth signals work in real world situations. The app, which is being trialled on the Isle of Wight and due for nationwide release later this month, was described this week by the government’s covid-19 recovery document as important to boost “the speed and effectiveness” of coronavirus contact tracing. However, Doug Leith and Stephen Farrell at Trinity College Dublin concluded it will be “challenging” to correctly record contacts because Bluetooth signal strength varies so much depending on which way phones are facing, whether a body is between two phones and how much nearby materials reflect and absorb signals. The pair tested four scenarios – walking around streets, at a meeting table in an office, on a train and in a supermarket – using Android phones and a version of Singapore’s tracing app, TraceTogether. Generally, proximity could be established while walking. But at a meeting table, the signal dropped by 38 per cent if both phones were in pockets rather than placed on the table, making it hard to tell if two people had come into close contact. In supermarkets, it was hard to distinguish between two people correctly social distancing two metres apart and two people walking together at a closer distance. On trains, beyond 3.5 metres, the signal strength between two phones counterintuively increased, against expectations. This may be because the radio waves used in Bluetooth can reflect off the metal surfaces inside trains or in supermarkets, making it difficult to interpret the signals.
5-12-20 Loss of smell and taste may actually be one of the clearest signs of COVID-19
Data from a smartphone app for symptoms shows two-thirds of positive patients lose the senses. A loss of smell and taste may be one of the clearest indicators of whether someone has COVID-19, a new study suggests. Researchers gleaned the information from nearly 2.5 million people in the United Kingdom and about 170,000 people in the United States who entered whether they were feeling well or experiencing symptoms into a smartphone app from March 24 to April 21. Some of the app users also reported results of PCR diagnostic tests for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 (SN: 3/6/20). Nearly 65 percent of roughly 6,400 U.K. residents who tested positive for the virus described a loss of taste and smell as a symptom, researchers report May 11 in Nature Medicine. And just over 67 percent of the 726 U.S. participants with a positive test also reported losing those senses. Only about 20 percent of all people who tested negative had diminished smell and taste. Using data from the app, a team of scientists led by clinical researchers Claire Steves and Tim Spector, both of King’s College London, devised a formula for determining which symptoms best predict COVID-19. A combination of loss of taste and smell, extreme fatigue, cough and loss of appetite was the best predictor of having a positive result from the PCR test, the team found. Based on those symptoms, the researchers estimate that more than 140,000 of the more than 800,000 app users who reported symptoms probably have COVID-19. The World Health Organization lists loss of taste and smell as a less common COVID-19 symptom. But the new findings suggest that it should be added to the list of top symptoms used to screen people for the disease, the researchers say.
5-12-20 The great uncertainty
We know less about the pandemic than we'd like to think we do — but we know enough to anticipate dangers and entertain worst-case scenarios. When St. Paul wrote that "we see through a glass, darkly," he meant it theologically: We cannot know the details of God's plan for our lives or human history. But the metaphor works just as well epistemologically — about what we can and cannot know about reality. We aren't blind. We can see and know things about the world. Indeed, we can see and know much more about the world than we could in St. Paul's time, two millennia ago. Back then, plagues would arrive seemingly out of nowhere, perhaps anticipated by terrifying rumors of illness in nearby places. Often these rumors would be spread by visitors from those cities carrying the disease with them. The sickness would ravage communities, leaving death in its wake, with the survivors and the dying alike having little beyond petitionary prayers to protect them. There is less darkness now. We know what viruses are and can test for them. We have a wide range of medicines, though not necessarily ones that can save us from the latest contagion. We can prepare and do things to protect ourselves. We can know that a specific virus is coming and, assuming foreign governments report the information honestly and accurately, know how many have so far died in the places it struck first. But how much more than this can we know? I mean really know, as opposed to the elaborate, mathematically sophisticated guesses we call modeling? Our models are our most powerful flashlights, attempting to illuminate the fog of uncertainty that surrounds us. But a light beamed into the mist only reveals so much. Sometimes it obscures even more by reflecting the light back into our eyes, worsening our blindness. That's why we're told to turn off our high beams, and to slow down instead, when driving through a dense fog. What is a model? It's an attempt to operationalize a series of variables based on published studies, past knowledge, and experience in order to accurately predict the future. The model will also include a confidence (or uncertainty) interval — usually set at 95 percent probability, which is a way of delineating in mathematically precise terms a range of likely outcomes. So a model will provide a mean prediction as well as a range within which the outcome should fall 95 percent of the time. How much light has been shed by modeling the coronavirus? Much less than one might think. Consider an assessment of two academic models of demand for ICU beds in Sweden. One predicted that demand would peak at around 22,000 beds, while the other predicted around 17,000. Meanwhile, the widely trusted Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) anticipated a demand of around 4,400 beds, with a confidence interval between 1,400 and 11,000. In reality, 450 ICU beds are currently being used in Sweden, and the total number has never exceeded 600. That's not even close. The IHME model for the United States has also swung wildly over the past two months. In the early stages of lockdown, the model predicted something on the order of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. Within a few weeks, that number had dropped to just over 60,000, with fatalities predicted to fall to near zero by the beginning of June. Today, the model has surged to 137,000 deaths, with fatalities falling to zero by the beginning of August. (The spread of likely outcomes currently ranges from 102,000 to 223,000 deaths.) All of this variation has taken place within the past eight weeks.
5-12-20 The earliest known humans in Europe may have been found in a Bulgarian cave
Newfound Homo sapiens remains date to between about 46,000–44,000 years ago, researchers say. A tooth and six bone fragments found in a Bulgarian cave are the oldest directly dated remains of Homo sapiens in Europe, scientists say. Until now, most of the earliest fossils of humans on the continent ranged in age from around 45,000 to 41,500 years old. But those ages are based on dates for sediment and artifacts associated with the fossils, not the fossils themselves. The newfound remains date to between roughly 46,000 and 44,000 years ago, researchers report May 11 in Nature. A previous report of the earliest human fossil in Europe centered on a skull fragment from what’s now Greece (SN: 7/10/19). That fossil may date to at least 210,000 years ago, which would make it the oldest by far, but the dating and species identification of that find are controversial. The new discoveries at Bulgaria’s Bacho Kiro Cave have added evidence for a scenario in which African H. sapiens reached the Middle East approximately 50,000 years ago (SN: 1/28/15) and then rapidly dispersed into Europe (SN: 11/2/11) and Central Asia (SN: 10/22/14), the scientists conclude. Except for the tooth, the new H. sapiens fossils were too fragmentary to identify by their appearance. But researchers could extract proteins from the fossils. An analysis of how the proteins’ building blocks were arranged, which can distinguish between various animal species, pegged them as human, say paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and colleagues. Mitochondrial DNA, typically inherited from the mother, obtained from six of the seven H. sapiens fossils also identified the fossils as human.
5-11-20 Longer overlap for modern humans and Neanderthals
Modern humans began to edge out the Neanderthals in Europe earlier than previously thought, a new study shows. Tests on remains from a cave in northern Bulgaria suggest Homo sapiens was there as early as 46,000 years ago. This is up to 2,000 years older than evidence from Italy and the UK. Around this time, Europe was populated by sparse groups of Neanderthals - a distinct type of human that vanished shortly after modern humans appeared on the scene. There's considerable debate about the length of time that modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals in Europe and other parts of Eurasia. This has implications for the nature of contact between the two groups - and perhaps clues to why Neanderthals went extinct. Two new scientific papers (here and here) describe the finds at Bacho Kiro cave. A tooth and four bone fragments were identified as broadly human based on their anatomical features. Helen Fewlass, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues determined their ages using scientific techniques. Their analysis, in Nature Ecology & Evolution, says the remains yielded ages between 46,000 and 43,000 years ago, assigning them to a stage known as the Initial Upper Palaeolithic. In the other paper, published in Nature journal, Jean-Jacques Hublin, also from the Max Planck Institute, and team members, detail features of the tooth that are found in modern humans but are absent from Neanderthals. Furthermore, they were able to retrieve DNA from these remains, demonstrating that they belonged to Homo sapiens and not their evolutionary cousins. Prof Chris Stringer, research leader for human evolution at the Natural History Museum in London, who was not involved with the latest study, said: "In my view, this is the oldest and strongest published evidence for an IUP (Initial Upper Palaeolithic) presence of H. sapiens in Europe, several millennia before the Neanderthals disappeared." The bones were found associated with stone tools and artefacts, such as pendants made from cave bear teeth.
5-11-20 Neanderthals may have learned jewellery-making from us
When modern humans first settled in Europe, they met Neanderthals – and possibly passed on jewellery-making tips. Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues have confirmed for the first time that modern humans were in Europe at least 45,000 years ago. They also suggest that modern humans taught Neanderthals to make necklaces out of bear teeth. The researchers re-excavated Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria, which has been studied since the 1930s. Human remains were found there in the 1970s, but these were lost. Attempts to date those remains gave contradictory results. “It did imply that potentially this was a really old assemblage,” says team member Helen Fewlass. Using new decontamination methods, the researchers dated 95 pieces of bone, identified by analysing their DNA and protein content. Six came from modern humans, and the remainder were animal bones with cut-marks or other signs of human activity (Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1136-3). The oldest human bones were between 43,700 and 45,800 years old. A deeper layer of rock that was 46,900 years old hasn’t yet yielded human remains, but also contained marked animal bones, suggesting humans were present. The dating “reinforces what we thought we knew with some stronger evidence”, says Emma Pomeroy at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Previous signs of modern humans in Europe came from sites like Kents Cavern in the UK and the Grotta del Cavallo in Italy, but these bones were only indirectly dated to about 45,000 years ago. It makes sense that the Bacho Kiro people were there earlier than those in Italy or Britain, says Katerina Harvati at the University of Tübingen in Germany, as humans were coming from the east, so would have reached eastern Europe first. Before humans arrived, Neanderthals lived in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years. When the two met, they interbred. Neanderthals died out a few thousand years later: the last well-dated evidence of their presence is 40,000 years old.
5-11-20 My tween, the big baby
Why your child is regressing — and what to do about it. aby talk is cute — but only when it comes out of the mouth of an actual baby. Preschoolers can get away with it — barely. But when anybody over the age of five does it, it's cringeworthy. If baby talk is your bugbear, it can be hard not to bristle when your "big" kid asks for "a widdle dwink" or comes out with a stream of "goo-goo-ga-ga." But chances are, they're not doing it to annoy you. It's not unusual for children of all ages to revert back to younger developmental stages, especially during times of stress. "This could include talking baby talk, a sudden interest towards a previous lovey/stuffed animal or blanket, thumb sucking, and/or exhibiting other unusual behaviors you wouldn't expect from their age (or haven't seen in a long time)," says licensed clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator Melanie English, Ph.D. The pre-adolescent period in particular can be unsettling for lots of kids. "While children are continuously growing toward some level of independence, there are two big pushes for independence in childhood: toddlerhood and adolescence," says the founder of Your Village Erin Royer-Asrilant, who has a master's degree in psychology and a specialty in child development and family relationships. "These are times when children are feeling compelled at almost every turn to take on more autonomy. But with this push, there is often a strong pull, too." In toddlerhood, there's a big push for independence, which is often accompanied by serious separation anxiety. "They will run off to the slide at the playground only to run back and check in with their parent a few minutes later for a hug or other reassurance," Royer-Asrilant says. "Children want both autonomy and security, so they are constantly working to seek a perfect balance. It's a case of, 'let me do what I want, but also be there for me when I need you.'" For tweens and adolescents, regressing back to younger behaviors is a way of regaining their sense of security while simultaneously undergoing a major emotional and physical maturation, Royer-Asrilant explains. "Adolescence is the real deal — the final growth into adulthood," she says. "It can be pretty scary when it hits." It's also common for pre-teens to feel highly conflicted about growing up, says licensed marriage and family therapist Wendy O'Connor. They may use their "big kid" voice with their peers, but use a baby voice with their parents. "They may be concerned that they will still be treated the same if they grow up, or wonder if they need to use a baby voice to get their way," O'Connor says. "They might even be worried about hurting their parents' feelings by growing up. Guilt around growing up is rarely talked about, but it happens all the time." The good news, then, is that baby talk from kids who left the baby stage a long time ago is perfectly normal. The bad news? It might last a lot longer than it did the first time round. "It's common for pre-teens to display this kind of behavior for a little longer than expected," O'Connor says. "It's not unusual for it to start at age nine or younger, and in some cases it can continue until age 14." Luckily, there are things you can do. First of all, acknowledge that your child is growing up and reassure them that change is normal. "It's good to normalize the developmental stages," O'Connor says. She suggests saying something like, "I'm noticing at times you use a baby voice, and I want to let you know I love you and it's okay however you want to communicate with me… but it's okay to grow up, too."
5-10-20 Florence Nightingale understood the power of visualizing science
She illustrated that simple sanitation techniques could stop the spread of infectious diseases. Victorian icon Florence Nightingale is best known as the founder of modern nursing. But Nightingale, who would have celebrated her 200th birthday on May 12, was also a statistics and data visualization pioneer who sought to illustrate that simple sanitation techniques, such as handwashing, could stop the spread of infectious diseases (SN: 1/5/20). While that’s a particularly timely message given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it wasn’t one widely known, or even believed, in the mid-1800s. Nightingale’s best-known diagram is a variation of a pie chart known as a rose, or polar area, chart. In that diagram, she showed that poor sanitation, not battle wounds, lay behind most English soldiers’ deaths during the Crimean War in the 1850s and that such deaths were avoidable, says statistics historian Eileen Magnello of University College London. It “provided unequivocal evidential data that preventable contagious diseases could be eliminated.” To make the graph, Nightingale used data she and medical staff collected while caring for English soldiers in army hospitals and camps. She observed the soldiers’ horrific living conditions — dirty linens, clothes infested with lice and fleas, and rats hiding under the beds. Far more soldiers, she realized, were dying of diseases, such as cholera, typhus and dysentery, than battle wounds. That graph wasn’t Nightingale’s only attempt at data visualization: She made a series of other charts to help convince the general public, medical staff and lawmakers that sanitation saves lives. In one example, Nightingale showed that soldiers were much more likely to die of preventable diseases than male civilians, even during peacetime. She used a bar chart to show that soldiers, even during peacetime, were dying at roughly double the rate of civilians, due to especially bad sanitation in English barracks.
5-10-20 Philosophy cannot resolve the question 'How should we live?'
Questions about the meaning of life are often misconstrued by those too ready to think of them as straightforward requests for an objective true answer. The question How should we live? is one that many ask in a crisis, jolted out of normal patterns of life. But that question is not always a simple request for a straightforward answer, as if we could somehow read off the "correct" answer from the world. This sort of question can be like a pain that requires a response that soothes as much as it resolves. It is not obvious that academic philosophy can address such a question adequately. As the Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita has suggested, such a question emerges from deep within us all, from our humanity, and, as such, we share a common calling in coming to an answer. Academia often misses the point here, ignoring the depth, and responding as if problems about the meaning of life were logical puzzles, to be dissolved or dismissed as not real problems, or solved in a single way for all time. True, at various times philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle and more recently Mikel Burley have called for a revision of academia's approach towards these sorts of questions, for a "thickened" or expanded conception. But, while improving our awareness of their complexity and diversity, such approaches still fail to address the depth that their human origin provides. The presence of a humanness, or a depth, to these sorts of questions comes not just from the context in which they're asked, but also from their origin, their speaker. They are real questions for real people, and shouldn't be dismissed with a logical flourish or treated like an interesting topic for a seminar. I would laugh if I heard a computer ask How should we live? after beating it at chess, but I would cry to hear a wife ask her husband, on the death of their son, How should we live? Although the same words have been uttered, these questions have a different form: the mother's question contains a qualitative depth, a humanness that isn't there in the computer's question. We must acknowledge this if we want to find an answer to the specific question she asked with such poignancy. The computer is a thing that cannot meaningfully ask those sorts of questions; in contrast, it's offensive to call a person a "thing". Only a human can ask that sort of question within this sort of context. We would hear the mother's words and say that they contain a depth that's revealing something perhaps previously hidden about herself; the computer's question isn't even said to be shallow. It seems to have nothing of that sort to reveal about itself whatsoever, like a parrot repeating the words it has been taught without the complexity of the human context that gives them their usual meaning. This isn't to say that computers won't one day be intelligent, "conscious" or "sentient", or that human language is "private"; it's closer to the Wittgensteinian remark that: "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him."
5-9-20 Door-to-door tests help track COVID-19’s spread in one Oregon town
Surveying neighborhoods directly may give a more accurate view than other methods. Through mid-May, researchers will be knocking on doors in Corvallis, Ore., and asking people inside their homes if they’d agree to a coronavirus test. These door-to-door tests, which began on April 19, may be the first of their kind in the country, the scientists say, and will help determine whether people currently have the virus that causes COVID-19. The tests promise to provide an accurate estimate of infection rates in the college town of about 60,000 people. Preliminary results suggest that approximately 2 in 1,000 people in Corvallis had SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, when they were tested over the weekend of April 25 and 26, researchers report May 7. That rate is lower than estimates from some other places in the United States and globally, and lower than at other time points during the pandemic, but still high enough to be concerned about, the team says. The weekends of testing involve asking families to swab their noses and put the samples into a container on the doorstep, while researchers wait outside at a safe distance. Science News spoke with population biologist Benjamin Dalziel at Oregon State University, one of the researchers leading the study, called TRACE-COVID-19. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. The door-to-door piece is very important. Embedded into the case counts that we get from other projects are barriers to health care, which are numerous and include the ability to access a tent [or] the types of people who will click on a Facebook ad to get mailed a test. That’s a biased sample. The truly representative sample of a community that’s obtained by going door to door is one of the key values of this study. By randomly sampling a large number of individuals — our target is 960 a weekend — you get that representative sample. Each team goes to a single neighborhood, and works that neighborhood for two days. If someone isn’t home, there’s a chance to go back the next day.
5-9-20 A multiple sclerosis drug may speed COVID-19 recovery
Early treatment appeared to boost the immune system’s ability to fight the coronavirus. A drug that boosts the immune system may help some people with COVID-19 fight off infections quickly, at least when taken in the early stages of the illness, a new study suggests. People taking a drug cocktail containing one of the body’s natural immune chemicals called interferon beta 1b plus a combination HIV drug and an antiviral drug took seven days to recover from COVID-19. In comparison, it took people on only the HIV combo drug 12 days to get better, researchers report May 8 in the Lancet. Recovery included reduced shedding of virus, improvements in symptoms and discharge from the hospital. In a previous study, the HIV combo lopinavir and ritonavir was not effective at combatting coronavirus infections in seriously ill people (SN: 3/19/20). In the new research, people who had COVID-19 symptoms for seven days or less recovered quickly, but the cocktail didn’t speed up recovery for those that had been sick longer, the researchers found. The study took place in Hong Kong, where everyone diagnosed with COVID-19 was required to go to the hospital until they were virus-free for two days. All 127 people in the study had mild to moderate symptoms. None were critically ill and none died. (Hong Kong has recorded four COVID-19 deaths as of May 8.) As a result, the findings may not be applicable to more seriously ill patients. But the results do underscore the need to treat the disease as soon as possible, says Warner Greene, a virologist at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco who was not involved in the work. “If you’re going to attack the virus, attack it early before it can get a really big foothold.” Interferon beta 1b is one of the immune chemicals that the body produces to goad immune cells into fighting viruses. SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, contains genes that can hamper the interferon signal. Providing extra interferon beta 1b may counteract those tricks, keeping people from becoming seriously ill, Greene says.
5-8-20 Your free workouts have a cost
The coronavirus pandemic has crushed fitness studios — and created a dilemma for both owners and consumers. ince going into quarantine, I've seen two of my budgets skyrocket: my coffee spending, and the money I put into fitness. With studios in my neighborhood and across the country closed due to coronavirus restrictions, I didn't exactly see that second one coming (admittedly, I could have predicted the caffeine spike). Yet now that I don't go anywhere, I've had far more time and energy to work out — and with all of my regular studios having moved to virtual sessions, I'm burning through my class cards so fast that I'm on the verge of investing in multiple memberships, just to save money. Of course, what would really be the frugal choice would be for me to not attend my virtual classes at all. Not to drop fitness entirely — working out is, with no exaggeration, all that is keeping me sane at this point — but to switch to the plentiful, easily-accessed free workout videos that are offered online. Since the outbreak, many major studios and gyms, including Barry's Bootcamp, Orangetheory, CorePower Yoga, Rumble boxing, Blink Fitness, Planet Fitness, and more, have started offering free daily workout routines on their websites and social media. You could, with not very much trouble, stitch together an entire week of free workouts that would have cost hundreds of dollars before the outbreak. But the real question is: Should you? The fitness industry right now is hemorrhaging money. Last summer, months before anyone had ever heard the word "COVID-19," experts were already warning that despite "a record 71.5 million consumers" who attended health clubs in 2018, the fitness industry could be devastated by a recession. "Consumers are going to be dropping [boutique fitness] from their budget," Kristen Geil, the editor-in-chief of aSweatLife, told NBC News, explaining that such costs are "the easiest thing to cut." And, well, the rest is history. As coronavirus broke out, it left in its wake hundreds of empty gyms and studios; the subscription fitness app ClassPass reports that 90 percent of its 30,000 gym, studio, and wellness partners worldwide have "indefinitely closed their physical locations." For some, it's even more dire: In April, YogaWorks announced it'd be permanently closing its last four New York City locations due to the blow dealt by the pandemic. Gold's Gym, meanwhile, has filed for bankruptcy. Small, independent studios have had to swiftly adapt in order to stay afloat. Blue Lotus Yoga and Barre Studio in Annapolis, Maryland, might be taken as a model for how to successfully transition; the studio closed its doors on March 16 and now streams between 15 and 20 live virtual classes a week in addition to offering an impressive library of yoga and barre videos that you can purchase for $8 each. "It was a complete overhaul of our business model," Blue Lotus co-founder Duffy Perkins told The Week. "Within days, within 48 hours we moved my entire business online."
5-8-20 Brewing beer may be an older craft than we realized in some places
Grain cell changes from malting help identify which ancient populations crafted local brews. Microscopic signatures of malting could help reveal which prehistoric people had a taste for beer. Ancient beer is difficult to trace, because many of beer’s chemical ingredients, like alcohol, don’t preserve well (SN: 9/28/04). But a new analysis of modern and ancient malted grain indicates that malting’s effects on grain cell structure can last millennia. This microscopic evidence could help fill in the archaeological record of beer consumption, providing insight into the social, ritual and dietary roles this drink played in prehistoric cultures, researchers report online May 7 in PLOS ONE. Malting, the first step in brewing beer, erodes cell walls in an outer layer of a grain seed, called its aleurone layer. To find out whether that cell wall thinning would still be visible in grains malted thousands of years ago, Andreas Heiss, an archaeobotanist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, and colleagues simulated archaeological preservation by baking malted barley in a furnace. Using a scanning electron microscope, the researchers observed thinned aleurone cell walls in the resulting malt residue. Heiss’s team found a similar pattern of thinning in residues from 5,000- to 6,000-year-old containers at two Egyptian breweries. The researchers then inspected grain-based remains from similarly aged settlements in Germany and in Switzerland. These sites didn’t contain any tools specifically associated with beer-making. But grain-based residues from inside containers at the settlements did show thin aleurone cell walls, like those in the Egyptian remains — offering the oldest evidence of malting in central Europe, the researchers say. Heiss and colleagues suspect the malted residue from one of the settlements in Germany was beer, because the sample has characteristics of dried-up liquid, such as cracks along its surface. But remains found at other sites may be other types of malted foodstuffs, like bread or porridge.
5-7-20 A game based on Simon shows how people mentally rehearse new information
Newly learned information reverberates in resting brains. A brain at rest isn’t always resting. Sometimes it’s rehearsing information it just learned. For the first time, scientists have watched this mental replay in two human volunteers. These neural ruminations, described May 5 in Cell Reports, might play a role in making a new, fragile memory more durable, scientists suspect. Most examples of mental replay, in which nerve cells fire off signals in a sequence that matches that of the original learning, come from animals other than humans (SN: 10/3/19). But tests of two paralyzed men participating in the BrainGate2 clinical trial offered a way to observe this rehearsal in humans. In the study, electrode arrays were implanted in the participants’ brains and linked to computers, with the goal of developing ways to allow people’s thoughts to control computer cursors and other devices. Two volunteers played a copycat game similar to Simon, in which four colored quadrants, each with a different sound tone, light up in a specific sequence. In this case, participants’ brain activity moved a cursor, copying the sequence. Every so often, researchers sneaked in patterns that repeated more often than the others. Compared with less common sequences, these familiar sequences were more likely to have sparked neural replays in participants’ brains during post-game rests, Jean-Baptiste Eichenlaub of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues found. This replay happened during sleep and quiet resting. During these repeats, the neural patterns corresponding to the Simon pattern stayed the same, but the sequences could be faster or slower than the original. Scientists don’t yet know whether these mental rehearsals actually strengthen memories.
5-7-20 Brain cells reach out to each other through miniature cages
It is easy to escape from confinement if you have a few brain cells. Pictured above are microscopic cages, based on the shape of “buckyball” carbon molecules, which are trapping neurons taken from the brains of mice. The cells have grown long branch-like appendages through the bars of their cages, allowing them to make connections with each other. Trapping brain cells and growing them in this way allows them to be manipulated more precisely, such as controlling the length of their connecting branches, says Aleksandr Ovsianikov at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria. “We can see what changes if we change their geometry.” The buckyball-shaped cages, which are 100 micrometres wide, are made by 3D-printing a plastic-like material. The immature brain cells, obtained from mouse embryos, are forced into their prisons by placing a suspension of the cells over a layer of cages. As the cells descended due to gravity, Ovsianikov and his colleagues bombarded the suspension with sound waves to jostle the cells about. The sound waves were designed to produce quiet spots above the cages, causing the cells to tumble in. Over the next seven days the cells were nurtured in a dish to allow them to mature and grow out their branches. The team’s next step is to investigate if the cells can transmit electrical signals to each other.
5-7-20 A pill for heavy metal poisoning may also save snakebite victims
In mice, an oral medication delayed or even prevented death after a lethal dose of viper venom. Doctors have long sought a “snakebite pill” that can deliver life-prolonging medicine when and where it’s most needed. Now experiments with an existing drug that treats heavy metal poisoning are stoking that dream. Given orally, the drug saved or extended the lives of mice injected with lethal doses of viper venom, researchers report May 6 in Science Translational Medicine. Snakebites kill tens of thousands of people every year, and leave many more with damaged limbs, in part due to difficulty getting quick, effective treatment (SN: 6/26/11). These bites often occur in remote locations, so many snakebite victims may have to travel hours or even days before reaching a medical facility equipped to provide lifesaving antivenom intravenously. Nicholas Casewell, a biomedical scientist at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in England, and his colleagues set out to find something portable and easy to administer that could counteract some of the most widespread and dangerous venom toxins: snake venom metalloproteases. Often a major component in blood-poisoning venoms, like those of many vipers, these toxins cause a suite of issues, including massive internal hemorrhaging and tissue damage around the bite site. The toxins, however, have an Achilles’ heel. “They rely on zinc ions to function,” Casewell says. Drugs used to treat heavy metal poisoning bind up loose metal ions, so the researchers wondered if those drugs could also starve the toxins of zinc. One in particular — a compound called unithiol — did just that. The researchers didn’t give the mice actual pills — the capsules were too large for the small animals to swallow. But oral administration of the liquid form of the drug 15 minutes after venom injection delayed the death of mice compared with mice that didn’t get the drug, and even boosted the survival of some mice. For example, of the five mice injected with West African carpet viper venom and given the drug, two lived and three lasted from 12 to 21 hours, while those that didn’t get the drug died within four hours.
5-7-20 Homemade cultured butter is more buttery than normal butter
Making butter at home the traditional way is easy and the result is far more flavourful than the shop-bought version, says Sam Wong. Have you been using time stuck indoors to master homemade bread? The next step is to make your own butter. Or if you haven’t got into bread, maybe start with butter – it’s actually much easier and the result is much tastier than the shop-bought variety. A century ago, butter was made by leaving milk out in big vats until cream formed on top. This took a few days and the cream would ferment, thanks to bacteria that metabolise lactose to produce lactic acid. The same types of microbes are involved in making kimchi and sourdough bread. Apart from acid, the bacteria produce a range of aroma compounds that make for a more richly flavoured butter. The key molecules include buttery diacetyl, cheesy butanoic acid and peachy delta-decalactone. Diacetyl is added to many foods to add butter flavour. It is also present in some alcoholic drinks, and may help to create the buttery flavour of wines like chardonnay. In milk and cream, the fat is contained within globules coated with a membrane, which allows the fat to remain suspended in water as an emulsion. To make butter, cream is churned, which ruptures the fat globules, allowing the fat inside them to stick together and form a solid mass. Most butter is now made from pasteurised cream using machines that separate the cream quickly, without live bacteria having a chance to add to the flavour. Some restaurants make their own cultured butter, and it’s easy to do at home, using a source of lactic acid bacteria, such as from buttermilk or live yoghurt. Mix 500 millilitres of cream with 2 tablespoons of yoghurt or buttermilk and leave in a covered container at room temperature for at least a day. It will thicken and smell tangy at first, then more pungent, but don’t worry – most of the smell will be in the liquid that gets separated out. Leaving the cream for up to a week gives the butter a slightly cheesy flavour. Before churning, chill the cream to 14 °C so that the butter will be solid, but not so firm that it sticks to the sides of the mixer. Process in a food processor until the butter separates from the buttermilk – this should take up to 3 minutes. Line a sieve with cheesecloth over a bowl and pour in the butter mixture. Wrap the cloth around the butter, squeeze and twist to press out liquid, stopping when butter starts to come through. Dunk the cloth-wrapped butter in a bowl of ice water to chill it for a few minutes, then tip the butter into a large bowl and knead with a wooden spoon to press out any remaining buttermilk and pour away. If desired, add salt, then put in a clean container. The tangy buttermilk can be used to make pancakes, salad dressings or buttermilk-marinated roast chicken.
5-7-20 Egyptian pyramids really were aligned with the compass points
Ancient Egyptian temples and tombs were oriented towards certain regions of the sky for religious and cultural reasons. Many ancient structures are claimed to be aligned to celestial objects, such as Stonehenge. However, most studies of this phenomenon are unreliable, says Fabio Silva at Bournemouth University in the UK, because they don’t use statistical tests to reveal how likely it is that the supposed patterns are coincidences. Now Silva has developed a statistical method that should help identify genuine patterns. Most studies of this nature rely on mapping multiple structures made by a culture, then looking for clusters that may relate to star or planet positions. A 2009 study of 330 ancient Egyptian temples identified seven groups, each supposedly with a different alignment. Yet the clusters could just be coincidences. “What people were doing was creating visualisations of their data, and then eyeballing frequency peaks in those graphics,” says Silva. Silva’s method assumes that the original ground-level data has uncertainties, and introduces more uncertainty when these measurements are extrapolated to the sky. “You then get a region of the sky that is more likely to be targeted by this structure,” he says. “I certainly appreciate the attempt to bring a quantitative analysis into a field which seems to me to be somewhat qualitative,” says astronomer Michelle Lochner at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Silva has applied his method to the Egyptian temple data. Of those seven purported groups of sky-oriented structures, four weren’t statistically significant, and a fifth looks “iffy”, he says. Only two held up. For hundreds of years, many pyramids were aligned to the four cardinal points, although the cultural reasons shifted.
5-6-20 BCG vaccine helps fight infections by boosting immune cell production
The BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) tuberculosis vaccine boosts the production of immune cells, which may explain why it can protect newborn babies from dying of sepsis. Previous studies have shown that BCG vaccination can protect newborns against a broad range of infections beyond tuberculosis, reducing overall deaths from sepsis. But exactly how this works was unclear. “Knowing the mechanism behind this effect will support the use of the BCG vaccine to prevent newborn sepsis,” says Nelly Amenyogbe at the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, Australia. Amenyogbe and her colleagues analysed blood samples from 85 newborn babies in Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Papua New Guinea, half of whom had been vaccinated. They found that, three days later, the newborns who had been vaccinated had about twice as many immune cells, called neutrophils, in their blood. In another experiment, the researchers vaccinated newborn mice with BCG and then infected them with bacteria to induce sepsis. They also infected non-vaccinated mice. Just like the human babies, the mice that had been vaccinated produced about double the number of neutrophils, which then protected them from dying by gobbling up the bacteria that cause sepsis. “There is increasingly strong evidence that BCG, a vaccine designed to work against tuberculosis, has advantageous non-specific effects against a range of pathogens in humans,” says Danika Hill at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, UK. With this in mind, the BCG vaccine is currently being trialled in people as potential protection against covid-19. But “whether BCG, and any potential effect on neutrophils, could be beneficial against [the coronavirus] is unclear and warrants careful consideration”, says Hill.
5-6-20 Common herpes virus causes signs of Alzheimer's disease in brain cells
Mini-brains grown in a dish rapidly develop signs of Alzheimer’s disease when infected with the common herpes virus that causes cold sores. The finding adds to growing evidence that some cases of Alzheimer’s are triggered by viruses and could potentially be treated with antiviral drugs. A major hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is the build-up in the brain of protein clumps called beta-amyloid plaques. An emerging school of thought is that these plaques function as defences against viruses and bacteria that sometimes manage to get into the brain. Herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1), which causes cold sores and stays in the body for life, is one virus that has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. People with HSV-1 are more likely to get Alzheimer’s, and high levels of herpes viruses have been found in the brains of people who died with the condition. To understand how HSV-1 might cause Alzheimer’s disease, Dana Cairns at Tufts University in Massachusetts and her colleagues added the virus to clumps of brain tissue grown in dishes. They made the mini-brains by filling doughnut-shaped scaffolds with human stem cells that were then coaxed into forming brain cells. Within three days of being infected with HSV-1, the mini-brains developed large beta-amyloid plaques reminiscent of those found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The mini-brains also showed other signs of the condition, such as inflammation and loss of brain cells. In contrast, when the mini-brains were treated with valacyclovir, a commonly used herpes drug, they seemed to be protected against HSV-1 damage. This finding lends support to a clinical trial currently under way in the US that is testing whether valacyclovir helps to treat Alzheimer’s disease in people who also have HSV-1, says Cairns.
5-6-20 Coronavirus mutations: Scientists puzzle over impact
Researchers in the US and UK have identified hundreds of mutations to the virus which causes the disease Covid-19. But none has yet established what this will mean for virus spread in the population and for how effective a vaccine might be. Viruses mutate - it's what they do. The question is: which of these mutations actually do anything to change the severity or infectiousness of the disease? Preliminary research from the US has suggested one particular mutation - D614G - is becoming dominant and could make the disease more infectious. It hasn't yet been reviewed by other scientists and formally published. The researchers, from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, have been tracking changes to the "spike" of the virus that gives it its distinctive shape, using a database called the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID). They noted there seems to be something about this particular mutation that makes it grow more quickly - but the consequences of this are not yet clear. The research team analysed UK data from coronavirus patients in Sheffield. Although they found people with that particular mutation of the virus seemed to have a larger amount of the virus in their samples, they didn't find evidence that those people became sicker or stayed in hospital for longer. Another study from University College London (UCL) identified 198 recurring mutations to the virus. One of its authors, Professor Francois Balloux, said: "Mutations in themselves are not a bad thing and there is nothing to suggest SARS-CoV-2 is mutating faster or slower than expected. "So far, we cannot say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious." A study from the University of Glasgow, which also analysed mutations, said these changes did not amount to different strains of the virus. They concluded that only one type of the virus is currently circulating.
5-6-20 Why is coronavirus deadly for some, but harmless in others?
o figure out what makes some people more vulnerable to severe cases of covid-19, we need to rethink what we know about infection. THE new coronavirus has already infected millions of people, but we are still learning about who is most vulnerable to its attacks. It quickly became clear that older people and those with certain underlying health conditions such as diabetes and cancer were at higher risk. But there have now also been many reports of the disease killing young, otherwise healthy individuals. And even among the high-risk groups, the threat that covid-19 poses varies dramatically. What’s more, information from several countries now indicates that people from some ethnic minorities are more likely to die. So are men and people who are obese. Meanwhile, because covid-19 attacks the lungs, we predicted that people with asthma would be among the most vulnerable. But so far, they don’t seem to be in greater danger. Around the world, efforts to quickly identify risk factors have already helped shape public health advice and direct resources. But to understand why these factors make such a difference, we will need to look more closely – not just at the virus, but also ourselves. “The disease is actually just our response to the pathogen,” says Priya Duggal, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. To work out who gets sick and why, we need to understand what happens once the virus is inside us, and the role our genes play in our body’s response. As well as helping us to better protect the most vulnerable, doing so could guide the development of treatments that ultimately let us live with covid-19. We tend to think of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – the spiky 85-nanometre parcel of protein and nucleic acid that causes covid-19 – as if it were its own entity. That’s a mistake, says Reid Thompson, a computational biologist at Oregon Health and Science University. “The host is required for a virus to do its work. If you changed humans into turtles, they wouldn’t be infected with SARS-CoV-2,” he says.
5-6-20 How the covid-19 pandemic has led to a flood of misleading science
Amid the global coronavirus outbreak, a second epidemic of preliminary, unverified and misinterpreted research has broken out. Can it be fixed? SOME people describe it as “havoc”, others as “a recipe for disaster”. Not the effect of the coronavirus on healthcare or the economy, but on something even more fundamental to defeating it: science. Since the pandemic began, thousands of studies related to it have been published. “The research community has mobilised in the face of the pandemic in an unprecedented way,” says John Inglis at academic publisher Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York. But in the race to understand the coronavirus, and amid the cacophony of political messages, inexpert journalists and viral social media messages, a parallel pandemic has emerged – one of rumours, unverified claims and malicious falsehoods. The World Health Organization has described this confusion as an “infodemic”. In particular, the role of preprint servers has been raising alarm. These are online repositories of preliminary findings that haven’t yet been independently reviewed. They were invented because of dissatisfaction with the conventional peer-review model, and to take advantage of new opportunities afforded by the internet. This alternative system of academic publishing has increased in importance and credibility in recent years. It means findings can be shared widely much faster – a useful tool in an unprecedented health crisis. But the pandemic has also exposed the practice’s weakness: anyone can publish anything, with little or no quality control. Preprint servers enable information to “flow directly from people who are making scientific claims to users who don’t have the savvy to evaluate those claims”, says Jonathan Kimmelman, a biomedical ethicist at McGill University in Canada.
5-6-20 Covid-19 shows why an infodemic of bad science must never happen again
Once the coronavirus pandemic is over, we must work out how to stop the spread of poor information that has helped make a bad situation that much worse. THE covid-19 pandemic has upended many of the things that we once took for granted, but perhaps the most insidious is what it is doing to our ability to tell fact from fiction. Science remains the best tool we have – though by no means a perfect one – for creating reliable knowledge. It is playing a central and mostly heroic role in the fight against the coronavirus. Yet it is also becoming hard at times to sort good science from bad, and worthwhile hypotheses from conjecture, hyperbole and nonsense. The result is widespread confusion and scarce resources being squandered. There are many causes of this, but the main one is that masses of people suddenly have access to raw scientific information – without necessarily knowing how to judge it – plus the tools to spread their opinions of it far and wide. This isn’t an elitist gripe, merely a simple statement of fact: becoming, say, an epidemiologist takes many years of education, not a week scanning scientific preprint studies and a working knowledge of spreadsheet graphing tools or Twitter. Posting research to preprint servers is also to blame. Science has embraced them as a way of quickly disseminating preliminary findings. That works well when only other qualified scientists (and science journalists) are paying attention. But when the world is thirsting for knowledge, it can fail. There are no easy fixes, yet scientists are increasingly recognising what is going wrong and taking action. They need help, though. Non-scientists have many roles to play in defeating the virus, but becoming armchair scientists isn’t one of them. If we are to develop, say, a robust testing regime or behavioural science interventions for staying safe, scientists must be allowed to disseminate their findings without fear of being horribly misrepresented or misinterpreted.
5-5-20 Covid-19 news: Europe's first case may have been in December
The latest coronavirus news updated every day including coronavirus cases, the latest news, features and interviews from New Scientist and essential information about the covid-19 pandemic. A man who was treated at a hospital in France for suspected pneumonia may have had covid-19 as early as 27 December, according to a retest of old samples. France reported its first cases of coronavirus on 24 January, and these were among the first that were detected in Europe. World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson Christian Lindmeier has now urged countries to check their records for similar cases in order to provide a clearer picture of how and when outbreaks began. The testing result may not be conclusive however – it could possibly be a false positive. Anthony Fauci, a lead member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, has warned that any easing of restrictions in the US could lead to a “dire” increase in the country’s covid-19 death toll. “How many deaths and how much suffering are you willing to accept to get back to what you want to be some form of normality, sooner rather than later?” he said. India eased some of its coronavirus lockdown restrictions yesterday, despite an increase in new confirmed cases. The country’s strict five week lockdown has particularly affected the country’s 40 million migrant workers, preventing many from working in cities or from travelling home. The UK’s NHS coronavirus contact tracing app is being trialled on the Isle of Wight. If successful, the app could be made available across the UK within weeks, although concerns have been raised over privacy and the ability of the app to detect covid-19 outbreaks. The popular COVID symptom tracker app developed by King’s College London and a team of international researchers predicted two spikes in confirmed coronavirus cases in southern Wales five or more days in advance. Nearly 3 million users regularly report their health using the app every day. The UK government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance has said that face masks could be beneficial in some settings. The UK government does not currently recommend face masks for the general public, in accordance with WHO guidance, but the Scottish government has suggested that people cover their faces in shops and public transport. More than 50 countries including Austria and Germany have made cloth face masks mandatory for the general public in some scenarios including visiting shops or using public transport.
5-5-20 We really do relive experiences from waking life when we sleep
We know that animals replay waking experiences while asleep, probably to help consolidate memories. Now we have the first direct evidence that people do this too. “This is the first time we have shown you can see the same replay in humans,” says Beata Jarosiewicz, now at California-based brain implant company NeuroPace. “The study is unprecedented.” The brain structure known as the hippocampus appears to take a kind of snapshot of the connections involved in a memory, she says, and to reactivate them later to make that memory permanent. Previous work with fMRI scans suggest this kind of replay, seen in many animals, also takes place in people, but fMRI doesn’t have enough resolution to detect the firing patterns of neurons. However, Jarosiewicz previously worked for the Braingate research project, which is developing brain-computer interfaces to help people with spinal injuries and other disorders. As part of the project, two volunteers who are paralysed from the neck down have had arrays of microelectrodes that detect the firing of neurons implanted in the motor cortex in their brain. The implants allow the volunteers to move a cursor on a screen just by thinking about it. In a series of sessions, the team asked them to move the cursor in certain patterns, some repeated many times. Afterwards, the volunteers napped for 30 minutes, while the electrodes continued to record their brain activity. During this time, the neuron firing patterns in the motor cortex associated with the repeated sequences occurred more often than would be expected by chance alone. At present, the implants have to be physically connected to a computer by a technician who needs to remain present while it is being used. This is why the team looked only at what happened during a short nap.
5-5-20 The groundbreaking way to search lungs for signs of Covid-19
When Covid-19 was at its height in China, doctors in the city of Wuhan were able to use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to scan the lungs of thousands of patients. The algorithm in question, developed by Axial AI, analyses CT imagery in seconds. It declares, for example, whether a patient has a high risk of viral pneumonia from coronavirus or not. A consortium of firms developed the AI in response to the coronavirus outbreak. They say it can show whether a patient's lungs have improved or worsened over time, when more CT scans are done for comparison. A hospital in Malaysia is now trialling the system and Axial AI has also offered to donate it to the NHS. Around the world, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are being rapidly deployed as part of efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Some question whether these tools are reliable enough, though - after all, people's lives are at stake. The BBC has asked the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to confirm whether Axial AI's system will be trialled in the UK but has so far not received a response. A stumbling block for the tool may simply be that the NHS is not commonly using CT scanners to make images of Covid-19 patients' lungs. Chest X-rays are much more often used instead. They are less detailed than CT scans but are quicker to do and radiologists can still identify, for example, pneumonia in the images. However, thanks to the pandemic, a few British hospitals are now rolling out AI tools to help medical staff interpret chest X-rays more quickly. For instance, staff at the Royal Bolton Hospital, are using AI that has been trained on more than 2.5 million chest X-rays, including around 500 confirmed Covid-19 cases. It has been running automatically on every chest X-ray the hospital has carried out for about a week, says Rizwan Malik, a radiology consultant at the hospital. This means more than 100 patients will have had X-rays analysed by the system to date, he estimates. In this case, the algorithm is designed to look for possible signs of Covid-19, such as patterns of opacity in the lungs.
5-5-20 Coronavirus: Do not use untested remedies, WHO Africa warns
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning against people using untested remedies for coronavirus. Africans deserve access to medicines that have gone through proper trials even if they are derived from traditional treatments, it said. Its statement comes as Madagascar's president is promoting a herbal tonic for treating Covid-19 patients. The African Union (AU) said it wanted to see the scientific data on the "safety and efficacy" of the product. The tonic, known as Covid-Organics, was tested on fewer than 20 people over three weeks, a presidential aide told the BBC - which is not in line with WHO guidelines on clinical trials. This can be a lengthy process in which a potential drug is tested in four phases, scaling up from a trial on a small number of patients to using it on a population countrywide. Despite these reservations, several African countries, including Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Liberia, have already ordered Covid-Organics, which is produced from the artemisia plant - the source of an ingredient used in a malaria treatment - and other Malagasy plants. Last week, Madagascar's President, Andry Rajoelina, spoke to an online meeting of African leaders about the tonic. Following that meeting the AU asked to see more details about Covid-Organics which could be reviewed by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). In its statement, the WHO welcomed innovations based on traditional remedies and plants but said they "should be tested for efficacy and adverse side effects". "Africans deserve to use medicines tested to the same standards as people in the rest of the world," it added. On Monday, more than $8bn (£6.5bn) was pledged to help develop a coronavirus vaccine and fund research into the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Dozens of research projects trying to find a vaccine are currently under way across the world. Most experts think it could take until mid-2021, about 12-18 months after the new virus first emerged, for a vaccine to become available.
5-5-20 A simple exercise on belonging helps black college students years later
Black freshmen who participated in the training had higher life satisfaction as young adults. A simple, one-hour exercise that helps black students feel like they belong in college can pay off. Even a decade later, students who took the training reported higher levels of personal and professional satisfaction than their peers. The findings, reported April 29 in Science Advances, indicate that benefits from a “social-belonging” intervention endure, says Christopher Rozek, an education researcher at Stanford University who was not involved with this study. Though the study is small, involving a few dozen graduate students from a single university, Rozek says the findings are exciting. “It is the first really long-term follow-up with this sort of intervention.” Black students entering college, who are aware of negative racial stereotypes and are underrepresented in higher education, can experience uncertainty about belonging, says study coauthor Shannon Brady, a social psychologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. That uncertainty can cause some black students to see commonplace challenges — a bad grade or a spat with a friend — as a confirmation of those negative feelings. Consequently, such students become less likely to seek help when needed, which can hurt their academic performance and overall well-being. Social-belonging interventions aim to break that negative loop. In the early to mid-2000s, researchers recruited 92 college freshmen – split almost evenly between black and white students — at a selective East Coast university. Forty-three students in one group read partially fictionalized vignettes from a diverse group of upperclassmen describing how their sense of belonging at school increased over time. The upperclassmen emphasized their efforts to reach out to professors and classmates for help. Participants then wrote an essay reflecting on their own experiences. The 49 students in the control group also read vignettes and wrote an essay, but learned about how upperclassmen adjusted to physical challenges, such as navigating campus and bad weather.
5-4-20 Red light could be used to precisely target rheumatoid arthritis drugs
People with rheumatoid arthritis often take potent medicines that relieve their pain but have damaging side-effects. An alternative approach could see the medicines given in a form that is activated when people shine red light on their affected joints, allowing them to take lower doses. The system has only been tested in mice, so is likely to be several years away from use, but some of the different elements have been shown to work separately in people. In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints, so it is often treated with injections of an anti-inflammatory steroid drug called dexamethasone, which dampens the immune response. But there are side-effects of long-term use, including weaker bones. An alternative would see people have a blood sample taken so their red blood cells could be extracted and turned into a delivery vehicle, an established experimental technique for getting drugs into the body. In this case, the technique would be used to deliver molecules of dexamethasone joined to molecules of vitamin B12, which are then loaded on to the red blood cells by bathing them in a weak salt solution. The person would then need to have their blood cells returned to them in a transfusion. Once in the blood, the drug-B12 compound is too large to pass through pores in the membrane of red blood cells. But if it is exposed to red light, the bond between B12 and dexamethasone is broken. By itself, dexamethasone is small enough to pass out of the red blood cells and enter the blood. The idea is people could shine a red light on their hands, for instance, as this wavelength penetrates about 10 centimeters through flesh. “You want the drug in this place in your body, and that’s where we are giving it,” says Emilia Zywot at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
5-4-20 Coronavirus: A hunt for the 'missing link' host species
It was a matter of "when not if" an animal passed the coronavirus from wild bats to humans, scientists say. But it remains unclear whether that animal was sold in the now infamous Wuhan wildlife market in China. The World Health Organization says that all evidence points to the virus's natural origin, but some scientists now say it might never be known how the first person was infected. Trade in wild animals is under scrutiny as source of this "spillover". But when wildlife is bought and sold in almost every country in the world, controlling it - let alone banning it - is far from straightforward. Tackling it on a global scale could be the route to stopping a future pandemic before it starts. Global health researchers have, for many years, understood how the trade in wild animals provides a source of species-to-species disease transmission. As life-changing as this particular outbreak has been for so much of the global population, it is actually one of many that the trade has been linked to. As the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, told the BBC: "We were preparing for something like this as it's not a matter of if, it is a matter of when." Infectious disease experts agree that, like most emerging human disease, this virus initially jumped undetected across the species barrier. Prof Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London, explained: "We've actually been expecting something like this to happen for a while. "These diseases are emerging more frequently in recent years as a result of human encroachment into wild habitat and increased contact and use of wild animals by people." The virus that causes Covid-19 joins a murky list of household name viruses - including Ebola, rabies, Sars and Mers - that have originated in wild bat populations. Some of the now extensive body of evidence about bat viruses, and their ability to infect humans, comes from seeking the source of the 2003 outbreak of Sars, a very closely related coronavirus. It was only in 2017 though that scientists pinned down the "rich gene pool of bat Sars-related coronaviruses" in a single cave in China. - the possible source of the pandemic.
5-4-20 Coronavirus: 'Missing link' species may never be found
An "intermediate host" animal passed the coronavirus from wild bats to humans, evidence suggests. But while the World Health Organization says that the research points to the virus's "natural origin", some scientists say it might never be known how the first person was infected. It remains unclear whether this host animal was sold in the now infamous Wuhan wildlife market in China. But the wildlife trade is seen as a potential source of this "spillover". Researchers say the trade provides a source of species-to-species disease transmission, which caused previous outbreaks and has been blamed for this pandemic. The WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, told the BBC's Andrew Marr show: "We were preparing for something like this as it's not a matter of if, it is a matter of when." Infectious disease experts agree that, like most emerging human disease, this virus initially jumped undetected across the species barrier. Prof Andrew Cunningham, from the Zoological Society of London, explained: "We've actually been expecting something like this to happen for a while. These diseases are emerging more frequently in recent years as a result of human encroachment into wild habitat and increased contact and use of wild animals by people." The virus that causes Covid-19 is far from the first case of such spillover. It joins a murky list of household name viruses - including Ebola, rabies, Sars and Mers - that have originated in wild bat populations. Some of the now extensive body of evidence about bat viruses, and their ability to infect humans, comes from searching for the source of the 2003 outbreak of Sars, a very closely related coronavirus. It took until 2017 for scientists to discover the "rich gene pool of bat Sars-related coronaviruses" in a single cave in China.
5-4-20 Siblings fighting more during lockdown? Here's what parents can do.
Suddenly you're a full-time referee and there's no escape. eing stuck inside with your kids for an indefinite amount of time due to a global pandemic is stressful enough. It's even worse when those kids can't stop bickering. For many parents, this is the new reality. Siblings, cooped up and frustrated, are fighting more than they normally might, and nobody can escape. "Everyone is around each other much more than before," says licensed clinical psychologist and parenting evaluator Melanie English, Ph.D. "Kids don't have their usual breaks from their siblings during school, sports, or time with friends. They're also likely worrying about when they'll have that back. With all this uncertainty, they may be more moody, sad, easily frustrated, or more emotionally aroused." So, what's a parent at the end of the proverbial rope to do? We spoke to some experts for advice. Give them your attention Sibling rivalry may rear its head as kids compete for trivial things, like toys or screentime. But they might also be acting out for something much more valuable: your attention. Dr. English suggests trying to give them some of your time without distraction to see if that helps diffuse the situation. You might start by asking them directly what, exactly, they need, she says. If they aren't sure, help them identify their needs by giving them some prompts: Are they struggling to focus on school work? Are they worried about COVID-19? Are they missing their friends? Are they bored? Try to avoid lecturing, and just listen. "As much as you want to lecture on problem behaviors and life lessons about the challenges of quarantine on a family, try not to label problems and instead find solutions," Dr. English says. "Saying something like 'we're all stressed out!' or 'this is hard on everyone!' only accentuates and reinforces already negative or fragile moods."
5-4-20 Ancient Egyptians saw the sky as crumbling iron tub filled with water
The sky is an enormous iron container filled with water and chunks of it occasionally fall off and plummet to Earth as iron meteorites. Or, at least, that’s what ancient Egyptians seem to have thought. Iron is a relatively common element on Earth but it was largely inaccessible to early civilisations because it is locked away in ores that require smelting. This may have made the metal seem mystifying to ancient people, says M. Victoria Almansa-Villatoro at Brown University, Rhode Island. The metal’s habit of falling from the sky probably added to its mystique. Although iron meteorites are rare, ancient people took advantage of them to make iron objects. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained a dagger made from meteoritic iron, and the material was also used in ancient China, North America and Greenland. “It is generally accepted that most pre-Iron Age iron was meteoritic,” says Almansa-Villatoro. Some researchers assume it was only about 3300 years ago that Egyptians realised this iron came from the heavens. At that time a new hieroglyphic word came into use that translates as “metal from the sky”. But Almansa-Villatoro thinks the link may have been made much earlier. She examined hieroglyphic records including the 4300-year-old Pyramid Texts, the world’s oldest religious documents, which were carved inside several pyramids to guide the dead king or queen to the afterlife. The documents contain several references to celestial iron: the dead monarch is instructed to enter the sky through its iron doors, for instance, and the Egyptian heavenly paradise – the Field of Reeds – is described as being surrounded by a wall of iron. There are also references to the dead royal becoming clean “in the cold water of the stars” once he or she has entered the sky, and of sailing through the ocean of the sky in a boat.
5-3-20 Social distancing and coronavirus: The science behind the two-metre rule
Ministers are reported to be considering whether to relax the two-metre rule for social distancing in workplaces. It could make it easier for people to get back to jobs where it is not always feasible to stay apart. But a key question is whether that would be safe, given how little is known about how far the virus can spread. A new report by the government's scientific advisers is due to be released shortly assessing latest research into the risks. There is a wide variety of recommendations in different countries, but a simple guide is that the closer you are to someone who is infected, the greater the risk. The World Health Organization says that a distance of one metre is safe, while others suggest 1.5m or 1.8m with the UK opting for two metres. Also the longer you spend in close proximity with an infected person, the more your chances of catching the virus go up. That's why the UK government says that where face-to-face contact is essential, "this should be kept to 15 minutes or less wherever possible". And one leading scientist says that timing can really make a difference. "Spending two seconds one metre apart is as dangerous as spending one minute two metres apart," he says. Surprisingly, it can be traced back to research in the 1930s. Back then scientists established that droplets of liquid released by coughs or sneezes will either evaporate quickly in the air or be dragged by gravity down to the ground. And the majority of those droplets, they reckoned, would land within one to two metres. That is why it is said the greatest risks come from having the virus coughed at you from close range or from touching a surface - and then your face - that someone coughed onto. How conclusive is that? Many scientists regard close proximity and surface contacts as the main routes of transmission.
5-2-20 Coronavirus: US authorises use of anti-viral drug Remdesivir
The US's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorised emergency use of the Ebola drug remdesivir for treating the coronavirus. The authorisation means the anti-viral drug can now be used on people who are hospitalised with severe Covid-19. A recent clinical trial showed the drug helped shorten the recovery time for people who were seriously ill. However, it did not significantly improve survival rates.Experts have warned the drug - which was originally developed to treat Ebola, and is produced by Gilead pharmaceutical company in California - should not be seen as a "magic bullet" for coronavirus. The drug interferes with the virus's genome, disrupting its ability to replicate. During a meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Gilead Chief Executive Daniel O'Day said the FDA authorisation was an important first step. The company would donate 1.5 million vials of the drug, he said. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn also said at the meeting: "It's the first authorised therapy for Covid-19, so we're really proud to be part of it." Emergency FDA authorisation is not the same as formal approval, which requires a higher level of review. The drug did not cure Ebola, and Gilead says on its website: "Remdesivir is an experimental medicine that does not have established safety or efficacy for the treatment of any condition." Gilead also warns of possible serious side-effects. However, President Trump has been a vocal supporter of remdesivir as a potential treatment for the coronavirus. In its clinical trial, whose full results are yet to be released, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) found that remdesivir cut the duration of symptoms from 15 days down to 11. The trials involved 1,063 people at hospitals around the world - including the US, France, Italy, the UK, China and South Korea. Some patients were given the drug and others were given a placebo (dummy) treatment.
5-1-20 Coronavirus: Millions of children risk missing vaccines, says UN
Millions of children risk missing "life-saving" vaccines, the UN has warned, after a "massive backlog" of shipments built up due to the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has had a huge impact on the air industry, drastically reducing commercial and charter flights. Dozens of countries are at risk of running out of vital vaccines, the UN children's agency Unicef says. It wants governments and the private sector to free up freight space. Immunisation programmes are one of Unicef's key activities. The organisation estimates that vaccinations for serious diseases like measles, polio and tetanus save the lives of up to three million children a year. With medical researchers hard at work on a coronavirus vaccine, Unicef says the outbreak is disrupting active efforts against other illnesses. "Unicef is calling for support to unlock a massive backlog in vaccine shipments due to unprecedented logistical constraints related to Covid-19 mitigation measures including lockdowns in some countries," said spokesperson Marixie Mercado. Warning of a "dramatic decline" in commercial flights and the "exorbitant" cost of securing them, she said: "Countries with limited resources will struggle to pay these higher prices, leaving children vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases. "Unicef is appealing to governments, the private sector, the airline industry, and others to free up freight space at an affordable cost for these life-saving vaccines." Last month the organisation warned measles outbreaks might occur as a result of vaccine programmes being delayed by the coronavirus outbreak. Even before coronavirus emerged Unicef estimated that more than 20 million children a year were missing out on a measles vaccine, with the organisation citing scepticism of vaccines as a factor. On Thursday, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg donated $100,000 (£80,000) she won from a Danish charity to Unicef to help its fight against coronavirus. Launching a campaign to help protect children's lives in the outbreak, she said: "Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is a child-rights crisis. It will affect all children, now and in the long-term, but vulnerable groups will be impacted the most."
5-1-20 Australia sees huge decrease in flu cases due to coronavirus measures
Lockdown measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Australia seem to also be suppressing the country’s flu season. Australia’s flu season normally peaks during its winter months, from June to August. But cases often start to build around January, as travellers from the northern hemisphere bring the virus into the country. This year, Australia began with relatively high flu rates: it had 6962 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in January and 7161 in February. However, cases have since nosedived, with 5884 recorded in March and only 229 in April, compared with 18,705 in April 2019. This is despite more flu testing being conducted this year. Australia’s FluTracking surveillance system, which surveys about 70,000 people each week and records their flu-like symptoms, shows that, in the week ending 26 April, only 0.2 per cent of Australians had symptoms. This figure was 1.4 per cent at the same time last year. The sharp reduction in cases is probably due to Australia’s decision to shut its borders on 20 March and ban non-essential gatherings to try to stop the spread of covid-19, says Robert Booy at the University of Sydney. “We’re not importing any flu and anything that stops close contact with others is going to make it harder for the influenza virus to transmit,” he says. The government implemented a ban on non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people on 16 March. This gradually ramped up to a more complete lockdown on 23 March when pubs, restaurants, gyms, cinemas and other non-essential businesses were forced to close. Additionally, very few children have been attending school since mid-March, when states and territories began encouraging remote learning where possible. This is probably another reason why flu cases are down, since schoolchildren are known to be major spreaders of the influenza virus in normal years, says Kirsty Short at the University of Queensland. Covid-19 lockdown measures also seem to have brought an early end to the flu season in Hong Kong, which normally extends to March or April, but this year tailed off in February.
5-1-20 Some existing drugs might fight COVID-19. One may make it worse
In monkey cells, a common cough medicine ingredient stimulated virus growth. Scientists are investigating a variety of drugs, including ones for anxiety and allergies, that might prevent the coronavirus from hijacking different cell systems to replicate itself. But one medicine that patients with COVID-19 may be using to treat a symptom of the disease could make things worse, lab experiments hint. A common ingredient in cough medicines, dextromethorphan, stimulated the growth of SARS-CoV-2 in monkey cells in lab dishes, researchers report April 30 in Nature. Dextromethorphan seems to activate a cellular stress-coping process that is also exploited by the virus for its replication. “We’re not necessarily recommending that everyone stop taking dextromethorphan,” said Brian Shoichet of the University of California, San Francisco School of Pharmacy. This work is only in lab experiments, he noted during a news briefing on April 30. In people, cough suppressants have not been shown to make infections worse. But because the lab results demonstrate “a pro-viral effect, it would be wrong not to highlight it, because it could be detrimental,” Shoichet said, noting that more work needs to be done. It’s “something to look out for.” Shoichet was part of an international team that mapped interactions between the coronavirus’s proteins and proteins found in human and monkey cells. Lung cells produce more of the proteins involved in these viral interactions, the researchers discovered, which may help explain why the virus causes severe disease in the lungs (SN: 4/27/20). Scientists tested a battery of drugs to see if any could interrupt those interactions and limit the virus’s growth. Drugs that have shown some promise in lab experiments involving monkey cells include antipsychotics haloperidol and cloperazine; an anxiety and depression drug called siramesine; antihistamines clemastine and cloperastine; and an experimental drug called zotatifin, now in clinical trials testing its efficacy against cancer.
5-1-20 Men are worse than women at estimating their height and weight
Many of us are shorter and heavier than we think we are, according to a study that compared people’s self-reported height and weight with their actual measurements. James Hodge and his colleagues at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, Georgia, looked at how well people know their own measurements. Many studies investigating the relationship between body size and disease risk tend to rely on people’s self-reported height and weight. This can lead to unreliable data and flawed results. Instead, in this study, the researchers asked 2643 people in the general US population aged between 30 and 65 to give their height and weight. A certified biometric technician then took their actual measurements. On average, men said they were 0.48 centimetres taller and 1.54 kilograms lighter than they really were. Women, on average, said they were 0.16 centimetres taller and 0.88 kilograms lighter than their actual measurements. This may be because people tend to naturally shrink and gain weight as they age, and often don’t know their current measurements, says Ian Stephen at Macquarie University in Australia. “When you’re 25, you learn, ‘Oh, I’m 182 centimetres and 70 kilograms.’ Then, by the time you’re 60, that’s no longer the case, but that’s still what you tell everyone,” he says. Another reason may be that body measurements can vary between instruments or on different days. Also, “there’s an incentive for people to remember the measurement they’re most pleased with”, says Kevin Brooks at Macquarie University. The study found that the shortest people were most likely to over-report their height and the heaviest people were most likely to under-report their weight. This may be due to a psychological phenomenon called the social desirability bias. This effect motivates people to portray themselves in the most favourable light, says Brooks. “Being taller and lighter are generally seen as more ideal, so the further you are from that ideal, the larger your reporting error might be,” he says.
5-1-20 Fossil ‘monster’ looks alien but may be related to primitive fish
A bizarre ancient creature that looks like a sci-fi reject may actually have been a backboned animal related to fish. The claim relies on chemical analysis of fossils of the creature. However, other palaeontologists remain cautious. The animal is called Tullimonstrum gregarium, or simply the Tully Monster. It lived around 300 million years ago in shallow waters covering what is now Illinois. There are thousands of good fossils, all from one formation called Mazon Creek. The Tully Monster had a streamlined body a bit like a worm or fish, with holes resembling gills along the sides. Mounted on top was a horizontal bar, at the ends of which were its eyes. At the back, it had a tail that looked like a fin. Finally, at the front it had a long, angled neck with a pincer-like appendage on the end. The whole animal was between 6 and 35 centimetres long. The animal was first described in 1966, and baffled everyone. “They basically said ‘wow, it doesn’t look like anything we see today’,” says Victoria McCoy at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Later it was variously interpreted as a free-swimming snail without a shell, a worm or a chordate: an animal with a stiff rod along its back. Some chordates, including fish and mammals, are vertebrates, meaning they have backbones. In 2016, McCoy and her colleagues published an analysis of the Tully Monster’s anatomy, arguing that it was a vertebrate. The pincer-like thing at the front was a mouth with teeth, the holes along the sides were gills, and it had a form of backbone. Another study that year claimed its eyes resembled those of vertebrates. However, in 2017 a different group fought back, arguing that many aspects of the Monster’s anatomy marked it as an invertebrate, lacking a backbone, like a snail or worm.