6-30-20 Flu virus with 'pandemic potential' found in China
A new strain of flu that has the potential to become a pandemic has been identified in China by scientists. It emerged recently and is carried by pigs, but can infect humans, they say. The researchers are concerned that it could mutate further so that it can spread easily from person to person, and trigger a global outbreak. While it is not an immediate problem, they say, it has "all the hallmarks" of being highly adapted to infect humans and needs close monitoring. As it's new, people could have little or no immunity to the virus. The scientists write in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures to control the virus in pigs, and the close monitoring of swine industry workers, should be swiftly implemented. A bad new strain of influenza is among the top disease threats that experts are watching for, even as the world attempts to bring to an end the current coronavirus pandemic. The last pandemic flu the world encountered - the swine flu outbreak of 2009 - was less deadly than initially feared, largely because many older people had some immunity to it, probably because of its similarity to other flu viruses that had circulated years before. That virus, called A/H1N1pdm09, is now covered by the annual flu vaccine to make sure people are protected. The new flu strain that has been identified in China is similar to 2009 swine flu, but with some new changes. So far, it hasn't posed a big threat, but Prof Kin-Chow Chang and colleagues who have been studying it, say it is one to keep an eye on. The virus, which the researchers call G4 EA H1N1, can grow and multiply in the cells that line the human airways. They found evidence of recent infection in people who worked in abattoirs and the swine industry in China when they looked at data from 2011 to 2018. Current flu vaccines do not appear to protect against it, although they could be adapted to do so if needed.
6-30-20 Here’s what we’ve learned in six months of COVID-19 — and what we still don’t know
Scientists across the globe are racing to crack the mysteries of the novel coronavirus. Just six months ago, the World Health Organization got a troubling report from Chinese health officials. A mystery pneumonia had sickened dozens of people in Wuhan. That virus, which had crossed from an unknown animal host to humans, has now upended lives worldwide with head-spinning speed. Although virologists had long warned of the pandemic potential of some coronaviruses circulating in bats in China, the virus launched a shock-and-awe attack that researchers and public health workers are still scrambling to understand and control (SN: 11/30/17). That attack has upset everything from day-to-day life to entire economies, and turned the routine — going to school, popping into a restaurant, hanging out with friends — risky. The world today is a far different place than when the first reports of an odd pneumonia in Wuhan, China, made the news. Now countries have begun to reopen, with fingers crossed that they have a handle on the virus, called SARS-CoV-2. Many are quickly learning that they can’t let down their guard. Officials in Beijing, for instance, reinstated a limited lockdown June 13 in the area around Xinfandi market in response to a cluster of COVID-19 cases. And after New Zealand eradicated the virus and lifted restrictions on June 8, officials confirmed two new cases on June 15 in infected travelers from the United Kingdom. Other countries never got their outbreaks under enough control in the first place. For instance, while the increase in COVID-19 cases in parts of the United States has ebbed, the number of infections in other places largely spared in the spring, including Texas, Florida and Arizona, is now spiking. With unprecedented efforts to study the virus and its impacts, scientists have learned an extraordinary amount in an extraordinarily short period of time and overturned some early assumptions. In the beginning, public health officials made recommendations on how the virus might behave and how best to protect oneself from it based on past experiences with two of the pathogen’s close relatives — severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or SARS-CoV, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV. But some of those initial assumptions turned out to be wrong, and there’s still much that researchers need to figure out.
6-29-20 Parenthood alters your personality but you don’t become more mature
Having a baby means new responsibilities, and parenthood should make people more mature – or so the theory goes. In fact, parents’ personalities seem more likely to change in other ways. A study now hints that new mothers become more agreeable and extroverted, and new fathers become a little less extroverted, but more conscientious. Eva Asselmann and Jule Specht at Humboldt University of Berlin studied socio-economic data collected from 19,875 people in Germany who have undergone yearly assessments since 1984. The volunteers took personality tests four times between 2002 and 2017 – during which 6891 of them became parents. The assessments were designed to measure aspects of the “Big Five” model of personality, which captures a person’s openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. A number of studies have shown that people in their 20s and 30s tend to become more agreeable, more emotionally stable and more conscientious. But it isn’t clear why, says Manon van Scheppingen at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “It could be that it’s genetics – that it’s something that happens when the brain matures,” she says. “But we know that the environment plays a role.” Some have theorised that the change might be triggered by becoming a parent, which often happens around this age. “One might assume that the birth of a child relates to an increase in conscientiousness, agreeableness or emotional stability – but we did not find this,” says Asselmann. Instead, it turned out that, in the year before the birth of their first child, would-be parents were more likely to be less open and more extroverted than non-parents. This suggests that they are less willing to try new and potentially risky experiences, but are social and assertive.
6-29-20 Delaying IVF by three months doesn't seem to affect success rates
Women who wait three months longer for their IVF treatment have similar outcomes to those who are treated immediately, according to a study of women who experienced routine delays. The findings are reassuring for people experiencing fertility treatment delays due to the covid-19 pandemic, say the study authors – although other researchers point out that not all people will have the same experience. The coronavirus outbreak has had a knock-on effect on other healthcare services, with many countries cancelling or postponing treatments that are deemed “non-essential”. In many places, this included fertility treatment. On 17 March, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine stated the need to “delay any but the most urgent of reproductive care cases”, while several UK bodies advised on 23 March that all clinics should plan to halt treatment services by 15 April. Given the decline in fertility with age, many people trying to conceive worry that any delay in fertility treatment might lower their chance of having a baby. To estimate the impact of these delays, Glenn Schattman at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and his colleagues compared the outcomes of past cases in which people had experienced delays to their treatment with those in which people had received immediate treatment. Specifically, the team looked at 1115 women who had started a cycle of IVF treatment within 90 days of their initial consultation, and 675 who had begun IVF between 91 and 180 days after the consultation. All the women in the study had low levels of a hormone called AMH, suggesting they had low ovarian reserve, or a small number of viable eggs. Women in both groups were aged 39, on average. Schattman and his colleagues found no difference in the rate of live births between the two groups of women, suggesting that a delay in treatment didn’t affect their chances of having a baby. “These results are reassuring to patients who may feel anxious to begin their treatment and become frustrated when unexpected delays occur,” the researchers write.
6-29-20 Private health insurance is in crisis
Trump wants to take away people's coverage. The pandemic is beating him to the punch. President Trump is entering the full swing of campaign season by asking the Supreme Court to snatch health insurance from tens of millions of people. The Justice Department filed a brief on Thursday arguing the court should strike down the entire Affordable Care Act. This would cause something like 25 million people to lose their coverage, and radically disrupt the employer-based insurance system, which has been overhauled in response to ACA regulations. That decision will reportedly not come until after the 2020 election. But it might not even be the biggest threat to American health care. The coronavirus pandemic is already inflicting spectacular damage to that employer-based system where about half of Americans get their coverage — or at least they did before the crisis hit. Even before the crisis this system was becoming steadily more expensive and rickety with each passing year. If America had any sense, the pandemic would be the death knell of the private insurance industry. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that as of May 2, about 27 million people were likely to become uninsured as a result of losing their employer-based coverage. That number has surely only increased over the following two months — since March, weekly unemployment claims have fallen from nearly 7 million per week to about 1.5 million, but even that is still about four times any pre-pandemic week. And now that the virus is surging and halting or rolling back state re-opening plans, those numbers are likely to increase once again. I would guess that by the end of the year, at least 50 million people will have lost their employer-provided insurance (or nearly a third of the total). A bit less than half of those may end up on Medicaid, and about a third on the ObamaCare exchanges. Meanwhile, insurers are certain to be hit with a huge number of COVID-19 claims. For a while it appeared as though the decline in elective surgery (as people are trying to avoid hospitals if they can help it) would counterbalance the flood of COVID-19 patients, but with the second wave — hospitals are already full to bursting in Houston and Phoenix, and worse is coming — that seems much less likely. So we have a huge decline in the number of people paying insurance premiums, and a likely large increase in expensive, prolonged intensive care treatments. Analysts have estimated that next year private premiums will increase by between 4 and 40 percent, and again, given the second wave, the actual figure will probably be on the high end of that range. Insurance company executives have already promised to soak their premium payers if they end up facing higher costs.
6-28-20 The king who ordered a quarantine 4,000 years ago
Little was known about the mystery disease that was ravaging the ancient kingdom of Mari. But King Zimri-Lim knew the key to stopping it was social distancing — and no small amount of patience. Frantically checking your own condition against the known symptoms of a contagious disease will sound familiar to pretty much everyone in the world right now. And this very type of panic once consumed the ancient realm of Mari. Located in the northeast of what is now Syria, Mari was one of the most prosperous city-states of the 18th century BCE. Its greatest king, Zimri-Lim, extended Mari's sphere of influence by military and marital alliances, built an architectural marvel in his grand palace, and kept the peace along his trade routes. Zimri-Lim also preserved his military, diplomatic, and personal correspondence in a massive archive. More than 20,000 of these tablets — written mostly in Akkadian, the diplomatic lingua franca of the day — were excavated in the 1930s. A number of these letters dealt with the spread and subsequent containment of simmum. Zimri-Lim and his chief wife, Shibtu, exchanged correspondence about how to stop the sickness afflicting their courtiers from spreading. (Of course, some of the details in the scene above are assumed — we can't know exactly what the king said or did at any exact moment that took place nearly 4,000 years ago, and we don't know Astakka's exact role in the court — but the crux of the story is told in these surviving ancient tablets. The pendant mentioned, the gift from Ur to Mari, resided at last report in the National Museum in Damascus.) According to Assyriologist Dr. Markham J. Geller of University College London, simmum, best translated as "lesion," may refer to a contagious skin condition. Assyriologist Dr. Moudhy Al-Rashid observes that simmum could serve "as a label for multiple related illnesses, and as a metonym for such illnesses and/or their symptoms." The Mesopotamians might not have understood "contagion" in the sense of transmission of germs, but they knew it could spread.
6-27-20 Why scientists say wearing masks shouldn’t be controversial
Cloth face coverings help curb the spread of the coronavirus, studies suggest. To mask or not to mask? To the dismay of many public health experts, that remains a question up for debate in the United States even as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that everyone wear masks when in public to curb the spread of COVID-19. But as lockdowns have lifted, many people haven’t followed that advice, and case numbers are rising in some states. In response, some states like California have made wearing face coverings mandatory in public. But in Nebraska, the governor has blocked city- and county-level efforts to require wearing masks in public. Other states, such as Texas, recommend, but don’t require face coverings in public, though some counties within the state are requiring masks. At the individual level, some people have protested that their personal freedoms are being infringed upon by being told to cover their mouths and noses. Others are masking up whenever they leave their homes. Meanwhile, scientists have been collecting data on whether cloth masks worn by members of the general public can cut down on the spread of the coronavirus. Science News rounded up the latest data and talked to experts about how well these masks really protect against the coronavirus. Provided that people wear the masks properly, that is. “At one point, I pulled my mask down below my nose in the video” and coughed, he says. The video showed a jet of air streaming from his nose as he coughed. “I was stunned when I saw that footage,” he says. “I was really surprised at how much air comes out of your nose when you cough.” Now when he sees people with their masks covering their mouths, but not their noses, “I [think] ‘No. Don’t do that. You’re defeating the purpose,’” he says.
6-27-20 Coronavirus: The health claims that won't go away
Reality Check's Shruti Menon takes a look at some of the misleading coronavirus health claims that keep appearing online.
6-27-20 First Viking ship excavation in a century begins in Norway.
Archaeologists in Norway have begun the first excavation of a Viking ship in more than a century. The vessel was discovered in a burial site in Gjellestad in the south-east of the country two years ago. Although it is believed to be in poor condition, the find remains significant as only three other well-preserved Viking ships have been discovered in the country. The excavation is expected to last five months. Knut Paasche, an expert from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research said that only part of the ship's timber appeared to have been preserved, but added that modern techniques could allow archaeologists to discover its original shape. The ship, which is about 20m (65ft) long, was discovered by experts using ground-penetrating radar in 2018. A large number of burial mounds and longhouses were also found at the same time. "The Gjellestad ship is a discovery of outstanding national and international importance," Norway's Culture Minister Sveinung Rotevatn said, according to the AFP news agency.
6-26-20 Millions of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. may have gone undiagnosed in March
A surge of flulike illnesses suggests the virus was already much more widespread than thought. The United States may have had millions more COVID-19 cases in March than previously thought. More than 8.7 million people may have contracted the coronavirus from March 8 to March 28, but more than 80 percent of them were never diagnosed with COVID-19, researchers report June 22 in Science Translational Medicine. Officially, the country has recorded more than 2.3 million COVID-19 cases since January, and more than 9.4 million cases have been reported worldwide since December. The estimate was made using data gleaned from a network that monitors influenza-like illnesses in United States. That network, ILINet, was set up to give public health officials a way to track flu outbreaks. Doctors in some offices across the country report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when patients come in with flulike symptoms, including results of flu tests. Researchers can extrapolate from there what is happening in the rest of the state or country. But the data can also be used to track other respiratory viruses, says Justin Silverman, a physician and statistician at Penn State. In early February, Silverman’s colleague, Alex Washburne, a mathematical epidemiologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, realized that the number of coronavirus cases was doubling faster than expected. So he, Silverman and Nathaniel Hupert, an internal medicine doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, began watching the data on flulike illnesses to see if that information could indicate that the epidemic was taking off in the United States (SN: 2/28/20). In March, a surge in influenza-like illnesses arose, exactly as the researchers expected. In some places, the surge was huge. In New York, for instance, twice as many influenza-like illnesses that weren’t due to flu were recorded in March than had ever been seen in the 10 years since the network’s inception.
6-26-20 Strokes and mental state changes hint at how COVID-19 harms the brain
New clues emerge about relatively rare, but potentially severe, neurological symptoms. COVID-19 cases described by U.K. doctors offer a sharper view of the illness’s possible effects on the brain. Strokes, confusion and psychosis were found among a group of 125 people hospitalized with infections of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind the pandemic. The results, described June 25 in Lancet Psychiatry, come from a group of severely sick people, so they can’t answer how common these types of neurological symptoms may be in a more general population. Still, these details bring scientists closer to better understanding COVID-19. Brain-related symptoms of COVID-19 patients can slip through the cracks. “These relatively rare but incredibly severe complications get missed, like needles in a haystack,” says Benedict Michael, a neurologist at the University of Liverpool in England. So he and his colleagues designed a survey to uncover these symptoms. In April, neurologists, stroke physicians, psychiatrists and other doctors across the United Kingdom entered COVID-19 patient details to a centralized database as part of the survey. Targeting these scientific specialties meant that the patients included were likely to have brain-related symptoms. Of the 125 patients described fully, 77 experienced an interruption of blood flow in the brain, most often caused by a blood clot in the brain. Blood clots are a well-known and pernicious COVID-19 complication (SN: 6/23/20), and strokes have been seen in younger people with COVID-19. About a third of the 125 patients had a shift in mental state, including confusion, personality change or depression. Eighteen of 37 patients with altered mental states were younger than 60. So far, it’s unclear exactly how SARS-CoV-2 causes these symptoms.
6-26-20 Complex cells may have evolved due to a shortage of trace metals
Trace metals like iron and copper became rare in the oceans between 2 and 1.2 billion years ago, after having been abundant for the previous billion years. This decrease may have caused a crisis for the simple microorganisms of the time, ultimately leading to the evolution of complex cells. The oldest known living organisms were single-celled microorganisms called bacteria and archaea. However, nowadays there is a third group of organisms called eukaryotes, which have larger and more complex cells. Many eukaryotes are single-celled, but all multicellular plants and animals, including humans, also fall into this group. The first eukaryotes are thought to have evolved between 1.8 and 1.2 billion years ago, but it isn’t clear why. Trace metals may be the key, say Indrani Mukherjee and Ross Large at the University of Tasmania in Australia. All living cells depend on small amounts of metals like iron, says Mukherjee. For instance, trace metals are used in the enzymes that power metabolism. “Trace elements form structural components of these enzymes that speed up the reactions that actually sustain life,” she says. Mukherjee and Large have traced how the abundances of 12 trace metals varied between 3.6 billion years ago and today, by combining 1500 new analyses with 4147 previous ones. Past levels of trace metals were recorded in pyrite, a mineral that forms in the sea and which traps a range of metals. Levels of metals like iron, nickel and copper were consistently high from 3.6 to 2 billion years ago, but then dramatically fell and stayed low until 1.2 billion years ago. “This was a stressful time for the organisms,” says Mukherjee. To stay alive, Mukherjee suggests, microorganisms started taking other microbes inside themselves – either to store them for later digestion, or as cooperative partners. Some of the key internal structures of eukaryotic cells are known to be descended from bacteria that were once free-living.
6-25-20 Coronavirus: US cases ‘may have topped 20 million’
At least 20 million people in the US may already have been infected with Covid-19, according to the latest estimate by health officials. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the true number of cases is likely to be 10 times higher than the reported figure. It comes as the state of Texas halted its reopening as infections and hospitalisations surged. The US has recorded 2.4m confirmed infections and 122,370 deaths. Some southern and western states have been reporting record numbers of cases in recent days. The University of Washington predicts 180,000 US deaths by October - or 146,000 if 95% of Americans wear masks. "Our best estimate right now is that for every case that was reported, there actually were 10 other infections," CDC Director Dr Robert Redfield told reporters. This was because testing was restricted to people with symptoms and asymptomatic carriers were not tested, he said. "We probably recognized about 10% of the outbreak by the methods that we use to diagnosis between the March, April and May," he said. Dr Redfield said that between 5% and 8% of the population had been exposed to the virus and urged Americans to keep social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands. "As we go into the fall, in the winter, these are going to be really, really important defence mechanisms," he said. Texas, which has been at the forefront of moves to end lockdown measures, has seen thousands of new cases, prompting Republican Governor Greg Abbott to call a temporary halt to its reopening. "This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business," he said. Other states, including Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming, have all recorded record daily increases in the number of confirmed cases this week. More than 36,000 new US cases were confirmed on Wednesday - not far off the record number of 36,426 cases recorded on 24 April. While some of the increase is down to increased testing, the rate of positive tests in some areas is also increasing.
6-25-20 The coronavirus is leaving some people with permanent lung damage
People infected with the coronavirus may be left with permanent lung damage. Doctors are reporting growing numbers of people who still have breathlessness and coughing months after falling ill with covid-19, and whose chest scans show evidence of irreversible lung scarring. The numbers of people affected aren’t yet known, but estimates are as high as one in five of those who needed intensive care treatment for covid-19. Permanent damage is sometimes seen after other kinds of chest infections that can cause similar lung inflammation to the coronavirus, such as flu and pneumonia. “We have always seen this before – what’s different is the scale of this,” says James Chalmers, a chest physician and adviser to the British Lung Foundation. Previously, his clinic in Scotland would have seen post-infection scarring of the lungs just once or twice a year, he says. “Now we are seeing dozens of patients coming through.” In a study in Italy, which was one of the first European countries to be hit by the coronavirus, doctors are scanning the lungs of people three months after they fell ill. Although the full results aren’t yet in, Paolo Spagnolo at the University Hospital of Padua estimates that 15 to 20 per cent of those treated in intensive care at his hospital for covid-19 have scarring. “We have to be prepared in the future to manage these patients.” In most people, the coronavirus causes only mild symptoms, but in some it leads to serious lung inflammation and an excess of immune signalling chemicals, leading to a complication called a cytokine storm. “If left unchecked, the inflammation starts to cause damage and scarring,” says Chris Meadows, an intensive care doctor at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London. If someone is left with scarring, also known as fibrosis, there is no way to reverse it, says Chalmers. All people can do is try to improve their aerobic fitness to compensate for their lower lung function and learn to cope with breathlessness.
6-24-20 Covid-19 news: We still lack evidence on relaxing 2-metre rule
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.Plan to relax 2-metre rule in England was announced just weeks after advisers said it should stay. Minutes of a 4 June meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, released today, said the group “continues to advise at least two metre separation where possible, given the significant reduction in risk compared to shorter distances.” The scientists said mitigation measures, such as plexiglass screens in shops, were possible in some places. Without such steps, SAGE estimates the risk of transmission at shorter distances to be 2 to 10 times greater. Figures from the Office for National Statistics published today show that between 18 and 21 June, there was a doubling in the number of people meeting up with others in a personal space, such as a garden. The wearing of face coverings on public transport – which became mandatory in England on 15 June – also jumped from 62 per cent before the rule change, to 86 per cent. Elsewhere in the UK, statistics out today show that men affected worst by the virus are construction workers and those in other “elementary occupations”, at nearly 40 deaths per 100,000 men in those jobs. For women, the hardest-hit group were those in caring occupations, with around 15 deaths per 100,000 women. In the United States, Texas chose to pause plans to relax restrictions yesterday as figures showed rising case numbers. The US Centres for Disease Control told journalists it estimated 20 million Americans could have had the coronavirus, ten times more than previously thought. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization on Friday called for $31.3 billion of investment over a year to help an international effort to end the pandemic. The plan involves funding hundreds of millions of tests and rapid development of a vaccine.
6-24-20 Why strange and debilitating coronavirus symptoms can last for months
From extreme fatigue to weight loss, numbness, breathing difficulties and chest pain, some people’s covid-19 symptoms are proving very hard to shake. WITHIN 24 hours of asking an online covid-19 support group if anyone had been experiencing prolonged or unusual symptoms, I had been messaged by 140 people. The list was mind-boggling and deeply upsetting. “I feel like I’m in the middle of a waking nightmare,” said Zoe Wall, who was previously fit and healthy. Two months after developing covid-19-like symptoms, she was still experiencing chest pains and “fatigue beyond description”. Harry’s symptoms started with a terrible headache and itchy body, followed by shortness of breath. He was still experiencing breathing difficulties, chest pain, numbness in his arm and bloating 10 weeks later. Jenn had had no sense of smell or taste since testing positive for covid-19 on 31 March. Abbi had minimal respiratory symptoms, but very bad gastric ones and lost 19 kilograms in two months. Others reported fatigue, headaches, tingling fingertips and brain fog. As the months tick by since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and we learn more about covid-19, it is becoming increasingly evident that even mild cases can have distressing and long-lasting effects. “There’s clearly something going on here. It is not their imagination or hypochondria. It doesn’t even seem to be linked to how severely they had the disease, as far as I can see,” says Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London. All this means we need to rethink how we diagnose and treat covid-19. The long list of symptoms also seems to suggest there might even be several subtypes of the disease, which could help us predict which cases will become serious. When the pandemic was announced in early March, the prevailing view was that we were dealing with a respiratory infection that had symptoms similar to flu, and that while a minority of people would develop pneumonia and need breathing support, most would experience a mild illness characterised by a cough, fever and shortness of breath, which would be over in a couple of weeks.
6-24-20 Acknowledging odd coronavirus symptoms is vital to stopping its spread
Covid-19 can have long-lived symptoms including exhaustion, weight loss and rashes. Unless we officially recognise them, we can’t identify people who may have caught it or trace their contacts. THE UK has three, the US 11 and Australia 14. What are these? Covid-19 symptoms. That is according to advice from each country’s health body. How can the same disease affect people so differently in each country? The answer is: it doesn’t. The disparity is a reflection of how little we have known about the symptoms of covid-19, until now. What we initially thought of as a respiratory disease is in fact a much more formidable enemy. It can kill via a two-pronged attack, through provoking our immune systems and disrupting blood clotting (see “How the coronavirus kills people – and how to stop it”). And for some people, covid-19 results in symptoms that can be strange, debilitating and long-lived (see “Why strange and debilitating coronavirus symptoms can last for months”). The list includes exhaustion, numbness, diarrhoea, extreme weight loss, brain fog, muscle pain and rashes. That these symptoms don’t tally with information published by official guidelines is problematic. Not only does it leave thousands of people who are ill with little or no help and support, it also jeopardises our efforts to contain the spread of the virus. When people started sharing unusual symptoms on forums at the start of the outbreak, it is understandable that they were dismissed by some. People were in a state of hypervigilance about their health, and few were getting tested – in the UK at least – especially not those with odd-sounding complaints. Sticking to a shortlist of common symptoms was arguably the most effective way to identify and act on new cases./p>
6-24-20 Consciousness isn't just the brain: The body shapes your sense of self
Electrical signals coming from your heart and other organs influence how you perceive the world, the decisions you take, your sense of who you are and consciousness itself. PARTS of Ann Arbor bring The Truman Show to mind, with their wood-frame houses and white picket fences. Home to the University of Michigan, the city oozes middle-class prosperity and security. So, while doing research there a decade ago, Sarah Garfinkel was shocked to discover that young veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan felt terrified even in Ann Arbor. “It broke my heart,” she says. And it changed the course of her career. Garfinkel was in Michigan to study the brain circuitry involved in persistent fear. But working with traumatised veterans, she realised two things. First, a safe environment didn’t help them feel less fearful. And second, their fear was physical as well as mental: their hearts were constantly racing, their pupils dilated, their palms sweaty. “It seemed to me that what their bodies were doing was meaningful, but I was just scanning their brains,” she says. So she set out to understand the body-mind connection. Garfinkel, now at the University of Sussex, UK, discovered that our bodies have more influence over our minds than you might imagine. “Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are shaped in part by the internal signals that arise from our body,” she says. But it goes beyond that. It is leading her and others to a surprising conclusion: that the body helps to generate our sense of self and is a key part of consciousness. This idea has practical implications in assessing people who show little sign of consciousness. It may also force us to reconsider where we draw the line between life and death, and provide a new insight into how consciousness evolved. It has long been known that our internal organs have lives of their own. They generate electrical activity, which is conveyed by neurons to the brain. As a result, signals from your heartbeat, your breathing, the slow, regular pulses of your stomach and the state of your muscles are all represented in the brain’s electrical activity. The brain, in turn, regulates these functions. In other words, there is a neuronal loop in which nerve cells carry information from the organs up to the brain, and commands down to the organs.
6-25-20 Fossil discoveries suggest the earliest dinosaurs laid soft-shelled eggs
Finds force scientists to rethink the evolution of dinosaur eggs. Eggs from the earliest dinosaurs were more like leathery turtle eggs than rigid bird eggs. Studies of fossilized embryos from two kinds of dinosaurs, one from early in dinosaur history and the other living about 150 million years later, reveal the eggs were enclosed by soft shells, paleontologists report online June 17 in Nature. The discovery marks the first time scientists have identified soft-shelled dinosaur eggs. Further analyses of these and other dinosaur eggs suggest that hard eggshells evolved independently for each of the three main dinosaur lineages: the long-necked sauropods, plant-eating ornithischians and fierce theropods. Until now, paleontologists thought that all dinosaurs had hard, mineralized eggshells. But scientists couldn’t explain why eggs from the earliest dinosaurs haven’t appeared in the fossil record or why microstructures within eggshells are so different for each of the main dinosaur lineages. “This new hypothesis provides an answer to these problems,” says Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the work. The researchers analyzed a clutch of dinosaur eggs found in Mongolia and dating to between 72 million and 84 million years ago; the collection is attributed to Protoceratops, a sheep-sized ornithischian. The team also analyzed another egg, found in Argentina and dating to between 209 million and 227 million years ago, attributed to Mussaurus, a sauropod ancestor. The soft eggshells weren’t easy to spot. “When they are preserved, they’d only be preserved as films,” says study author Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. When examining the fossilized embryos of both kinds of dinosaurs, the researchers noticed diffuse egg-shaped halos around the skeletons. A closer examination of the halos revealed thin brown layers; the uneven arrangement of these layers suggested the material was organic, or carbon-based, rather than mineralized.
6-24-20 How the coronavirus kills people – and how to stop it
DEXAMETHASONE has become the first drug shown to lower the death rate from covid-19. The discovery of the benefits of this widely available steroid, which damps down an overactive immune system, was seen as a much-needed piece of good news. But we will need lots of other treatments to help us turn the tide of severe covid-19. Many of the coronavirus drug trials so far have looked at antiviral medicines that may stop the virus from replicating. While some of these appear to shorten the length of time that an infected person is ill, none has yet been shown to reduce mortality. To save the lives of those who are seriously ill, we need treatments that tackle the effects of severe covid-19, which occur after the virus has already replicated within the body. Evidence suggests that the virus kills through a two-pronged attack that perturbs both our immune defences and our blood-clotting system. Covid-19 was initially seen as a respiratory illness, but some of those who die from it experience not only lung failure but also heart attacks, strokes, kidney damage and other conditions caused by blood clots. The good news is that several existing and novel treatments to fight both of those impacts are being investigated and some are already in use. “We think we know the mechanisms for how it [kills],” says Chris Meadows, an intensive care doctor at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals trust in London. “Treatment is now directed against those mechanisms, largely towards reducing inflammation and clots. I think we are pretty close to working it all out.” The coronavirus enters our body through cells lining the nose or mouth by latching on to a molecule on their surface called the ACE2 receptor. In some people, the virus spreads down into the lungs, where cells also bear the ACE2 receptor. Here it causes inflammation and leakage of fluid into the lung’s air sacs, interfering with breathing. This can lead a person’s oxygen levels to fall and mean they require treatment with supplementary oxygen or a ventilator. But even with intensive support, death rates for covid-19 patients receiving ventilation have been relatively high.
6-24-20 Accumulating fewer genetic mutations linked to living a longer life
The amount of genetic mutations a person amasses could help tell us how long they will live – and having a lower proportion of these germ line mutations may also influence when a woman’s fertility starts to decline. Richard Cawthon at the University of Utah and his colleagues analysed previously collected genetic information from 61 men and 61 women, all of whom were grandparents and most of whom had died by 2018, with the exception of two. These people were part of a project to build a genetic database of families across three generations. Because mutations in germ cells can be passed to the next generation, the researchers were able to calculate how many the grandparents had before they had children, and they did the same for the second and third generations. In an analysis of 41 families in the database, the team found that a slower accumulation of mutations was linked to longer life. People with mutation numbers in the top 75 per cent were more than twice as likely to die from any cause than those in the bottom 25 per cent, who had an average survival advantage of almost five years. Men accumulated more of these mutations than women, though it isn’t yet known whether this affects their lifespan. This lends support to the idea that ageing is down to the accumulation of mutations, driving cell damage and death. The team also found that women who harboured fewer mutations were older at the time of their last birth and had more children who weren’t stillborn on average than those with more mutations. “Inferring mortality risk from the de novo germ line is certainly unexpected and exciting,” says Scott Kennedy at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The fairly clear association between mutation rate and mortality is a potentially very important and novel finding” though the interpretations around women’s fertility are more tentative, he says. The researchers note that the genetic database includes families selected for large numbers of siblings and living grandparents, which could lead to somewhat higher-than-average fertility rates and lifespans.
6-24-20 Our shower drains are a breeding ground for drug-resistant bacteria
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found in more than three-quarters of the homes surveyed in a small study in Germany, and seem to particularly thrive in shower drains. Drug-resistant bacteria are commonly detected in hospitals and crowded places like trains and shopping centres, but little is known about their prevalence in home environments. To find out more, Dirk Bockmühl at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany and his colleagues took swabs from shower drains, dishwashers and washing machines in 54 private homes. They detected antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 82 per cent of the homes, mostly in shower drains. A DNA analysis showed that there were twice as many antibiotic-resistance genes present in shower drains as in dishwashers. The shower drain had 400 times more antibiotic-resistant genes than the washing machine. Shower drains are attractive homes for bacteria because they are warm, humid environments with a steady supply of nutrients, including dead skin cells and other organic matter washing from people’s bodies, says Bockmühl. Bacteria in shower drains may develop antibiotic resistance due to repeated exposure to antibacterial agents from soaps and cleaning products, he says. Most of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in the shower drains were environmental bacteria that don’t normally infect people. But low levels of clinically relevant bacteria were also detected, including multidrug-resistant Escherichia coli, which can cause urinary tract infections, and multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause pneumonia. Assuming the results from the study reflect an abundance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in many homes around the world, most people shouldn’t worry too much, says Bockmühl, “especially considering that we might come into contact with antibiotic-resistant bacteria quite often in everyday life”. However, people who are more prone to infections – like pregnant women and elderly people – should avoid touching shower drains, he says.
6-24-20 Our shower drains are a breeding ground for drug-resistant bacteria
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found in more than three-quarters of the homes surveyed in a small study in Germany, and seem to particularly thrive in shower drains. Drug-resistant bacteria are commonly detected in hospitals and crowded places like trains and shopping centres, but little is known about their prevalence in home environments. To find out more, Dirk Bockmühl at the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany and his colleagues took swabs from shower drains, dishwashers and washing machines in 54 private homes. They detected antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 82 per cent of the homes, mostly in shower drains. A DNA analysis showed that there were twice as many antibiotic-resistance genes present in shower drains as in dishwashers. The shower drain had 400 times more antibiotic-resistant genes than the washing machine. Shower drains are attractive homes for bacteria because they are warm, humid environments with a steady supply of nutrients, including dead skin cells and other organic matter washing from people’s bodies, says Bockmühl. Bacteria in shower drains may develop antibiotic resistance due to repeated exposure to antibacterial agents from soaps and cleaning products, he says. Most of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in the shower drains were environmental bacteria that don’t normally infect people. But low levels of clinically relevant bacteria were also detected, including multidrug-resistant Escherichia coli, which can cause urinary tract infections, and multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause pneumonia. Assuming the results from the study reflect an abundance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in many homes around the world, most people shouldn’t worry too much, says Bockmühl, “especially considering that we might come into contact with antibiotic-resistant bacteria quite often in everyday life”. However, people who are more prone to infections – like pregnant women and elderly people – should avoid touching shower drains, he says.
6-24-20 Town in UK takes steps to test entire population for coronavirus
A town in the UK is about to start testing thousands of people for the coronavirus each week, using easily collected saliva and a cheap, quick way of detecting the virus. If the initial trial in Southampton is successful, the aim is to test the town’s entire population of 250,000 people every week to see if this can rapidly halt the virus’ spread. “We were told there were insoluble aspects, but they have been solved,” says Keith Godfrey at the University of Southampton, who is helping organise the trial. “The government is certainly seriously interested.” It has been proposed that weekly testing of a country’s entire population, regardless of whether people have symptoms or not, could quickly bring coronavirus outbreaks to an end, with the resulting economic benefits far outweighing the costs of mass testing. Advocates of the approach include Julian Peto at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and economist Paul Romer in the US. On 10 April, an open letter to senior UK politicians and scientific advisers signed by Godfrey, Peto, Romer and 31 others called for weekly universal testing to be trialled in a small city. The Southampton scheme is a first step towards this. The initial study in Southampton will begin with doctors and members of their households, and be expanded to include council workers and university staff and students, with more than 10,000 tests being done each week. It will look at whether testing saliva works as well as taking swabs from the nose and throat, the method currently used to test for the coronavirus. Taking swabs is difficult, unpleasant and unreliable, producing many false negatives. By contrast, providing a saliva sample is as easy as spitting. People can do it at home and send samples off for testing, and some unpublished studies suggest that saliva testing is more reliable.
6-23-20 Is lockdown hurting kids' immune systems?
My child's runny nose is gone. Could that actually be a bad thing?. If you look hard, you can find a few positives to staying home during coronavirus pandemic lockdown. You might be saving money. Your backyard probably never looked better. And if you have small kids, you've probably been enjoying a relatively snot-free few months. My 18-month-old daughter's nose started running on her very first day in daycare in January, and it didn't stop. She got every bug that was going around. But since we went into lockdown in March, she hasn't had the slightest hint of a cold. And we're definitely not the only family to have noticed this change. "In my own practice, the quarantine from daycare has resulted in much healthier kids and families, due to many fewer febrile illnesses spreading through families," says pediatric rheumatologist J. Patrick Whelan, Ph.D. This is a great thing for parents: no cranky kids with coughs or high temperatures due to run-of-the-mill infections. But is there a downside for our kids' health? In missing out on exposure to other children during daycare or play dates, are they also missing out on exposure to some pretty crucial immunity-boosting germs? In medicine, the "hygiene hypothesis" — introduced in the late 1980s by David P. Strachan, a professor of epidemiology — states that early childhood exposure to certain microorganisms protects against allergic diseases by strengthening the immune system. And there is some research to back up the theory that coming into contact with germs early means fewer bugs later. One study found babies who attended childcare with other children before age 2 and 1/2 did indeed get more colds and ear infections than kids who stay home, but that they were in turn less likely to get sick with these illnesses later in childhood, like when starting school. Additional research suggests the same is true for stomach bugs like gastroenteritis. "We think if you are infected at an early age you build up immunity against these viruses or bacteria," Marieke de Hoog, an epidemiologist at University Medical Center Utrecht, told The New York Times. Dr. Cara Natterson, pediatrician and author of Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons, says this hypothesis makes sense because "the immune system needs to be trained and honed in order to work best." But she points out that unless we're wiping down every surface with disinfectant constantly and creating a hermetically sealed environment in lockdown, we're not fully sterilizing ourselves or our children. They're still being exposed to lots of microorganisms at home and outside. "If we do things that reduce the spread of COVID-19 but don't live in a complete bubble, we won't completely insulate our immune systems from other infections," Natterson explains. It's also worth remembering that just because your kid isn't sick doesn't mean they're not being exposed to immune-boosting germs. "A healthy immune system develops in part because of exposure to benign bacteria and fungi in the early environment," says Dr. Whelan. The word "benign" is key here — just by existing in the world, children pick up all kinds of microbes that are mostly harmless but do good things for their immune systems. There's a relatively easy way to expose children to immune-boosting germs, even without daycare: Go outside. "There is good evidence now that kids with more exposure to nature (i.e. green environments) have less chronic disease," says Dr. Whelan. More specifically, rural and pet exposure appears to be more important than exposure to other kids in terms of the risk for things like asthma and allergies. "Outdoor play in a garden or yard setting ... exposes kids to a healthy group of microbes that protect against allergies, without increasing the frequency or severity of childhood illnesses."
6-23-20 Coronavirus: Male plasma contains higher levels of antibodies
Men who have had coronavirus are being urged to donate plasma from their blood to be used in research into treatments for Covid-19. Studies suggest men are more likely to become seriously ill and therefore produce higher levels of antibodies than women. This means their plasma could be more useful for saving lives. NHS Blood and Transplant says the plasma could be used to treat hospital patients if trials are successful. It started requesting blood and plasma from Covid survivors in April and, by mid-May, nearly 600 people had donated their plasma. Of the donations from men, 43% had high enough levels of antibodies to be used in trials, compared with just 29% of those from women. Higher antibody levels were also more often found in older patients, Asian patients and those who had been treated in hospital for Covid-19. We'd still like to hear from anybody who had coronavirus or the symptoms," Prof David Roberts, associate director for blood donation at NHS Blood and Transplant, said. "More plasma donors are needed. "But we would especially want to hear from men." Not everyone can donate plasma - the first step is to fill out a form on the NHS Blood and Transplant website. Simon Callon, 51, from St Helens, Merseyside, donated his plasma after he became unwell with coronavirus and lost his father, Noel, to Covid-19. "It was a no-brainer, really," he says, "and very easy to do." Simon did not have a cough when he was infected but he did have "piercing headaches" and shivered at night for a few days. He was able to be tested because his partner works for the NHS. A few weeks later, his father became ill and was admitted to hospital with low oxygen levels but did not survive. "I don't want anybody going through what happened to my dad," Simon says. "He died on a hospital ward with no family or friends, with a nurse holding his hand. "Only 10 people were allowed at his funeral. "If you can save somebody or help somebody, you would do it."
6-23-20 Preventing dangerous blood clots from COVID-19 is proving tricky
Anti-clotting medicines may help stem excessive blood clotting, but the best dose isn’t clear. For some severely ill COVID-19 patients, the struggle to take in enough air is not only due to having fluid-clogged lungs. The quest for oxygen also is stymied by a plethora of blood clots. As it’s become clear that excessive clotting can be a complication of a serious coronavirus infection, there’s been debate over how best to manage the blockages. Now clinical trials are under way to assess different doses of anticoagulants, medicines already used to prevent or break up blood clots in other patients. But it’s not as easy as “the more, the better” since, in general, higher doses come with higher risks of major bleeding. Striking the right balance between clotting and bleeding is something the body itself does regularly, and not just after an injury. Infections spur clotting too. That’s because the immune system, inflammation and clotting are linked. If the regulation of these systems gets out of whack, the scales can tilt toward thromboinflammation, in which severe inflammation leads to excessive clotting. For COVID-19 patients, that’s happening to an alarming degree. But the dose of anticoagulant used to prevent blood clots in other patients, at risk after surgery or other procedures, is not working for coronavirus-related clotting. Figuring out if there is an effective dose and the best time to treat could be one part of helping COVID-19 patients. Why clotting can be a complication of a serious infection is rooted in its role in the immune system. Although well known for stopping catastrophic bleeding at the site of a cut, there’s more to clotting than just plugging leaks. Clots can also trap pathogens, preventing them from invading tissues and traveling throughout the body.
6-23-20 Coronavirus: Why have there been so many outbreaks in meat processing plants?
Hundreds of workers have tested positive for coronavirus at meat processing plants and abattoirs. They include a chicken processing site in Anglesey, where more than 150 workers have become infected with Covid-19, and plants in Wrexham and West Yorkshire. There have also been major outbreaks in Germany, France, Spain and the US. Bev Clarkson from the union Unite, says: "Unite has warned time and again that coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories throughout the UK were likely". People get infected with coronavirus from droplets, which may be coughed, sneezed or exhaled by an infected person. The infection may come through close contact with the person or by touching infected surfaces. "Factories and, in particular, indoor areas which are cold and damp, are perfect environments for coronavirus to linger and spread," according to Lawrence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Warwick. "Virus-containing droplets from infected individuals are more likely to spread, settle and stay viable." Another possible factor in these refrigerated workplaces is noisy machinery, which requires people to talk more loudly or shout, which can increase the spread of infected droplets. It is difficult to keep workers two metres apart when they are working on fast-moving production lines, and the absence of daylight may also help the virus to survive. "When you have people standing right next to each other working heavily - because of course this is a difficult job - and breathing heavily, you have a chance for spreading virus from just one infected individual to many that are in close proximity," said Tara Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University in Ohio. "And then of course you have a chain of dominoes after that." There is no evidence that the meat products themselves could be a source of Covid-19 infection at the plants. The Food Standards Agency said it was very unlikely that you could catch coronavirus from food because that is not how it is known to be transmitted.
6-22-20 Covid-19 news: WHO says poor global leadership making pandemic worse
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. Lack of global leadership is the ‘greatest threat’ in fighting the pandemic, says WHO. The greatest threat in fighting the pandemic is the lack of global political leadership and unity between different governments, World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said today at a virtual health forum organised by the World Government Summit in Dubai. “The world is in desperate need of national unity and global solidarity. The politicisation of the pandemic has exacerbated it,” he said. He also called for more countries to adopt universal healthcare, which he said was “the foundation of global health security and of social and economic development.” US president Donald Trump said he asked US public health officials to “slow down” testing for coronavirus. Speaking at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he said, “testing is a double-edged sword … when you do testing to that extent, you will find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down’.” Senior advisers to the White House later said the president was joking. The rally in Tulsa could have been a “super-spreader” event, Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said yesterday. More than 6000 people attended the indoor event, the first party political rally in the US since the start of the pandemic. The WHO reported another record for the largest daily increase in confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide yesterday. 183,020 new cases were recorded within 24 hours on Sunday, with most occurring in the Americas including 54,771 in the US and 36,617 in Brazil. Several large local outbreaks of coronavirus in Germany, including at the one of the largest meat processing facilities in Europe, caused a jump in the country’s estimated R number from 1.06 on Friday to 2.88 today. 1331 people, more than 20 per cent of those who work at the Tönnies slaughterhouse in Gütersloh, have now tested positive for coronavirus. In response, authorities have closed the slaughterhouse, quarantined employees and their families and closed schools in the local area. Lars Schaade, vice president of Robert Koch Institute, a government public health agency, said, “since case numbers in Germany are generally low, these local outbreaks have a relatively strong influence on the value of the reproduction number.”
6-22-20 Discrimination and divorce make you more likely to die early
A history of bad relationships, discrimination and financial insecurity increase someone’s risk of dying early. What’s more, each of these factors has a bigger impact on your mortality risk than a lack of exercise, according to a study of thousands of people in the US. The findings also suggest that racism has a huge impact on when a person will die, says Eli Puterman at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who led the work. Biological factors play an important role in our health, says Puterman, but non-biological factors – our behaviours and life experiences – have an effect too. To find out how influential these factors might be, Puterman and his colleagues turned to data from 13,611 US adults, aged between 52 and 104, who had filled out detailed questionnaires about their lives and then had their health tracked for six years. The team examined how each volunteer had responded to questions about 57 social and behavioural factors that might have affected their health. The group then looked at each factor individually to assess whether any had increased the likelihood of dying within the six-year period.“Unsurprisingly, health behaviours seemed to take the lead,” says Puterman. Being a smoker almost doubled a person’s risk of dying within the six-year period, for example. And those who said they had an alcohol use disorder increased this risk by 36 per cent. Other social factors appear to play a significant role, too. Individuals who had been through a divorce were 45 per cent more likely to die within the six-year period, for example. “It was surprising to see [divorce] so high up there,” says Puterman. “But at the end of the day, our negative relationships really do have a very high impact on our daily well-being and our health, and divorce has probably emerged from years of negative experiences with a spouse.” Experiencing financial hardship was another important factor. The risk of dying was increased by 32 per cent in those who had experienced recent financial difficulties, as well as those with a history of unemployment. People who had used food stamps in the past were 28 per cent more likely to die within the six-year period.
6-21-20 The nursing home disaster
How coronavirus devastated America's long-term care facilities. Over 40 percent of U.S. coronavirus deaths have been linked to long-term care facilities. Why? Here's everything you need to know:
- How bad were the outbreaks? More than 43,000 people and at least 400 workers perished of COVID-19 in nursing and long-term care facilities. The first outbreak, which essentially launched the pandemic in the U.S., came in February at the Seattle-area Life Care Nursing facility, where two-thirds of the residents and 47 workers were infected and 37 ultimately died.
- Why was it so bad? For a highly infectious virus like the new coronavirus, nursing homes were like dry tinder in a wildfire. Mortality rates for COVID-19 rise dramatically for those over 70, especially if they have pre-existing conditions such as heart disease.
- Were the homes at fault? Outbreaks were inevitable, but the industry has not complied with regulations that could have reduced the scale of the disaster. In 2016, the Obama administration introduced new regulations requiring nursing facilities to train staff on dealing with the arrival of a novel and contagious virus.
- What role did government play? The industry claims that even as the death toll mounted, its pleas for PPE and tests were never met. As a result, many facilities experienced lethal shortages of PPE.
- What's being done now? On April 30, Trump vowed to "deploy every tool, resource, and power" to protect elderly Americans. In mid-May, the administration said it wanted all residents and staff tested over the ensuing two weeks. But by the end of May, more than 3,200 facilities said they still had less than a week's supply of PPE and sanitizer, and that some PPE they'd received was defective.
- Immunity from lawsuits: Governors in 20 states have issued orders shielding nursing facilities and their workers from legal liability during the pandemic. State officials insist that such action does not excuse gross negligence, and was necessary in order to ensure "maximum participation" among frontline health-care workers during a moment of crisis, as Democratic Connecticut. Gov. Ned Lamont put it. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to include such immunity in any additional rounds of pandemic relief legislation as a means of reducing opportunistic nuisance lawsuits.
6-19-20 Covid-19 news: UK coronavirus alert level lowered from four to three
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. The UK’s chief medical officers today said the country’s coronavirus alert level has reduced from four to three. This level of the alert system corresponds to the virus being in general circulation, but at a level where it’s possible to gradually relax some restrictions. However, restrictions in England have already been progressively relaxed throughout June, even while the alert level remained at four – which corresponds to high or exponentially rising levels of the virus and warrants continued social distancing. For the first time, the government today published the daily rate at which coronavirus infections are growing, alongside the UK’s R number, which remains unchanged at around 0.7 to 0.9. For the UK as a whole, the growth rate is believed to be anywhere between -2 per cent and -4 per cent, meaning that infection numbers are declining slightly. At a regional level there is a chance that new cases may be growing in London. However, the government’s science advisers believe that growth in infection numbers is unlikely. People from South Asian backgrounds in the UK are 20 per cent more likely to die from covid-19 in hospital than white people, according to a preliminary study that analysed data on patients at 260 hospitals. This disparity was partly explained by higher levels of diabetes, the researchers who did the study told the BBC. China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that genetic analysis suggests that the coronavirus causing a new outbreak in the capital Beijing probably came from Europe. Earlier this week, CDC director Gao Fu said the virus may have been spreading in Beijing as early as the start of May. Microbiologists at University College London, UK, are calling for widespread surveillance of pets, livestock and wild animals to measure the prevalence of coronavirus. There have been limited studies on animal susceptibility to the virus, they wrote in a commentary published in The Lancet Microbe on Thursday, with conflicting data on some animals, such as pigs.
6-19-20 Should you pay for a coronavirus test? Here's what you need to know
There are many antibody tests available that can reveal if you have had and recovered from the coronavirus. Is it worth paying for one of these tests? There are two main kinds of tests for coronavirus. Which one you take may depend on what you want to find out: do you want to know if you are infected now, or have been in the past? One type of test looks for the virus in swabs of the nose or throat, which can reveal if you are currently infected. In many countries, tests for active infections are free, so there is no need to pay. The other type of test looks in your blood for the antibodies that your immune system makes to attack the coronavirus. This can reveal if you were infected but have since recovered. It can take several weeks for antibodies to be produced, so there is little point in doing antibody tests during or soon after an illness that you suspect could be covid-19. Can an antibody test tell me if I’m immune to the coronavirus? No, it cannot. “A positive result may not mean a person is immune,” says the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). People who have recovered should be immune for a while at least, because their immune systems have successfully eliminated the virus. But we don’t know how long immunity against the covid-19 coronavirus lasts yet. Studies of other coronaviruses that already circulate in humans show that people can be reinfected as soon as six months after the initial infection. For policy-makers, it is useful to know what percentage of a population has been infected. For individuals, until we find out more about immunity to the coronavirus, antibody tests are less immediately useful. You shouldn’t alter your behaviour on the basis of a positive antibody test, because this will increase your risk of becoming infected again and you could then go on to infect others. Plus, your test results might not be correct.
6-19-20 How to make a mouse smell a smell that doesn’t actually exist
Activating the right nerve cells in the right order produced an odor perception. Scientists have implanted an artificial odor directly in the brains of mice. It doesn’t mean that mental Smell-O-Vision technology is coming soon. But the results, published June 18 in Science, deliver clues to how the brain processes information. Details about the synthetic smell may help answer “fundamental questions in olfaction,” says computational biologist Saket Navlakha of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, who wasn’t involved in the study. Studies on the senses offer a window into how brains shape signals from the outside world into perceptions, and how those perceptions can guide behavior (SN: 7/18/19). To build artificial smells in mice’s brains, researchers used optogenetics, a technique in which light prods genetically engineered nerve cells to fire signals (SN: 1/15/10). Neuroscientist Dima Rinberg of New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine and colleagues targeted nerve cells in mice’s olfactory bulbs. There, clusters of nerve endings called glomeruli organize the smell signals picked up in the nose. Like playing a short ditty on a piano, Rinberg and colleagues activated nerve cells in six spots (each of which might include between one and three glomeruli) in a certain order. This neural melody was designed to be a simplified version of how a real odor might play those nerve cells. (It’s not known what the artificial odor actually smells like to a mouse.) Mice learned to signal the presence of this artificial smell by licking one of two spouts. The synthetic odor didn’t objectively exist, but the mice behaved as though they smelled it anyway, the researchers found. After “smelling” the synthetic odor, mice reliably licked the correct spout. Other scrambled signals, also delivered by optogenetics, didn’t cause the same reaction.
6-18-20 Coronavirus poses grave threat to Amazon's indigenous communities
Members of indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon have contracted covid-19, fuelling concerns that the disease could devastate indigenous groups throughout South America – including uncontacted tribes in the region. Many fear whole communities could be killed if they contract the virus. The first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Sepahua, a remote riverside town in the Peruvian Amazon, was reported by the local public health authority on 6 June. Eight days later, the number of cases had increased to 27. Sepahua serves as a gateway to five national parks, some of which were created to protect the right of uncontacted groups to remain isolated from the outside world. “We are expecting everywhere in the Amazon to get hit eventually,” says Daniel Aristiza´bal, who leads the Isolated Peoples Program at Amazon Conservation Team in Suriname. From Brazil to Colombia, many indigenous groups have distanced their communities from others for decades to preserve their way of life. As word of the coronavirus spread, some that no longer lived in the region’s rainforests sought refuge back there. Colombia’s Nukak – a semi-nomadic tribe forcibly displaced from the Amazon in the 1980s and 90s – returned to the Amazon in March, seeking distance from the contagion. Other indigenous groups have blocked roads and bolstered security perimeters, prohibiting visits from the outside world. Some indigenous communities may face a higher risk of death from covid-19 than the general population, says Clayton Coelho at the Federal University of São Paulo in Brazil. “Most indigenous groups today are made up of small populations, implying low genetic variability. Low genetic variability reduces the chances that we will find individuals naturally resistant to the disease,” says Coelho. It’s possible that one group may be naturally resistant, but it’s not probable, he says.
6-18-20 Rise of measles linked with emergence of large cities 2500 years ago
The measles virus crossed over to people from cattle around 500 BC, supporting the idea that it could only get established as a human disease once large enough cities had developed. “It’s not proof, but it’s compatible with the notion that large cities might have provided the opportunity for it to emerge,” says Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Germany. The measles virus evolved from the virus that causes rinderpest, a disease that used to be common in cattle and led to famines in Africa in the 20th century, until vaccination eradicated it by 2011. Measles used to infect nearly all children until vaccination began. It is still a major public health problem in developing countries – and as a result of vaccine scepticism, there have been outbreaks in some Western countries too. It was already known that the measles virus evolved from the rinderpest one because they are so genetically similar, but it was unclear when it made the jump. Previous estimates were that it happened around AD 900. But that conclusion was based on analysis of fairly recent measles viruses. Calvignac-Spencer’s team found a preserved lung specimen in a Berlin museum from someone who died from measles in 1912. The researchers drew up a viral family tree by comparing this with 50 other virus genomes, either from recent measles cases, rinderpest or a related virus that infects sheep and goats. This dated the jump to 500 BC. The analysis cannot tell us where in the world the crossover happened. But this earlier date roughly coincides with the emergence of cities of several hundred thousand people in China, India, North Africa and Europe. From looking at the circulation of measles within island communities, we know it can’t survive for long in places with fewer than about half a million people. This is because it causes lifelong immunity, so once everyone has had it, there are no more hosts to keep it going. Only in larger communities would there be enough new, and therefore susceptible, babies being born for the virus to survive.
6-18-20 DNA study reveals Ireland's age of 'god-kings'
DNA has been used to confirm the existence of an elite social class in the Stone Age inhabitants of Ireland. It's one of the earliest examples of such a hierarchy among human societies. A key piece of evidence comes from an adult male buried at the 5,000-year-old Newgrange monument; his DNA revealed that his parents were first-degree relatives, possibly brother and sister. He was one member of an extended "clan" that was buried at impressive stone monuments across Ireland. The Irish elites were established during Neolithic times, when people first started farming. The researchers extracted DNA from 44 ancient individuals from across Ireland and sequenced their genomes (the full complement of genetic material contained in the nuclei of cells). Evidence of incestuous unions like that found at Newgrange are rare in human history; they are taboo for inter-linked biological and cultural reasons. Where they do occur, it is often within royal dynasties that have been granted divine status. Brother-sister marriages are found among the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the "god-kings" of South America's Inca Empire. Tutankhamun's parents, for example, are thought by some to have been full siblings. Among these cultures, rulers drew on aspects of religion to legitimise their power and wielded it through the construction of extravagant monuments. Commenting on the genetic patterns seen in the man from Newgrange, Lara Cassidy, assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, said: "I'd never seen anything like it. "We all inherit two copies of the genome, one from our mother and one from our father; well, this individual's copies were extremely similar, a tell-tale sign of close inbreeding. In fact, our analyses allowed us to confirm that his parents were first-degree relatives." The Newgrange monument in County Meath is a kidney-shaped mound covering an area of more than one acre. It's part of a tradition of elaborate monuments built with large stones, or megaliths, in Atlantic Europe during the Neolithic.
6-18-20 Extinct gophers evolved horns on their noses for fighting predators
The only rodents to ever have horns on their noses called North America home more than 5 million years ago. A new species of these horned gophers has now been discovered, and it suggests that they used their horns to fight off predators. There are five known species of horned gophers, all of which belong to a group of squirrel-like rodents called mylagaulids. They lived between 16 and 5 million years ago. “The ones with horns are only found in North America,” says Jonathan Calede of The Ohio State University at Marion in the US. His co-author, Joshua Samuels of East Tennessee State University in the US, spotted part of a horned gopher skull in a museum collection. The two realised it belonged to a sixth species, which they named Ceratogaulus cornutasagma. The pair was then able to fit the new species into the family tree of mylagaulids, to see when some of them evolved horns and how their bodies were changing. This allowed them to test hypotheses about why the horns evolved. Although the first horned mylagaulid was described in 1902, the function of the horns is still uncertain. They are probably not a way for males to show off to females, as both sexes have them. In 2005 Samantha Hopkins, now at the University of Oregon in the US, proposed the gophers used their horns to defend against predators. Calede and Samuels fit the new species into the family tree of mylagaulids to see when some of them evolved horns and how their bodies were changing. This allowed them to test hypotheses about why the horns evolved. They found a strong relationship between the gophers’ body size and the presence of horns. “When the animals get bigger is when we see the evolution of horns,” says Calede. Then there seems to have been an evolutionary pressure for the horns to increase in size. “As the animal gets bigger, the horns get bigger, but they get even bigger than you would expect based on the size of the animal,” says Calede.
6-18-20 COVID-19 case clusters offer lessons and warnings for reopening
Outbreaks in restaurants, offices and other venues could guide strategies for lifting social distancing guidelines. everal months into the COVID-19 pandemic, countries are looking for ways to restart their economies, public health officials are looking to guide safe reopening and people are eagerly looking to escape cabin fever. But tough lessons have surfaced from countries that were hit early in the pandemic and have already reopened. Consider South Korea: In April, after new cases had steadily declined to single digits, the country began easing lockdown restrictions. But that respite was short-lived. On May 6, a 29-year-old man tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, just a few days after visiting five dance clubs in one night in Seoul’s Itaewon district. On May 8, South Korea responded quickly, postponing plans to reopen schools and urging bars and clubs to shut down again for a month. As of June 8, the Korean Centers for Disease Control had linked the sick man to 96 other clubgoers who got COVID-19, plus 178 people with whom those clubgoers came into contact. That wasn’t the only cluster that put the brakes on South Korea’s reopening plans. Soon more clusters popped up in an online retail center, a theme park, a table tennis club and a handful of churches. Other countries should expect similar starts and stops upon relaxing stay-at-home rules. “Reopening is not a one-way street, and we may need to make a U-turn,” says Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine. Studying these kinds of transmission clusters as well as common environments where COVID-19 moves easily from person to person provides a glimpse of how to avoid the U-turns. To that end, epidemiologist Gwenan Knight and her colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine compiled a massive database of worldwide COVID-19 case clusters based on media accounts, published scientific studies and government health department reports.
6-17-20 Covid-19 news: UK begins using dexamethasone to treat patients
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. Covid-19 patients in the UK are being treated with dexamethasone today after a UK trial of the drug found it could save lives. “The treatment is immediately available and already in use on the NHS,” said health minister Matt Hancock. “It is not by any means a cure but it is the best news we have had,” Hancock told parliament today. The UK’s chief medical officers say it should be used immediately, according to the BBC. A preliminary study found that the steroid, which is already widely prescribed for treating allergies and asthma, reduces the risk of dying from covid-19 by a third for patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for those receiving oxygen. Dexamethasone should only be taken if prescribed by a doctor. Officials in Beijing, China confirmed 31 new coronavirus cases today, bringing the total to 137 in the last six days. The city is again restricting all non-essential travel. Schools, swimming pools and gyms are all closed from today. More than 1200 flights to and from Beijing have been cancelled and railway services have been reduced until at least 9 July. Weekly confirmed coronavirus cases are increasing in 21 US states, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, which all confirmed record-high numbers of daily cases this week. Across the US, more than 2.1 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed, and more than 116,000 people have died from covid-19. Major US airlines, including United Airlines and Delta Airlines, say passengers must wear a face covering or mask on their flights, and they may be banned if they refuse. United Airlines said the new rule will start applying on their flights from on 18 June.
6-17-20 Why it's more fun to be a mischievous goose than a blood-thirsty shark
Playing as a murderous shark on a rampage isn't nearly as fun as being a horrible goose terrorising a village, finds Jacob Aron. TEVEN SPIELBERG has a lot to answer for. The murderous shark of his classic film Jaws cemented the great white as a terrifying threat in the minds of millions of people, and marine biologists have been fighting back ever since. Shark attacks are actually about 10 times less deadly than fireworks, according to the International Shark Attack File (yes, such a thing exists), but I have never seen a film about a killer firework. Even though I think sharks have been given an unfair reputation in the media, I was looking forward to getting my hands on Maneater, a recently released game that places you in the fins of these awesome predators, then sends you on a murderous rampage. The shark in Jaws kills five people over the course of the film, whereas I had eaten double that in the first 15 minutes of Maneater. The game’s paper-thin story sees you playing as a shark pup, whose mother was killed by a hunter named Scaly Pete. Pulled from her uterus, you eat his arm before being thrown back into the sea, where you… plot your revenge? It isn’t quite clear. From there, the game tasks you with swimming around a variety of locales, eating smaller fish (and humans) to grow bigger, while avoiding larger animals like alligators until you are tough enough to take them on. The open-world structure is loosely based on the Grand Theft Auto series, in which you drive around a city committing crimes, but the trouble is that there just isn’t much for a shark to do. You can swim, eat and ludicrously jump onto land and flap about until your oxygen runs out, but this isn’t much to build a game on. After being told to eat yet another group of fish, and wrestling with controls that made me feel more like a beached whale than a great white, I decided my time was better spent elsewhere. “Maneater‘s controls made me feel more like a beached whale than a great white” Still in the mood for animal shenanigans, I turned to Untitled Goose Game, which was released last year and instantly filled the internet with delightful memes. You play as a goose causing chaos in a quaint English village, and I was charmed straight away by its unsteady waddle and angry honk.
6-17-20 DNA from a 5,200-year-old Irish tomb hints at ancient royal incest
Genetic material from an interred man has many identical versions of the same genes. A man buried in a huge, roughly 5,200-year-old Irish stone tomb was the product of incest, a new study finds. DNA extracted from the ancient man’s remains displays an unusually large number of identical versions of the same genes. That pattern indicates that his parents were either a brother and sister or a parent and child, a team led by geneticists Lara Cassidy and Daniel Bradley of Trinity College Dublin reports June 17 in Nature. That new DNA discovery combined with the monumental tomb suggests that ruling families who wielded enough power to direct big building projects emerged among some early European farming communities, the researchers contend. The man’s bones had previously been found in the Newgrange passage tomb, an earthen mound covering more than 4,000 square meters near the River Boyne. A rooftop opening in a 19-meter-long stone passage allows sunlight to reach deep into a chamber inside the mound on the shortest days of the year, suggesting the structure held astrological and religious significance (SN: 6/29/74). It may have been built this way to mark a new year in dramatic fashion, perhaps while winter solstice ceremonies were conducted. Cassidy and Bradley’s team studied DNA from 44 individuals buried in various Irish tombs and graves dating to between roughly 6,600 and 4,500 years ago. Only the Newgrange man, who was interred in the largest and most impressive structure, had inherited genetic markers of incest. Socially sanctioned incest tends to be rare throughout history but is known from instances of royal inbreeding. Mating between brothers and sisters, for example, occurred in some ancient societies with ruling families headed by men regarded as gods not subject to human incest taboos. Ancient Egypt’s King Tutankhamun, whose rule began 3,352 years ago, was the son of a brother and sister. So finding the offspring of inbreeding in such an impressive stone structure is highly suggestive of a practice of inbreeding among elites, even if not conclusive, the researchers say.
6-17-20 Stone Age ruling elite in Ireland may have had incestuous marriages
A man buried at the heart of the 5000-year-old Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland was born from an incestuous union, DNA sequencing has revealed. The discovery suggests that the ruling elite in Stone Age Ireland married within their family, like some ancient Egyptian dynasties. Daniel Bradley and Lara Cassidy at Trinity College Dublin have been sequencing the genomes of ancient people. One of these genomes is of an adult male whose bones were found in the most elaborately decorated recess in the chamber at the heart of the Newgrange tomb in the Boyne Valley. This massive, 200,000-tonne structure has a narrow passage leading to the burial chamber. For a few days during the winter solstice, the rising sun shines down the passage to illuminate the chamber. “At the time it would have been a big deal. It required a lot of muscle to build,” says Bradley. “People have said it is the Irish equivalent of the pyramids.” The man’s genome shows that his parents were either brother and sister, or parent and offspring. Such incestuous unions are taboo in almost all societies, but the fact that the man’s remains were found at the heart of the tomb suggests his parents’ relationship was socially sanctioned. This is known to have been the case in societies where some rulers considered themselves gods and therefore above marrying common mortals, such as the Incan empire, Polynesian societies on Hawaii and ancient Egypt. Based on these comparisons, the team thinks the man’s parents were most likely to be a brother and sister belonging to the ruling elite, but there is no way to tell for sure. Intriguingly, the old name for the nearby Dowth tomb, Fertae Chuile, translates as “Hill of Sin”. According to a local myth first written down in the 11th century, people pledged to build for the king for one day only. The king’s sister made the sun stand still so they would work for longer, but the king broke the spell by having intercourse with her.
6-17-20 The first dinosaurs may have laid soft eggs without hard shells
The first dinosaurs laid soft eggs and it was only later that some groups evolved eggs with hard shells, according to new research. The finding overturns a long-standing assumption that dinosaurs always laid hard-shelled eggs like modern birds. Palaeontologists have struggled to find eggs from certain dinosaur groups, says Mark Norell at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. If dinosaurs had always laid hard-shelled eggs, they would all be equally easy to find, as soft-shelled eggs barely fossilise, says Norell. But while the eggs of some dinosaurs are “a dime a dozen”, he says, there are no preserved eggs of others such as Triceratops. In Mongolia, Norell’s and his team found a clutch of embryos that they believe belonged to a type of dinosaur called Protoceratops that lived between 83 and 72 million years ago. When they found the fossils, “they were in the foetal position, all curled up”, says Norell. Each was surrounded by a thin film. The team also examined preserved embryos of Mussaurus, a type of early dinosaur that lived around 200 million years ago. These were also surrounded by a thin outer layer. Team member Jasmina Wiemann at Yale University found that the films around the embryos contained the degraded remains of egg proteins. Wiemann then examined 26 kinds of egg from extinct and living animals and found that hard-shelled and soft-shelled eggs had different kinds of proteins that left traces after they were fossilised. When she analysed the Protoceratops and Mussaurus samples, “both of them matched the soft-shelled eggs”, she says. To find out whether the earliest dinosaur eggs were soft or hard-shelled, team member Matteo Fabbri, also at Yale University, compiled a database of information about eggs from 112 living and extinct reptiles and birds whose evolutionary relationships are known. It turned out that the first members of many groups, including lizards and dinosaurs, laid soft-shelled eggs.
6-17-20 Huge fossilised egg may have been laid by a massive marine reptile
A dinosaur-era animal laid one of the largest eggs ever, measuring 29 by 20 centimetres. The egg is the second largest ever discovered, only beaten by that of the extinct Madagascan elephant bird. We don’t know what animal laid the huge egg, but the prime candidate is a mosasaur: a giant marine reptile that looked a bit like a toothed whale. The fossilised egg was discovered on Seymour Island, off the west coast of Antarctica, by a team of Chilean palaeontologists including David Rubilar-Rogers of the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago. They showed it to Julia Clarke at the University of Texas at Austin. “I had never seen anything like that before in my life,” says Clarke. It was found in a 68-million-year-old rock formation – from near the end of the dinosaur era. Despite its huge size, it had almost no shell and must have been very soft. At first, the researchers were baffled. “We had no idea what could have laid it,” says co-author Lucas Legendre, also at the University of Texas at Austin. No fossilised eggs have ever been found in Antarctica. “We’ve got dinosaurs from Antarctica, but they’re not big enough to lay this egg,” says Clarke. Instead, the team thinks the egg could have been from a mosasaur. Although mosasaurs lived during the dinosaur era, they weren’t dinosaurs. They belong to a group of reptiles called squamates, which also includes lizards and snakes. The ancestors of squamates split from those of dinosaurs around 240 million years ago. Other groups of marine reptiles, like the long-necked plesiosaurs, are believed to have given birth to live young. “But for mosasaurs, the evidence is much more limited,” says Clarke. One adult has been found with embryos inside, curled up as if inside eggs, but with no eggshell preserved.
6-17-20 Mystery egg likely belonged to giant sea reptile, scientists say
Scientists in the US have uncovered the mystery of a giant egg discovered in Antarctica almost a decade ago.For years researchers could not identify the fossil, which resembled a deflated football, leading it to gain the sci-fi nickname "The Thing". But now, scientists say the egg probably belonged to a giant sea reptile that lived around 68 million years ago. It is the believed to be the world's largest reptile egg. The fossil - which measures 11 by 7 inches (28cm by 18cm) - was found by researchers from Chile in 2011, but it was only in 2018 that a scientist from the University of Texas at Austin recognised it could be a deflated egg. While the size of the egg suggested it belonged to an animal the size of a large dinosaur, its soft shell was "completely unlike a dinosaur egg", Lucas Legendre, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, said. "It is most similar to the eggs of lizards and snakes, but it is from a truly giant relative of these animals," he said. By comparing the size of hundreds of reptiles alive today and their eggs, researchers say the animal that laid the egg would have been at least seven metres long. Other fossils found at the same site suggest the egg could have belonged to a giant marine reptile called a mosasaur, although it is unclear whether the egg was laid on land or at sea.
6-17-20 How many of us are likely to have caught the coronavirus so far?
JUST how many people have been infected with the coronavirus? Statistics are trickling in from cities and countries around the world, but the figures vary hugely. Some regions are reporting that less than 1 per cent of people have been infected, and others that over half the population has had the virus. How are these figures calculated, and which can we trust? Determining the true prevalence of coronavirus infection will be important for understanding how the virus spreads and limiting its damage. The reporting of coronavirus cases varies drastically around the world. Tim Russell and his colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have estimated that, as of 15 June, more than 95 per cent of symptomatic cases have been reported in some countries, including Ghana, Kazakhstan, Morocco and Oman. However, the team estimates that only 35 per cent of symptomatic cases have been reported in the US, and the figure is even lower for some other countries. The UK is estimated to have reported only 14 per cent, Sweden about 19 per cent and Yemen just 3 per cent. What these statistics don’t reflect is the number of symptomless cases, which some evidence suggests can account for between a quarter and half of all coronavirus infections. When it comes to estimating prevalence, there have been two main approaches. Researchers have either tested a sample of people in a population and directly reported those numbers, or predicted how the virus has affected a population using mathematical models. As a starting point, many modellers have turned to the case of the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that experienced one of the first large outbreaks of the coronavirus. Most of the 3711 people on board were tested for the virus – 712 were found to have been infected, and at least 13 people have died.
6-17-20 COVID-19 lockdowns helped people get more, but not necessarily better, sleep
Stress may have reduced extra Z’s quality. Lockdowns haven’t just curbed coronavirus transmission — they’ve also helped people get more sleep (SN: 6/9/20). Two studies, both published June 10 in Current Biology, report that people began sleeping more and more regularly every night after countries imposed stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But that sleep may not have been of the best quality, one of those studies finds. In one study, researchers compared sleeping patterns of 139 students from the University of Colorado Boulder before and after stay-at-home orders moved classes online. Students’ sleep schedules became more regular and better aligned with their body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, the team found. Those students also got more sleep overall. Before lockdowns, 84 percent of students reported getting seven hours a night or more during the week — the minimum amount that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends for adults to maintain health. After the lockdowns were in place, that number went up to 92 percent. A separate study of 435 people in Austria, Switzerland and Germany found that people there also reported sleeping more regularly and for longer periods. That sleep, however, may have been of lower quality and included problems such as falling or staying asleep. Participants reported a reduction in their mental and physical health during COVID-19 lockdowns, which was associated with lower-quality sleep. Worse sleep, despite spending more time in bed, may have outweighed any benefits from a regular sleep schedule, the authors of this study say. But getting outside in natural sunlight and exercising could help improve sleep quality.
6-17-20 Monitoring of ticks in the US is patchy and underfunded
Tick-borne diseases are on the rise in the US – but programmes to monitor the spread of ticks and the pathogens they carry are underfunded and patchy, according to a survey of professionals working in the area. The findings are “disconcerting”, says Emily Mader at Cornell University in New York, who led the work. In 2018, ticks were responsible for 47,743 reported cases of human disease in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lyme disease is the most common – and in fact is the most common vector-borne disease in the US. “But there are many others that are less well known,” says Mader. Some ticks can carry the Powassan virus, for example, which can cause encephalitis. “It has a high fatality rate,” says Mader. “Those that do survive often have long-term issues because it attacks the nervous system.” Mader and her colleagues surveyed 140 people working in the US on the control of vector-borne diseases, including academics and people at local, county and state public health and vector-control agencies. All participants were asked about their tick surveillance and control programmes, including how the prevalence of ticks is assessed, how ticks are screened for disease-causing pathogens and any difficulties teams encountered in undertaking these programmes. Three-quarters of respondents said they had a programme to detect the presence of ticks, but only 26 per cent reported having an initiative to test ticks for potentially harmful pathogens. And only 12 per cent reported having a tick control programme in place. “Unfortunately, it’s a pretty patchy system across the country,” says Mader. “There’s no uniform approach to doing tick surveillance.” When asked, those who completed the survey “universally said they need more funding”, she says.
6-17-20 Fossil cells with 'tails' may have been moving 3.4 billion years ago
Some of the earliest microorganisms may have been able to move around under their own power using whip-like “tails”, according to a study of fossils from 3.4 billion years ago. However, other palaeontologists say the evidence is weak – although they agree that the ability to move probably did evolve early. The oldest confirmed fossils are 3.5 billion years old. They are all single-celled organisms like bacteria. Many researchers have claimed to have found older fossils, but none are widely accepted. Researchers led by Frédéric Delarue of Sorbonne University in Paris, France have now described a new collection of microfossils from the Strelley Pool Formation in Pilbara, Western Australia. The rocks in which they were found are 3.4 billion years old. The cells are leaf-shaped. They range from 30 to 84 micrometres long, and about half that wide. The team dug them out by dissolving the surrounding rock using acid. Such “microfossils” sometimes turn out to be peculiar rock formations, so the team performed a number of chemical tests to confirm that they are the remains of living organisms. “We observe nitrogen and phosphorus that are preserved in the fossils,” says team member Romain Tartèse of the University of Manchester in the UK – these are characteristics elements of life. Abderrazak El Albani of the University of Poitiers in France says he is convinced that the fossils are genuine. “It’s very good and very well documented,” he says. But exactly what the fossils demonstrate is more controversial. A handful of the fossilised cells have a short rod sticking out at one end, which the team calls a “lash-like appendage”. “I have about 500 specimens,” says Delarue. Only four have the appendages. “Most of them lost it during geological history,” he says.
6-16-20 The FDA has canceled emergency use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19
The risks of giving the malaria drug don’t outweigh the benefits, the agency rules. Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine no longer have the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s blessing for use against coronavirus infections when given outside of a clinical trial. In March, the agency authorized using the malaria drugs for hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who couldn’t participate in clinical trials. But the legal criteria for issuing an emergency use authorization are no longer met, the agency said in a statement June 15. The drugs are “unlikely to produce an antiviral effect,” Denise Hinton, the agency’s chief scientist noted in a June 15 letter of revocation. Studies have shown that the drugs are no better than a placebo for preventing COVID-19 in people exposed to the coronavirus and don’t speed recovery for those with serious illness (SN: 6/4/20; SN: 4/21/20). “The totality of scientific evidence currently available indicate a lack of benefit,” the agency statement said. After reviewing evidence, it’s “no longer reasonable to believe that [hydroxychloroquine] and [chloroquine] may be effective in treating COVID-19,” Hinton wrote. The drugs’ risks, which can include disruptions of heart rhythms, don’t outweigh the benefits of using them, she wrote. The ruling came at the request of Gary Disbrow, acting director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. The agency, within the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, is tasked with evaluating vaccines, drugs and therapies to combat threats to national security and public health. In addition, the FDA warned June 15 that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine shouldn’t be given in combination with remdesivir, an antiviral drug that has been shown to shorten recovery time from COVID-19 (SN: 4/29/20). The malaria drugs reduced remdesivir’s antiviral activity in laboratory experiments, the agency said in a statement.
6-16-20 Genetically modified goats can produce cancer drugs in their milk
Goats can be genetically modified to produce a common cancer drug in their milk, which could slash its production costs. Many of the new blockbuster drugs that are used as cancer treatments are more expensive than older medicines, because they are complex proteins called monoclonal antibodies that are complicated to make. The bowel cancer drug cetuximab, for example, is produced by mouse cells that have been genetically engineered to make a specific monoclonal antibody. This expensive manufacturing process means the drug, which is sold under the name Erbitux, costs around £3000 a month for a single patient in the UK. A team led by Goetz Laible at AgResearch, a government-owned research institute in New Zealand, wanted to find out if it could make cetuximab at higher volumes more cheaply – by genetically engineering goats to produce the protein in their milk. First, the researchers inserted genes into goat embryos that carried instructions on how to make cetuximab in the mammary glands. Female goats were then impregnated with the embryos and their genetically modified offspring were born five months later. The offspring were all female and once they began lactating, they were able to produce about 10 grams of cetuximab in each litre of their milk. Since goats produce about 800 litres of milk every year, this means that each could manufacture multiple kilograms of cetuximab in a year. “It’s a lot more economic to make cetuximab in animals because their mammary glands can produce large amounts of proteins,” says Laible. The genetic modification didn’t appear to affect the goats’ health, he adds. Goats producing multiple kilograms of cetuximab in a year would represent “excellent productivity”, says Stephen Mahler at the University of Queensland, Australia. The same process could potentially be used to manufacture other monoclonal antibody drugs, says Mahler.
6-16-20 Rising sea levels may have helped dinosaurs dominate the planet
Vast floods caused by sea level rise may have helped dinosaurs take over the planet. The first dinosaurs evolved early in the Triassic period, about 245 million years ago, but these were rare. It took about another 20 million years before they came to dominate land ecosystems. Palaeontologists are unsure why the dinosaurs came to be so numerous and diverse, while other reptile groups like crocodiles didn’t. In 2019, researchers led by Tore Klausen, then at the University of Bergen in Norway, reported that in the late Triassic there was a vast river delta in what is now the Barents Sea between Norway and Russia. The floodplain was 10 times the size of the Amazon delta. It lay on the north coast of Pangaea: the vast landmass that existed at the time and included all the modern-day continents. Klausen and his colleagues have now found that most of this area flooded and became a shallow sea around 227 million years ago. Sediments characteristic of land were replaced by traces of wetlands and then seabed. Fossil pollen revealed that the plants also changed: those adapted to dry land were first replaced by more swamp-like plants, says Klausen, and then marine plankton. The floods were caused by rising seas. Today the seas are rising because the water is warming and expanding, and because ice caps are melting, but in the Triassic the climate was consistently warm and there were no ice caps to melt. Instead, Klausen says “global tectonic events” that changed the shape of the seabed, such as rising underwater mountains, were responsible. Because the floodplain was so flat, even a small rise in sea level would inundate most of it, he says. The huge floods must have had a big impact on land animals, says Klausen, which could explain how dinosaurs came to dominate. Klausen suggests that other reptiles were specialised in floodplain environments and became marginalised when this habitat was drowned.
6-15-20 There is no perfect diet that works for every metabolism or body type
There is no such thing as a healthy diet that will work for everyone. People respond to food in such idiosyncratic ways that everybody needs a personalised eating plan, according to results from a study that looked at the effects of genetics, the microbiome and lifestyle factors on metabolism. The study fed 1102 healthy people identical meals for two weeks and measured their metabolic responses. These varied wildly, with up to tenfold differences, meaning that a healthy diet for one person could be unhealthy for another. “Everyone reacts differently to identical foods,” says Tim Spector at King’s College London. He and his colleagues measured levels of glucose, insulin and triglyceride fats in the volunteers’ blood. High levels of all three after eating are a risk factor for obesity, while people who show glucose and triglyceride spikes after eating are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The team also tracked the volunteers’ sleep, exercise and hunger levels, and took stool samples to assay their gut microbes. Spector, a geneticist, says he expected to find a strong genetic component to the metabolic responses, but actually saw very little. The volunteers included several pairs of identical twins and even they showed very different responses to the same meal. “That told us straight away that genes don’t play a major part,” says Spector. “How we respond to a fatty meal has virtually no genetic component at all, for example.” His team found that only about 30 per cent of glucose response is genetic. Other factors such as gut microbes, circadian rhythms and sleep and exercise are more important, says Spector. The timing of meals also matters. Some people metabolise food better in the morning while others saw no difference in their ability to metabolise food throughout the day.
6-15-20 We can make robots from gelatine and other edible ingredients
Soft, edible robots that mimic real organisms could find a use as way to deliver drugs to animals. That is just one potential application of a new material made from biodegradable gel. “The question is, could we develop a material that is at the same time very reliable while you use it, but once triggered can completely degrade?” says Martin Kaltenbrunner at Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria. Kaltenbrunner and his colleagues created a gel out of food-safe ingredients, including gelatine, which can be fully degraded by the body, glycerol for softness and to prevent dehydration, and citric acid to stop bacterial growth. The biogel is designed to be eaten by bacteria commonly found in wastewater, meaning it breaks down naturally if it ends up in landfill, for instance, but remains stable otherwise. In lab tests, the team found that the gel didn’t dry out or lose any of its properties for over a year. The team used the gel to make a robot that mimics an elephant’s trunk and found that it could withstand over 330,000 cycles of non-stop movements without drying out or cracking. They also integrated sensors to allow for feedback and control. The team added a pressure sensor to another robot made from the gel, a toy elephant, allowing it to grip objects with its trunk. Since gelatine is edible, the gel might also be useful for administering drugs to animals, by creating a robot disguised as prey or food says Kaltenbrunner. It could also be used to make safer children’s toys, he says. The electronics and sensors are currently not edible, however. “Gelatine stands out for its versatility, ease of manufacturing, and low cost compared to other biodegradable elastomers,” says Dario Floreano at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne in Switzerland. “This work is important… because it paves the way for a new generation of wearable sensors and computing devices.”
6-13-20 How can international travel resume during the coronavirus pandemic?
Much of the world is starting to open up again, with many countries easing or planning to ease coronavirus travel restrictions. But would-be travellers face a confusing, uncertain and fast-changing situation. As the coronavirus spread around the world, a lot of countries – but not all – closed their borders to varying extents. Some require all travellers to self-isolate or to be quarantined in special facilities for 14 days after entry. Others allow only their own citizens to enter. These measures have helped control the spread of the coronavirus. “Travel bans actually do work, as we see with China and New Zealand,” says Julian Tang at the University of Leicester in the UK. But the economic and social costs are enormous, especially for places that are heavily reliant on tourism. Many countries are now trying ease travel restrictions without triggering a resurgence in infections. They are taking a variety of approaches, even inside the European Union. Cyprus unilaterally opened up to a small number of specified European countries – not including the UK – from 9 June. This means travellers from these countries will no longer have to self-isolate after entry. Similarly, France, Germany and a few others will open to most European countries from 15 June, with France asking visitors from some countries to voluntarily self-isolate. Greece will allow visitors to enter without self-isolating from 15 June provided their flight comes from an airport that isn’t on a list of airports deemed to be high risk by the European Aviation Safety Agency – though the list is intended only as a guide to what disinfection procedures are needed. A few UK airports aren’t on this list. Spain will begin reopening from 1 July. It plans to trial a system under which tourists will be tested on arrival and will have to remain isolated in their hotels for 6 hours as they await the results.
6-13-20 Clues to the earliest known bow-and-arrow hunting outside Africa have been found
Possible arrowheads at a rainforest site in Sri Lanka date to 48,000 years ago. People hunted with bows and arrows in a rainforest on a South Asian island starting around 48,000 years ago, a new study suggests. Small bone artifacts with sharpened tips unearthed in a Sri Lankan cave represent the earliest evidence of bow-and-arrow use outside Africa, says a team led by archaeologist Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Microscopic analyses of 130 of those bone points revealed surface cracks and other damage caused by high-speed impacts, likely because these artifacts were used as arrowheads, Langley and her colleagues conclude June 12 in Science Advances. Notches and wear at the bottom of the bone points indicate that they were attached to thin shafts. But the finds, from sediment in Fa-Hien Lena cave dating to between 48,000 and 34,000 years ago, are too short and heavy to have served as tips of blowgun darts, the investigators contend. Bow-and-arrow hunting at the Sri Lankan site likely focused on monkeys and smaller animals, such as squirrels, Langley says. Remains of these creatures were found in the same sediment as the bone points. Evidence increasingly points to hunting with bows and arrows in Africa more than 60,000 years ago, says Marlize Lombard, an archaeologist at the University of Johannesburg who wasn’t involved in the study. “I would not be surprised to see [bow-and-arrow] hunting associated with any Homo sapiens group after about 65,000 years ago, regardless of location,” Lombard says. Lombard, however, reserves judgment on the Sri Lankan bone points until high-resolution CT scans are used to probe for damage from high-speed impacts inside the artifacts. That technique helped to determine that a more than 60,000-year-old bone point previously unearthed in South Africa was probably an arrowhead, a team including Lombard reported in the May 15 Quaternary Science Reviews.
6-12-20 Three people with inherited diseases successfully treated with CRISPR
Two people with beta thalassaemia and one with sickle cell disease no longer require blood transfusions, which are normally used to treat severe forms of these inherited diseases, after their bone marrow stem cells were gene-edited with CRISPR. Result of the ongoing trial, which is the first to use CRISPR to treat inherited genetic disorders, were announced today at a virtual meeting of the European Hematology Association. “The preliminary results… demonstrate, in essence, a functional cure for patients with beta thalassaemia and sickle cell disease,” team member Haydar Frangoul at Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, Tennessee, said in a statement. Beta thalassaemia and sickle cell are diseases caused by mutations that affect haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells. Those with severe forms require regular blood transfusions. However, a few people with the disease-causing mutations never show any symptoms, because they keep producing fetal haemoglobin in adulthood. Normally, fetal haemoglobin stops being produced soon after birth. This discovery has inspired the development of treatments based on boosting fetal haemoglobin. In this trial, run by collaborating companies CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex, bone marrow stem cells are removed from people and the gene that turns off fetal haemoglobin production is disabled with CRISPR. The remaining bone marrow cells are killed by chemotherapy, then replaced by the edited cells. This is done to ensure new blood cells are produced by the edited stem cells, but the chemotherapy can have serious side effects including infertility. The first two patients with beta thalassaemia no longer need blood transfusions since being treated 15 and 5 months ago. Nor does the patient with sickle cell disease, 9 months after treatment.
6-12-20 The way the coronavirus messes with smell hints at how it affects the brain
Conflicting data leave big questions about how the virus operates. The virus responsible for COVID-19 can steal a person’s sense of smell, leaving them noseblind to fresh-cut grass, a pungent meal or even their own stale clothes. But so far, details remain elusive about how SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, can infiltrate and shut down the body’s smelling machinery. One recent hint comes from a young radiographer who lost her sense of smell. She had signs of viral infection in her brain. Other studies, though, have not turned up signs of the virus in the brain. Contradictory evidence means that no one knows whether SARS-CoV-2 can infect nerve cells in the brain directly, and if so, whether the virus’s route to the brain can sometimes start in the nose. Understanding how people’s sense of smell is harmed (SN: 5/11/20), a symptom estimated to afflict anywhere between 20 and 80 percent of people with COVID-19, could reveal more about how the virus operates. One thing is certain so far, though: The virus can steal the sense of smell in a way that’s not normal. “There’s something unusual about the relationship between COVID-19 and smell,” says neuroscientist Sandeep Robert Datta of Harvard Medical School in Boston. Colds can prevent smelling by stuffing the nose up with mucus. But SARS-CoV-2 generally leaves the nose clear. “Lots of people are complaining about losing their sense of smell when they don’t feel stuffed up at all,” Datta says. Recent studies have begun to identify the cells in the olfactory epithelium, a slender sheet of tissue that lines part of the nasal cavity, that seem vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Smell-supporting cells called sustentacular cells are likely targets, scientists report in two new papers, one in ACS Chemical Neuroscience and the other posted at bioRxiv.org, a repository for research that hasn’t been peer-reviewed by other scientists.
6-12-20 A critically ill COVID-19 patient just got a double lung transplant
It’s reportedly the first time a coronavirus patient has had this surgery in the United States. The successful transplantation of a donor’s lungs to a severely ill COVID-19 patient may offer others with irreversibly damaged lungs a means of survival. A young woman whose lungs were inflamed and scarred beyond repair because of COVID-19 has received a double lung transplant, doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago said in a news briefing June 11. It’s believed to be the first time this procedure has been used for a coronavirus patient in the United States. Similar transplants have been reported in Austria and China. “If she didn’t get the transplant, she would not be alive,” said Ankit Bharat, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine who headed the transplant team. It’s not clear yet how many patients whose lungs are destroyed by the coronavirus could benefit from this approach, he said. The Northwestern patient, a Hispanic woman in her 20s, had no health problems before her infection. Almost as soon as she had arrived at the hospital she needed help breathing with a mechanical ventilator, a sign of “how sick her lungs already were,” said Elizabeth Malsin, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. A COVID-19 infection can cause pneumonia, leaving alveoli — the little air sacs that allow the lungs and the blood to swap oxygen and carbon dioxide — inflamed and filled with fluid. While some people recover from the pneumonia, others may experience long-lasting lung damage (SN: 4/27/20). The young woman was in the intensive care unit for about six weeks. But once she’d finally cleared the virus, the damage unleashed by the virus had obliterated the alveoli. “Once the lungs get permanently damaged they just don’t get better,” Bharat says. “We don’t have enough medications to get them back.” The June 5 double lung transplant took about 10 hours — a few hours longer than is usual — because the dense scarring in the patient’s lungs left them stuck to surrounding structures, Bharat said. But she is improving every day, he said, and has been able to FaceTime with her family. “Yesterday she smiled and told me … ‘Doc, thank you for not giving up on me.’”
6-12-20 Scientists want to build a Noah’s Ark for the human microbiome
The project aims to safeguard the beneficial microbes living in and on the human body. Our bodies host a vast ecosystem of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Just as scientists are beginning to understand how this microbiome supports human health, hallmarks of modern life such as antibiotics and processed foods may be pushing many of our microbial residents toward extinction. Now an international team of scientists wants to safeguard humanity’s long-term health by creating a Noah’s Ark for microbes. Taking inspiration from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which protects the world’s crop diversity from natural or human-made disasters, the team proposes to create the Microbiota Vault to preserve human microbiome collections that may one day be used to prevent disease. The project is both possible and prudent, a team of independent experts at two Switzerland-based firms, EvalueScience and advocacy. reports June 11. “If we are just at the beginning of really understanding and elucidating what is the role of the microbiota, it is of course precautionary to at least safeguard part of this diversity before it just goes away,” says Dominik Steiger, chief operating officer of EvalueScience, which is based in Zurich. Studies, mostly in animals, suggest that a missing microbe or a dearth of microbial diversity may contribute to a wide range of health conditions, from obesity and inflammatory bowel disorders (SN: 10/16/17) to C. difficile infection (SN: 10/24/18) and Lou Gehrig’s disease (SN: 7/22/19). Researchers suspect that many modern practices contribute to the decline of our beneficial microbial partners, including being born by cesarean section (SN: 9/18/19), eating a low-fiber diet (SN: 1/15/16) and overusing antibiotics (SN: 7/31/15). “Rural peoples are urbanizing and traditional peoples living in savannas and in jungles are moving to cities,” says Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, a microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a leader of the Microbiota Vault initiative. “What we see is that we are losing [microbiome] diversity, and in parallel there is a correlation with increase in chronic diseases.”
6-12-20 Fossil footprints show some crocodile ancestors walked on two legs
Puzzling nearby tracks were likely also made by a bipedal croc ancestor, not a giant pterosaur. Fossil tracks preserved in a South Korean rock formation are the first footprint evidence that some ancient ancestors of modern crocodiles walked on two legs. The size and spacing of the 106-million-year-old tracks suggest the crocodylomorph was 2 to 3 meters long — a fearsome predator similar in size to its modern descendants, researchers report June 11 in Scientific Reports. The tracks were found in the fossil-rich Jinju Formation, home to the remains of a wide variety of animals including dinosaurs. It’s tough to identify a species from footprints, says paleontologist Martin Lockley of the University of Colorado Denver. “Short of finding the animal dead in its tracks, there’s always a little bit of uncertainty.” But the beautifully preserved prints made it possible to attribute them to Batrachopus, a genus of fossil tracks known to be made by crocodylomorphs. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the tracks is the utter absence of any manus, or hand, prints — strong evidence that the creature walked on only its hind legs, Lockley says. “We have dozens of these things, and not one sign of a front footprint, so we’re pretty convinced.” A bipedal crocodylomorph might have also been responsible for an enigmatic set of tracks found in the nearby, similarly aged Haman Foundation. In 2012, the same team of researchers speculated in Ichnos that the bipedal Haman tracks might have been made by pterosaurs, winged reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs. However, most researchers — including Lockley and colleagues — are now convinced that pterosaurs were quadrupedal (SN: 10/19/08). The new tracks aren’t the first hint that some crocodile ancestors walked on two legs. About 231 million years ago, Carnufex carolinensis — nicknamed the Carolina Butcher — may have prowled North Carolina on its hind legs (SN: 3/19/15).
6-11-20 Ancient footprints could be from a crocodile that walked on two legs
Ancient footprints first thought to belong to a pterosaur may actually have been made by a large bipedal ancestor of crocodiles that lived about 110 to 120 million years ago. Martin Lockley at the University of Colorado Denver and his colleagues found a set of fossilised footprints near Sacheon City, South Korea. The tracks were more detailed and well-preserved than similar ones discovered in 2012 about 50 kilometres away, which were thought to have been made by a giant flying reptile called a pterosaur. The newly discovered tracks are 18 to 24 centimetres long, and include detailed skin impressions left by the animal’s heels and toes. Lockley and his team say the size and skin patterns are consistent with those belonging to a large ancestor of modern crocodiles, called a crocodylomorph, that walked on two legs. The new findings suggest previously discovered footprints may also have been formed by a crocodylomorph, rather than a pterosaur, says Lockley. This was a surprise, he says. “No one knew that large bipedal crocs existed in the early Cretaceous.” The team has suggested that these tracks may belong to a new species, which they have named Batrachopus grandis. “The discovery of the new tracks solved the ‘whodunnit’ mystery,” says Lockley. He says the next step will be to look for more tracks in this region, where the quality of preservations is particularly high. Michela Johnson at the University of Edinburgh in the UK says the tracks appear to have very distinct, chunky-looking toes, in addition to impressions from crocodile-like scales, both of which are more consistent with crocodylomorph rather than pterosaur origin. “But modern crocodiles have at least some webbing between toes in their back feet, whereas these tracks don’t appear to have any,” she says, adding that it isn’t clear whether this is related to the different way these ancient crocodiles may have walked compared with their modern counterparts.
6-11-20 Fossil tracks left by an ancient crocodile that 'ran like an ostrich'
Scientists have been stunned to find that some ancient crocodiles might have moved around on two feet. The evidence comes from beautifully preserved fossil tracks in South Korea. Nearly a hundred of these 18-24cm-long indentations were left in what were likely the muddy sediments that surrounded a lake in the Early Cretaceous, 110-120 million years ago. The international team behind the discovery says it will probably challenge our perception of crocodiles. "People tend to think of crocodiles as animals that don't do very much; that they just laze around all day on the banks of the Nile or next to rivers in Costa Rica. Nobody automatically thinks I wonder what this [creature] would be like if it was bipedal and could run like an ostrich or a T. rex," Martin Lockley, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, US, told BBC News. The study is sure to provoke a lively debate. Not all researchers will necessarily accept the team's interpretation. Prof Lockley and colleagues have assigned the name Batrachopus grandis to the animal that made the tracks, although no physical remains of it have yet been uncovered. The acknowledgement of the creature's existence rests solely on the fossil prints themselves. These look very similar in shape, albeit much larger, to those made by Batrachopus crocs that lived tens of millions of years earlier in the Jurassic. Except those older beasts very evidently were quadrupeds - they did walk on all fours. A bipedal interpretation for the new Korean trace fossils is the only explanation, claims Prof Lockley. "We can see all the digits, all the ridges in the skin - just as if you were looking at your hands," he explained. "They put one foot in front of another; they could pass a sobriety test walking on a straight line. And there are no front footprints."
6-11-20 England's covid-19 contact tracers failed to reach thousands of people
In its first week of operation, England’s coronavirus contact tracing scheme was unable to reach a third of the people who tested positive for the virus, official figures show. The NHS Test and Trace system has been hailed as a vital way for the country to manage the epidemic as it relaxes lockdown and social distancing measures. It involves asking people who have been in close contact with someone who has the virus to self-isolate. The first statistics for the scheme, released today, show it was able to contact 5407 of 8117 people who tested positive between 28 May and 3 June, and was unable to contact the remaining 33 per cent. The people who did respond disclosed an average of around six close contacts, or 31,794 in total, and the contact tracers managed to reach around 85 per cent of this number. An earlier contact tracing initiative that was running in the first weeks of the UK epidemic managed to reach 95 per cent of close contacts, before it was shut down. Sustaining a high percentage of contacts being reached will be crucial in the coming months, as modelling has shown levels above 80 per cent are needed to keep the spread of covid-19 in check. The new figures did not include any data on the time between tests being ordered and tracers reaching the onward contacts of positive cases. It is vital to keep this time period as short as possible to reduce the spread of the virus. Speaking at a press conference today, Dido Harding at Test and Trace said the scheme needs to work faster, though did not provide a date for when these statistics would be released. Asked by New Scientist why the service was reaching fewer contacts than its predecessor, Harding said it is because the system is still very new. “I don’t think that comparison looks too shabby for a service that’s a week old.”
6-11-20 Brain switch lets us control a kind of suspended animation in mice
Two groups of researchers have independently discovered a “brain switch” that makes starving mice enter a hibernation-like state called torpor to save energy. They hope it may be possible to induce similar states in people. “Suspended animation could transform medicine and open the door to fantastic possibilities such as space travel and life extension,” says Sinisa Hrvatin at Harvard Medical School. Many birds and mammals, from hummingbirds to lemurs, lower their body temperature and enter a state of suspended animation as a way to survive when times are tough. Some hibernate through winters, others enter a state called torpor for hours or days to save energy. Mice normally enter torpor only when they run out of food, but Hrvatin’s team genetically engineered mice to let them control the activity of certain neurons by injecting a chemical. The team showed that stimulating specific clusters of neurons in the hypothalamus can induce a torpor-like state even in mice that are well-fed, and that inhibiting these cells prevents mice entering torpor. In a separate study, Takeshi Sakurai at the University of Tsukuba in Japan identified the same brain switch using a different approach. His team looked for neurons in mice that produce a short protein called QRFP, which previous studies had suggested was linked to torpor, and found that stimulating these neurons induced torpor. They also found that stimulating the equivalent neurons in rats had the same effect, even though rats do not enter torpor normally. Being able to induce a similar state in people could have many uses in medicine, helping to treat everything from cancer to strokes and injuries, but it is not clear whether this switch also exists in humans. “We don’t know if humans have the same cells, and we don’t know if stimulating them would have the same effect,” Hrvatin says.
6-10-20 Covid-19 news: UK infections mostly came from Spain, France and Italy
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. The coronavirus was introduced and spread throughout the UK by 1356 people who travelled here mostly from European countries, according to a preliminary study by researchers in the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed. The researchers analysed genetic sequences from 20,000 coronavirus cases in the UK and used this to build a family tree. This revealed the lineage of the different infections and allowed the team to trace their origins. They estimate that 34 per cent of these original coronavirus cases were people who arrived in the UK from Spain, 29 per cent from France and 14 per cent from Italy. The researchers estimate that most introductions of the virus to the UK happened in March. The number of people on waiting lists for NHS treatment in England could more than double to 9.8 million by the end of the year, according to a letter sent to UK prime minister Boris Johnson today from the NHS Confederation, a membership body that represents people who commission or provide NHS services. Before the pandemic, 4.4 million people were waiting for treatments, such as hernia repair, cataract removal or hip or knee replacement. Schools in England will struggle to reopen in September, said Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, a government body responsible for inspecting schools. He said, “If you’re going to insist on social distancing and a maximum of 15 in a class, we will need double the amount of space, we will need double the amount of teachers and we’ve got to make sure we have that.” 24 per cent of people in the UK said they were experiencing at least one mental health problem in April this year, according to a survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) think tank. This is more than double the predicted level compared to pre-pandemic data collected between 2017 and 2019. Women and young people reported the largest declines in their mental health, according to the IFS. Use of face coverings by the public, when combined with physical distancing or periods of lockdown, may provide an acceptable way of reopening economic activity while managing the spread of coronavirus, suggests a modelling study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.
6-10-20 How brain scanners can help us revolutionise psychiatric drugs
WHEN it comes to treating mental health conditions, you could say we have been working in the dark. The drugs we use to treat them are notoriously problematic. Almost every one of them was developed before the advent of brain scanners, and Mitul Mehta believes these powerful machines offer an unrivalled chance to open a window onto brain conditions and see how the brain responds to treatments. This could ultimately help us find better medications. Pushing the boundaries of conventional drug discovery methods, Mehta, who is a professor of neuroimaging and psychopharmacology at King’s College London, is using scanners to explore how psychedelic drugs and even hypnosis influence the brain in an effort to find new ways to treat psychiatric and neurological conditions. What he is finding is unmasking much about the way the brain works, and causing us to reconsider the way we think about mental illness. Pretty much every drug available in psychiatry, we don’t really know how they work in the brain. There is a huge unmet need in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. For example, we might be interested in a potential new treatment that might impact the reward system in the brain. You might have a symptom of low motivation, which is quite common across the psychiatric spectrum, for instance in schizophrenia and depression. One of the questions is: is low motivation mediated by the same circuits in the brain? If it is, then maybe it might be responsive to the same or similar treatments. So there might be benefits in looking at symptoms and how to understand particular symptoms better, and then how to treat those symptoms better, because you might benefit more than one diagnosis. So, rather than dealing with specific psychiatric illnesses that fit our current labelling system, you are almost looking at things that run deeper below them? For sure. I think this is the way to go. Psychiatric diagnoses are clinically useful, but they are not based on a neurobiology, they are not based on a functional understanding of the brain. If we are going to base new treatment development on a neurobiological understanding of the brain, we want to look at processes and symptoms, and they may cross diagnostic boundaries.
6-10-20 Turning the spleen into a liver saves mice from fatal organ damage
Repurposing the spleens of mice helps them to survive liver damage. If the approach works in people, it could offer an alternative to liver transplants. At the moment, people who need new livers often have to wait a long time for a donor organ to become available. Scientists have tried engineering livers in the lab, but have found it too difficult to recreate their intricate blood vessel networks. Lei Dong at Nanjing University in China and his colleagues wondered if, instead, they could transform an organ like the spleen – one that we can survive without and that already has ready-made blood vessels – into a working liver. To do this, they injected the spleens of live mice with a biological substance to make them larger and stiffer and better able to support the growth of new tissue. Next, they transplanted liver cells into the remodelled spleens to see if the cells would integrate with the existing blood vessels and develop into liver tissue. Over the next eight weeks, the liver cells successfully grew in the spleens and developed into liver-like organs, complete with bile ducts and other liver structures. The converted organs were also able to perform essential liver functions such as drug metabolism. Dong’s team then removed 90 per cent of the livers in the mice to see if their new spleen-based livers could take over. All the mice with spleen-based livers survived, whereas other mice died within two days of having liver tissue removed. “Our results suggest that we have transformed the spleen into an organ that functions as a liver,” the researchers write. In humans, the spleen isn’t an essential organ, and people can have their spleens removed for medical reasons. Dong and his colleagues suggest that repurposing people’s spleens to act like livers could help them to overcome liver disease without causing other complications. However, spleen-based livers couldn’t perform all the functions of real livers because they are hooked up differently to the circulation, says Geoff McCaughan at the University of Sydney, Australia. For example, one job of the liver is to detoxify blood coming from the portal vein, but the spleen has no direct access to this vein, he says.
6-10-20 An artist carved this tiny bird sculpture 13,000 years ago in China
A tiny carving of a bird discovered in what is now modern China is one of the oldest known sculptures unearthed there. The find suggests sculpture was invented separately in Europe and Asia. “It’s quite possible that it is a tradition that originated in China or east Asia,” says Francesco d’Errico at the University of Bordeaux in France. The carving depicts a bird, probably a songbird. It is 1.9 centimetres long and 1.2 centimetres high and was carved from the bone of an unidentified animal. Whoever the sculptor was, they were highly skilled. Despite the figurine’s small size, there are 68 identifiable worked areas, with traces of 10 different techniques used to work the bone, including flaking, gouging and polishing. The sculpture was also heated to at least 300 °C. The bird’s intricacy suggests there are older, simpler sculptures that haven’t yet been found, says d’Errico. “This cannot come out of nothing. His co-author Zhanyang Li at Shandong University in Qingdao, China, and his team discovered the figurine in 2009. However, it has taken a decade to study it fully, because the circumstances in which it was discovered were unusual. The team found it at the Lingjing site in Henan Province, China. The location is known for older finds, such as archaic human skulls and bones with carved marks that may have been made by ancient humans. The sculpture was in a spoil heap dug up by well diggers in the 1950s. As a result, the team isn’t entirely certain which layer of earth the sculpture was originally in, which is a “weak point” in our knowledge, says d’Errico. It is also not possible to carbon-date the figurine itself, because it is so small. “It would probably destroy half of it,” says d’Errico. Instead, the team carbon-dated bits of burned bone and charcoal that they found in the same spoil heap, all of which turned out to be between 13,800 and 13,000 years old. One piece of burned bone had marks similar to those on the bird, suggesting it was made by the same people. “We are quite confident that the figurine is the same age as this time window,” says d’Errico.
6-10-20 The biggest dinosaur ever may have been twice the size we thought
A near-mythical titanosaur could have been twice as heavy as Patagotitan, the dinosaur previously thought to be the largest animal ever to walk the Earth. FOR a century, visitors to Chicago’s Field Museum have marvelled at a display featuring two African bush elephants, frozen mid-fight. In the past couple of years, however, this awesome spectacle of the largest living land animals has been overshadowed by an enormous skeleton. As impressive as the elephants are, they look like squabbling children beside Patagotitan, a 100-million-year-old sauropod dinosaur that was as long as a blue whale, taller than a giraffe and probably outweighed each elephant 10 times over. Since 2014, when news first broke of its discovery, Patagotitan has frequently been described as the most massive animal ever to walk the Earth. Such superlatives captivate us. Even if you aren’t a dinosaur fan, it is awe-inspiring to think that the skeleton in the Field Museum belongs to a creature that is as big as they get. Except it isn’t. Weighing up such giants isn’t simple, but new calculations indicate that other dinosaurs from the same family – the aptly named titanosaurs – were at least as massive. In fact, Patagotitan might not even come close to claiming the heavyweight title. Some palaeontologists now believe that the ground once trembled under the mass of a near-mythical dinosaur that was twice as heavy as Patagotitan. How they have reached these conclusions is a story of monumental discoveries, lost treasures, academic showmanship and clay models. Sauropods first appeared in either the Late Triassic or early Jurassic, about 200 million years ago. Dinosaurs in the group, which includes Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus, are known for having large bodies, long necks and tails, and tiny heads. Yet their most defining characteristic is their size (see “How to grow really big”). For more than a century, people have wanted to know just how big they could get. Until recently, an answer has proved elusive, not least because sauropods often leave surprisingly light footprints in the fossil record. “The bigger they are, the less of them we find,” says Mathew Wedel at the Western University of Health Sciences in California. “Burying a whale-sized land animal isn’t easy.”
6-10-20 Past epidemics underscore importance of mental health amid COVID-19
The mental health repercussions of the 2015 MERS outbreak were little acknowledged. But this time around, experts are sounding the alarm on the mental health crisis as coronavirus sweeps the globe. In 2015, a never-before-seen coronavirus called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, made its way to South Korea. The outbreak ultimately infected nearly 200 people in the country, most of whom worked in the health care sector. About three dozen died. "People were so shocked at the time," recalled Dr. Sun Jae Jung, a preventive medicine specialist and psychiatric epidemiologist who was working at a hospital in Seoul during the outbreak. "It didn't have any vaccines. It didn't have a treatment." Fear of the virus ripped through Korean society, Jung recalled. The mental health repercussions of the contagious disease weren't widely acknowledged. Health workers and people in quarantine lacked psychosocial support and suffered from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. "People were so frustrated that I think they didn't even recognize it's a mental health issue. So they were mostly focused on the biology of the virus and your fatality and how to prevent [it], but not about the mental health issues or of the frustrations or anxiety," Jung said. "They did not talk about it at that time." Five years later, it is clear the new coronavirus pandemic is causing a worldwide crisis in mental health as it makes its way around the globe, destroying lives and livelihoods. The United Nations has urged governments to take mental health consequences seriously. Previous infectious disease outbreaks, from Ebola to SARS, are now informing present-day virus responses. It helps that the global spotlight on mental health has grown in recent years. In South Korea, Jung said, she and others in the medical field wanted to prevent the mistakes made during the MERS outbreak. When COVID-19 emerged in the country in late January, they were keenly aware of the serious mental health challenges that could follow. Jung, who specializes in psychiatric epidemiology at Yonsei University College of Medicine in Seoul, began conducting surveys on the mental health of the general population. The results have yet to be published. "People were more anxious and [had] more acute stress symptoms," Jung said. "A lot of people reported they have issues in sleep, and also they have issues in anxiety symptoms — like they have a palpitation — they have some kind of panic symptoms." After the MERS outbreak, Jung and other health professionals came to realize that working on the medical front lines, or being infected and put in quarantine, could lead to acute stress, anxiety, and PTSD. Those mental health issues were on top of broader anxiety people often felt about the possibility of getting sick and having their lives disrupted. Health professionals, who were likeliest to be infected, faced an additional layer of stress during the MERS outbreak: They went from being a highly regarded sector to being almost vilified, with the stigma of the disease casting blame on those who were infected or at risk of spreading it. This time around, teams of psychologists in South Korea have been working with patients who are in quarantine for COVID-19, and more psychosocial support has been set up for hospital workers. But perhaps most notable, Jung said, is the shift she has observed in Korean society: People are talking about mental health. They even devised a term for pandemic-related emotional problems, especially after everyday life came to a halt. "We don't say corona depression, but we say 'corona blue'," Jung said. "I mean, like, everyone was depressed."
6-10-20 No, you can’t hear the difference between sick and healthy coughs
Humans can’t seem to pick up on subtle variations in the sounds. An aisle over in the grocery store, someone lets out a nasty cough, and you shudder. “That person sounds really sick,” you think as you head in the opposite direction. A new study may prompt you to think again. Humans can’t hear a difference between the cough of someone with an infection and someone with a mere tickle in the throat, researchers report June 10 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. People can fight infections off with the immune system, but that can take a lot of energy and doesn’t always work, says Nick Michalak, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Many organisms, including humans, have developed prophylactic behaviors to prevent pathogens from [causing infection] in the first place,” he says, like being grossed out by possibly infectious material like feces or snot. While there’s evidence that people can somewhat accurately suss out another’s infection by sight and smell, Michalak says sound was relatively unexplored. He and his colleagues played short audio clips of coughing from apparently sick and healthy people collated from YouTube for over 200 volunteers, asking whether each cough was from someone who was ill or not. Despite expressing confidence in their abilities, participants did no better than a coin flip in distinguishing between the two types of coughs. Michalak says that previous audiological research has revealed differences between sick and healthy coughs, but the human ear may not be able to distinguish them. Or perhaps people need to integrate how a person sounds with other observations, such as how someone looks, to make an accurate assessment. While many are on high alert for avoiding infection right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic (SN: 5/14/20), Michalak says that this study should give people pause before jumping to conclusions based on the tenor of someone’s cough alone.
6-10-20 How often do asymptomatic people spread the coronavirus? It’s unclear
People without COVID-19 symptoms rarely transmit the virus, WHO said, but later backtracked. Don’t put aside your mask. People who aren’t showing symptoms can pass the coronavirus on to others, experts say, despite a comment from a top global health official that it’s rare and not what is driving the pandemic. Controversy over whether people who don’t have symptoms are infectious arose during a World Health Organization news conference on June 8. “It still appears to be rare that an asymptomatic individual actually transmits [the virus] onward,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for the COVID-19 response, said. Public health officials should concentrate on finding and isolating people who do have symptoms in order to stop the pandemic, she said. Her statements about the coronavirus’s contagiousness in the absence of symptoms seemed to run counter to public health messages stressing the need for masks and social distancing to prevent people from unknowingly spreading the virus. Van Kerkhove walked back her comment in a news briefing the following day, saying that she had been referring to a small subset of studies that follow people who never show COVID-19 symptoms and their contacts. “We do know that some people who are asymptomatic can transmit the virus on,” she said in the June 9 briefing. “What we need to better understand is how many people in the population don’t have symptoms. And, separately, how many of those individuals go on to transmit [the virus] to others.” The WHO’s statement that asymptomatic transmission is rare “is not backed up by any data,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. “We know that there is asymptomatic transmission…. What we do not know is the extent to which that occurs. So when we hear statements that this is very rare, we do not know that as a fact.”
6-10-20 Claims that some diets can protect you from coronavirus are unfounded
Plenty of diets offer to boost your immune system to help protect you from covid-19, but there isn't any evidence they are true, says James Wong. IN THE space of less than a week, I read three front-page stories about “revolutionary” science-based diets that shield against covid-19. Intriguingly, all three eating patterns seemed rather different to each other, despite all being published in the same newspaper. The only thing that seemed to unite them was that the proponents, helpfully, also had new diet books out. There are dozens of “corona diets”, hailing everything from meat and ultra-low carbs to “superfoods” and veganism as ways to boost your immune system and protect you from the virus. It is a minefield. What does the evidence really say? Covid-19 is such a new disease that there is very little research in this area. Most of the tiny handful of studies that have been done to date are just weeks old and haven’t been peer-reviewed. It is impressive, then, that fully illustrated cookery books with hundreds of recipes could have been developed based on this scientific evidence, despite being published at the same time. First up, supercharging your immune system with specific foods, like garlic and honey, is an old debunked idea. “Simply put, you cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet, and no specific food or supplement will prevent you catching COVID-19/Coronavirus,” said the British Dietetic Association in a statement. This is just as well. An overactive immune response seems to be responsible for the worst effects of covid-19. So even if you could “supercharge” your immune system, it might be a very bad idea. In the absence of evidence for boosting immunity, many stories have focused on early evidence of a link between obesity and more severe covid-19 outcomes. The argument seems to be that, as thinner people tend to experience fewer complications from covid-19, any weight-losing diet will lead to a reduction in risk. But this oversimplifies the evidence.
6-10-20 Human eggs release chemicals that attract some sperm more than others
A person’s eggs may influence how likely they are to conceive with a particular partner by releasing chemicals that attract more sperm from some individuals than others. “This is the first time this has been described in humans, or in any other species with internal fertilisation,” says John Fitzpatrick at Stockholm University in Sweden. He and his colleagues studied samples of sperm and follicular fluid – the nutrient-rich fluid that surrounds an egg while it develops and when it is released – that were collected from 16 couples undergoing fertility treatments. Sperm swim through follicular fluid on their way to reach an unfertilised egg. The researchers found that each woman’s follicular fluid attracted more sperm from some men than others. There was no obvious pattern to explain which man’s sperm would be attracted to a woman’s follicular fluid; it appeared to be random and didn’t necessarily correlate with a woman’s chosen partner. “It was a real surprise,” says Fitzpatrick. The researchers measured the number of sperm that were able to move into each follicular fluid sample. They found that the average difference in sperm count between the fluid that attracted the most and the least sperm was approximately 18 per cent. “Eggs attracting around 18 per cent more sperm from specific males would likely be pretty important during fertilisations inside the female reproductive tract”, since only a small fraction of sperm reach the egg after sex, says Fitzpatrick. It is possible that eggs are more attracted to genetically compatible sperm, which may increase the chance that they are fertilised, says Fitzpatrick. The chemical interactions between eggs and sperm after sex may also play a role in why some people have difficulty conceiving. In around one in three couples who have fertility problems, there is no clear cause, says Fitzpatrick.
6-10-20 Red Lion: Archaeologists 'find London's earliest theatre'
London's earliest playhouse may have been discovered at a housing redevelopment in Whitechapel, archaeologists have said. The Red Lion was thought to be the first purpose-built theatre of the Elizabethan era but its location has long been disputed. Timber structures, artefacts and buildings were found during excavations in Stepney Way, east London, last year. Archaeologist Stephen White described it as an "extraordinary" discovery. The Red Lion is thought to have been built in about 1567 by John Brayne, ahead of his construction of The Theatre in Shoreditch, which he completed with James Burbage in 1576. Burbage was a member of acting company The Lord Chamberlain's Men and The Theatre was the first permanent home for acting troupes, staging a young William Shakespeare's plays in the 1590s. Little is known about the Red Lion, with contemporary details limited to two lawsuits in 1567 and 1569 that mentioned "the red lyon" and "a farme house", which had an outdoor stage and seating. In January 2019, archaeologists began to uncover a rectangular timber structure made up of 144 surviving timbers, with postholes around it, which could have been "scaffolds" or galleried seating. The site measures 12.3m (40ft) by 9.3m (31ft) and closely matches the dimensions mentioned in the lawsuits, experts said. The excavations were carried out by Archaeology South-East, part of UCL's Institute of Archaeology, before building work began at 85 Stepney Way. Mr White, who directed the work, said: "After nearly 500 years, the remains of the Red Lion playhouse, which marked the dawn of Elizabethan theatre, may have finally been found. "The strength of the combined evidence - archaeological remains of buildings, in the right location, of the right period - seem to match up with characteristics of the playhouse recorded in early documents." Buildings from the 15th and 16th Century that were further developed over the next 100 years were also found in the north-east corner of the site. Experts said they believed these could have been part of the Red Lion Inn, which is thought to have been developed from a farmstead on the site.
6-9-20 Is it safe for coronavirus 'shielders' in the UK to go outside now?
THE easing of lockdown restrictions in the UK has prompted growing concern from those taking extra precautions because they are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. On 31 May, the UK government announced that so-called shielders in England and Wales could now leave their homes. But what is the evidence behind the idea of shielding vulnerable people, and is it really safe for this to now stop? Many countries have told those thought to be at higher risk from coronavirus due to illness or age to take extra safety precautions. But because this virus is so new, advice has largely been based on people’s best judgements, rather than scientific evidence, and the details of the advice has varied between countries. The UK has been unusual in distinguishing between two groups of people at higher risk. In March, letters were sent to about 2 million people thought to be “clinically extremely vulnerable”, including some people with cancer, lung conditions such as severe asthma, and those who had had an organ transplant or have weak immune systems. Recipients were told they should stay home at all times. If they had no friends or family who could fetch essentials, they could get food parcels sent. There has also been advice that a larger group of people at more moderate risk, described as “clinically vulnerable”, should try to stay at home if possible, but can still go out when necessary. This group encompassed everyone over 70, plus those who are pregnant or who have any of a long list of health conditions. There has been some confusion between the two groups, leaving some people officially classed as at only moderate risk believing they shouldn’t ever go outside. Such confusion can have serious effects on well-being. Socialising and getting out are some of the first things that doctors recommend for people with mental health conditions such as depression, says Stephen Bradley, a family doctor in Leeds, who wrote an article in the BMJ calling for the UK government to be clearer on shielding. “These are quite drastic measures to take – it can have a big effect on people to be told not to leave the house.”
6-9-20 Biomedical studies are including more female subjects (finally)
Almost half of these studies now include male and female subjects. Here’s why that matters. Biomedical science has historically been a male-dominated world — not just for the scientists, but also for their research subjects. Even most lab mice were male (SN: 6/18/19). But now, a new study shows that researchers are starting to include more females — from mice to humans — in their work. In 2019, 49 percent of articles surveyed in biomedical science used both male and female subjects, almost twice as many as a decade before, according to findings published June 9 in eLife. A study of articles published in 2009 across 10 biomedical disciplines showed a dismal picture. Only 28 percent of 841 research studies included both males and female subjects. The results were published in 2011 in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. The scientific world took note. In 2016, the U.S. National Institutes of Health instituted the Sex as a Biological Variable policy in an effort to correct the imbalance. Scientists had to use both males and females in NIH-funded research unless they could present a “strong justification” otherwise. Annaliese Beery, a neuroscientist at Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., conducted the original study showing the extent of sex bias in research. In 2019, she and Nicole Woitowich, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., wanted to see if sex bias was still as strong as it was in 2009. Have things improved? After scanning another 720 articles across nine of the 10 original disciplines, Beery and Woitowich have shown that yes, they have, with nearly half of all journal articles including both males and females. Behavioral research was the most inclusive, with both sexes in 81 percent of studies. Overall, six out of nine fields surveyed showed a significant increase in studies that included both sexes.
6-9-20 Forerunner to the Great Wall of China mapped in detail for first time
A medieval forerunner to the Great Wall of China was thought to have been designed to defend against the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, but the first major study of this wall suggests it was built before he was born. The Great Wall of China is actually a collection of many walls. The 8850-kilometre stretch beloved by tourists dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was indeed built to defend China from the Mongols. However, centuries earlier, a wall was built far to the north. This “Northern Line” runs roughly west to east through north-east Mongolia, dips into Russia, then concludes in north-east China’s Inner Mongolia region. “There are mentions in classical texts of travellers that saw it,” says Gideon Shelach-Lavi at Israel’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But it never became a focus of research.” To find out more, Shelach-Lavi and his colleagues used satellite imagery and drone photography to survey the entire Northern Line. They also explored some of it on foot and excavated some areas. Unlike the famous Ming Wall, which is made of stone, the Northern Line was built from earth formed in a mound and compressed. “Layer by layer they stamped it, so it became very hard,” says Shelach-Lavi. Many of the older Chinese walls were built this way. What remains is about 1 metre tall, although it may originally have been 2 metres. On the northern side there is a ditch about 2 metres deep, which Shelach-Lavi says was probably dug out to supply the earth. There are no towers or fortifications. “It wasn’t a very formidable obstacle,” says Shelach-Lavi. Based on radiocarbon dating, the team think the wall was built between AD 1000 and 1100, meaning it predates Genghis Khan’s birth, around 1162. “It’s nothing to do with Genghis Khan, nothing to do with Mongolian armies,” says Shelach-Lavi.
6-8-20 Lack of UK testing data is impeding our understanding of the outbreak
The UK government won’t say when it will resume reporting the number of people outside of hospitals and care homes being tested for covid-19, after more than two weeks of suspending publication because of double counting. The lack of these figures, and issues with how test numbers are reported, mean researchers are unable to analyse many aspects of the outbreak. When the UK government stopped saying how many people are tested daily in the community, it initially cited difficulties with data collection on 23 May, before later saying the suspension was because it had been counting some people who had more than one test. This problem means data corrections have regularly been made recently – on some days, more than 1000 tests have been removed from the cumulative total. Asked when the publishing hiatus and data clean-up would end, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) didn’t say and referred New Scientist back to its website. The quality and transparency of official statistics on coronavirus testing have been called into question over the past two months. A target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April was only met by including ones that had been posted but not processed in the count. David Norgrove, the chair of official statistics watchdog the UK Statistics Authority, has twice written to health secretary Matt Hancock to complain about data he says is “far from complete and comprehensible” and “well short” of expectations. Officially, more than 5.7 million tests have been conducted in the UK so far, with 142,123 tests on 6 June. However, those simple totals mask a complex series of different tests. A sizeable chunk of that daily count, 26,802, are antibody tests carried out under testing strategy pillars 3 and 4. These tests are used to see if someone has previously had the coronavirus, and for research on the virus’s spread. Such tests aren’t informative for detecting or tracing new cases, or advising someone on whether they should self-isolate. The bulk of the daily number, 79,685 on 6 June, are “have you got it” nose-and-throat swab tests for people outside of hospitals, known as pillar 2. Those include tests posted to people at home, although these may not ever be taken or processed. There has also been a degree of double counting – for example, if a person’s nose and throat is swabbed separately, that may be counted as two tests.
6-8-20 56 per cent of pregnant women with covid-19 are from BAME backgrounds
More than half of pregnant women admitted to UK hospitals with coronavirus were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background. This is according to a study that looked at data from pregnant women admitted to 194 obstetric units in the UK who tested positive for a covid-19 infection between 1 March and 14 April. The study found that, of the 427 pregnant women with covid-19 in hospital during that period, 233 were from BAME backgrounds – that’s 56 per cent. In this group, 103 were from Asian backgrounds, and 90 were black. The findings require “urgent investigation and explanation”, say Marian Knight at the University of Oxford and her colleagues, who conducted the analysis. Most of the women in the study were admitted to hospital in the late second or third trimesters of their pregnancies. Five of the women died, including three who died as a direct result of complications linked to the coronavirus. Ten per cent of the women needed respiratory support in a critical care unit. Twelve of the 265 babies born in the study tested positive for covid-19 – six of them within 12 hours of being born. However, the study found that most of the infected pregnant women had “good outcomes” and that transmission of coronavirus to infants was “uncommon”. To see if population density might explain why some ethnicities are more likely than others to be admitted to hospital with coronavirus during pregnancy, the researchers also ran their analysis after excluding data from major urban centres. However, they still found a high proportion of women from black and other minority groups among those admitted to hospital. Last week, a report from Public Health England revealed that black people are between two and three times more likely to be diagnosed with coronavirus than white people, and death rates from covid-19 are highest among people from black and Asian ethnic groups.
6-7-20 Missing Roman forts and roads revealed by drought
Roman forts, roads, military camps and villas have been identified by a new analysis of aerial photographs taken in the 2018 heatwave across Wales. Scorched crop marks uncovered about 200 ancient sites during the drought. Experts say the Roman finds are key pieces in the jigsaw to understand how Wales was conquered and dominated 2,000 years ago. Researcher Toby Driver said the discoveries "turn everything we know about the Romans on its head". The aerial investigator for the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales said the new research published in the journal Britannia showed the "Roman military machine coming to rural Wales". In Monmouthshire, the researchers have identified a new "marching camp" at a site near Caerwent. "The marching camps are really, really interesting. They are the temporary overnight stops that the Romans build on manoeuvres in hostile territory." The site would have provided defensive positions, camping and kitchens for bread ovens. "This is when Wales is still a very dangerous place to be for the troops, they are still under attack," added Dr Driver. The entire area heading into south-east Wales through Usk to Caerleon would have been peppered with similar sites, believe the experts, as the Roman armies fought a 20-year battle to crush resistance amongst Celtic tribes, notably the Silures in southern Wales. But these sites were "ploughed away pretty quickly" when the fighting was over. "This is only the third marching camp in south-east Wales that we have discovered. We know there should be more of these around to show how the army was moving in Wales - it shows the big routes they are pushing through to control different parts of Wales," added Dr Driver. With conquest came reinforcements, and that meant forts. The aerial photographs confirmed the locations of at least three new fort sites, including the first found in the Vale of Gwent at Carrow Hill, west of the Roman town of Caerwent and the Roman legionary fortress at Caerleon. The crop images show it had inner and outer defensive structure and a "killing zone" in between, perfectly ranged for a javelin throw.
6-6-20 Coronavirus: WHO advises to wear masks in public areas
The World Health Organization (WHO) has changed its advice on face masks, saying they should be worn in public where social distancing is not possible to help stop the spread of coronavirus. The global body said new information showed they could provide "a barrier for potentially infectious droplets". Some countries already recommend or mandate face coverings in public. The WHO had previously argued there was not enough evidence to say that healthy people should wear masks. However, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday that "in light of evolving evidence, the WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments". The organisation had always advised that medical face masks should be worn by people who are sick and by those caring for them. Globally, there have been 6.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 400,000 deaths since the outbreak began late last year, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The organisation said its new guidance had been prompted by studies over recent weeks. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead expert on Covid-19, told Reuters news agency the recommendation was for people to wear a "fabric mask - that is, a non-medical mask". Fabric masks should consist of "at least three layers of different material" in order to be effective, the WHO says. However, those aged over-60 and with underlying health risks should wear medical masks in areas where there is community transmission. At the same time, the WHO stressed that face masks were just one of a range of tools that could be used to reduce the risk of transmission - and that they should not give people a false sense of protection. "Masks on their own will not protect you from Covid-19," Dr Tedros said.
6-6-20 Coronavirus: This is not the last pandemic
We have created "a perfect storm" for diseases from wildlife to spill over into humans and spread quickly around the world, scientists warn. Human encroachment on the natural world speeds up that process. This outlook comes from global health experts who study how and where new diseases emerge. As part of that effort, they have now developed a pattern-recognition system to predict which wildlife diseases pose most risk to humans. This approach is led by scientists at the University of Liverpool, UK, but it is part of a global effort to develop ways to prepare better for future outbreaks. "In the last 20 years, we've had six significant threats - SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian influenza and swine flu," Prof Matthew Baylis from the University of Liverpool told BBC News. "We dodged five bullets but the sixth got us. "And this is not the last pandemic we are going to face, so we need to be looking more closely at wildlife disease." As part of this close examination, he and his colleagues have designed a predictive pattern-recognition system that can probe a vast database of every known wildlife disease. Across the thousands of bacteria, parasites and viruses known to science, this system identifies clues buried in the number and type of species they infect. It uses those clues to highlight which ones pose most of a threat to humans. If a pathogen is flagged as a priority, scientists say they could direct research efforts into finding preventions or treatments before any outbreak happens. "It will be another step altogether to find out which diseases could cause a pandemic, but we're making progress with this first step," Prof Baylis said. Many scientists agree that our behaviour - particularly deforestation and our encroachment on diverse wildlife habitats - is helping diseases to spread from animals into humans more frequently. According to Prof Kate Jones from University College London, evidence "broadly suggests that human-transformed ecosystems with lower biodiversity, such as agricultural or plantation landscapes, are often associated with increased human risk of many infections".
6-6-20 Under-diagnosed and under-treated, girls with ADHD face distinct risks
Anxiety. Depression. School failure. Self-harm. Unemployment. Unplanned pregnancies. Even an increased risk of early death.. The risks and toll of suffering that can come with having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is huge, counted annually in billions of dollars in lost productivity and health care spending and in untold frustration and failure. Yet despite more than a century of research and thousands of published studies, ADHD — marked by distraction, forgetfulness, and impulsivity — remains largely misunderstood by the public. This is especially true when it comes to girls and women. Over the past few decades, pediatricians, teachers, and parents have gotten a lot better at spotting ADHD in girls. In the 1990s, scientists believed it was as much as nine times as common in boys, and very few girls were diagnosed. Today's diagnosis rate has narrowed to 2.5 boys to every girl. Still, an old problem persists. Whereas many boys with ADHD are normally more physically restless and impulsive, traits clinicians refer to as "hyperactive," many girls with the disorder may be more introverted, dreamier, and distracted — or in clinical jargon, "inattentive." In part due to these subtler symptoms, experts suspect that many girls with ADHD are still escaping notice — and missing out on treatment. "Who gets noticed as having ADHD?" asks Stephen Hinshaw, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading researcher on ADHD in girls. "You get referred if you're noticeable, if you're disrupting others. More boys than girls have aggression problems, have impulsivity problems. So girls with inattentive problems are not thought to have ADHD." Instead, he says, educators and others assume the problem is anxiety or troubles at home. Hinshaw began studying girls with ADHD in 1997, in a federally funded project that became known as the Berkeley Girls with ADHD Longitudinal Study (B-GALS). As he and fellow researchers followed their subjects into womanhood, they found that girls with ADHD have many of the same problems as boys with the disorder, and some extra ones. Escaping notice is just one of girls' special burdens. Girls and women, in general, engage in more "internalizing" behavior than boys, Hinshaw says, meaning they tend to take their problems out on themselves rather than others. Compared with boys who have the disorder, as well as with girls without it, girls with ADHD suffer more anxiety and depression. Another key longitudinal study on girls, led by Harvard psychiatrist and scientist Joseph Biederman, has found that major depression in teen girls with ADHD is more than twice as common as in girls without the disorder. The studies show that, as a group, girls with ADHD are also far more prone than boys with ADHD or other girls to self-harm, including cutting and burning themselves, and to suicide attempts. Moreover, whereas teenage boys with ADHD are more likely than girls with the disorder to abuse illegal drugs, the girls face a higher risk of becoming involved with violent partners. Another major problem for girls with ADHD is risky sexual behavior that leads to strikingly high rates of unplanned pregnancies. Research has shown rates of more than 40 percent, versus 10 percent for young women without ADHD. In the most recent B-GALS update, published in 2019, Hinshaw and UC Berkeley psychologist Elizabeth Owens linked unplanned pregnancies to lower academic achievement earlier in life.
6-5-20 Human-like ears 3D-printed inside mice as surgery-free spare parts
Human-like ears have been grown on the backs of mice using 3D printing. The technique could potentially be used to construct new ears or other body parts in people without the need for surgery. 3D printing is increasingly being used to custom-build new body parts, like jaws, ribs and spinal vertebrae. But these parts must be printed outside the body and then surgically implanted, which carries an infection risk. Now, Maling Gou at Sichuan University, China, and his colleagues have shown that body parts can be 3D-printed inside the body, at least in mice, so that surgery is not required. First, the researchers injected a “bio-ink” made of hydrogel particles and cartilage cells into the backs of mice. Next, they shone ear-shaped patterns of near-infrared light onto the ink. The light caused the hydrogel particles to stick together and develop layer-by-layer into ear-shaped structures. Over the next month, the cartilage cells grew around the hydrogel structures, eventually resembling the cartilage structures of real human ears. The mice had no significant inflammation or other side-effects. The famous Vacanti mouse of the 1990s also had a human-like ear grown on its back, but it was made by implanting a pre-made plastic scaffold seeded with cartilage cells underneath the skin, rather than 3D printing the scaffold directly at the site. The researchers hope the new technique could be used to construct new ears for people born with a condition called microtia that prevents the ears from developing properly. “We are making efforts to improve this technique for future treatment of human ear defects,” says Gou. The nonsurgical 3D printing technique could also potentially be used to repair damaged cartilage in noses, fingers, toes or elbows, says Derek Rosenzweig at McGill University in Canada. In contrast, hip and deep knee cartilage defects may be harder to fix, because near-infrared light usually only penetrates about 2 centimetres into the body, he says.
6-5-20 White parents must do better to raise anti-racist kids. Here's how.
My first thought, as I considered whether to write about racial injustice and the ongoing uprising against police brutality, was that the world doesn't need to hear another white person's voice right now. But as someone who has benefited from centuries of oppression, who can't begin to understand what it's like to experience racial trauma, and who is also committed to raising children who are good and fair and kind, I'm here to admit that I need to do better. If I don't challenge myself or the systemic racism all around me, I become part of the problem. I don't want that, and I really don't want that for my kids. White people, it's long past time to ease some of the hurt we've caused through our ignorance, and a big part of that effort is raising our children to be anti-racist. But many of today's parents didn't see this behavior modeled by their own families, says Jennifer Harvey, Ph.D, author of Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America. "The best most of us got was 'silence' about race," Harvey says. "So, we just literally haven't learned the practices, and the courage that goes with it, of interrupting racism when we encounter it or working with others to challenge racially unjust structures in the places we live and work and go to school." Now is the time to change things, and no child is too young to learn about difference and race. In fact, the earlier we talk about this with our kids, the better. "Research shows that by 5 years old, children already show many of the same racial attitudes held by parents; they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others," says writer and anti-racism educator Holiday Phillips. "As long as we live in a racist society, you have to be active and not passive in educating your children otherwise." Phillips suggests explaining to children that there are many different skin colors, and that people are sometimes treated unfairly because of the color of their skin. Explain why this isn't right. "Whatever you do, don't adopt a colorblind 'I don't see color' approach," she says. "Don't shield them from the realities of racism hoping this will mean they don't adopt the biased views of mainstream society." And don't censor or shame your child as they try to figure out what all this means. "If they question why someone has 'different skin,' don't shush them and tell them not to be rude," Phillips says. "Don't make black a dirty word, it's not. Navigate conversations with patience and compassion to help them reach understanding not censorship. So much white silence on issues of race comes not from lack of caring, but fear of saying the wrong thing. This serves no one." If you have older kids and you've never talked about race or racism, the conversation is long overdue. Harvey suggests an opener like: "We've never talked about this, but we need to begin to do it now, even though I don't completely know where to start." The conversations you have with your children about racism should be absolutely honest. Our kids need to know that for a long time, black people have experienced unjustified stops by police, and that this is a common part of the black experience in the U.S. and in many other countries. They need to know that police brutality and killing of black people has gone on for a long time and that the police are rarely held to account for it. We need to tell them this is part of the reason black people and their allies are rising up now, that they have been experiencing anger and pain for a long time and not enough white people have taken it seriously.
6-5-20 Coronavirus: AstraZeneca to begin making potential vaccine
Drug company AstraZeneca is to start producing a potential vaccine for coronavirus, its boss has told the BBC. Trials of the drug are under way but Pascal Soriot said the firm must start making doses now so that it can meet demand if the vaccine proves effective. "We are starting to manufacture this vaccine right now - and we have to have it ready to be used by the time we have the results," he said. AstraZeneca says it will be able supply two billion doses of the vaccine. Speaking to the BBC's Today programme, Mr Soriot said manufacturing was beginning already because, "we want to be as fast as possible". "Of course, with this decision comes a risk but it's a financial risk and that financial risk is the vaccine doesn't work," he added. "Then all the materials, all the vaccines, we've manufactured will be wasted." He said AstraZeneca would not seek to make a profit from producing the drug during the pandemic. If it works, the company will be able to produce two billion doses after signing two new contracts on Thursday, one of which was with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. AstraZeneca, which is developing the vaccine with scientists at Oxford University, has agreed to supply half of the doses to low and middle-income countries. One of the new partnerships is with the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume. The other is a $750m (£595m) deal with two health organisations backed by Bill and Melinda Gates. The two charities, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and GAVI vaccines alliance, will help find production facilities to produce and distribute 300 million doses of the vaccine. Delivery is expected to start by the end of the year. Mr Soriot has said he expects to know by August if the AZD1222 vaccine is effective, while CEPI chief executive Richard Hatchett said there is still a possibility the vaccine may not work. AstraZeneca's licensing agreement with India's SII is to supply one billion doses for low and middle-income countries, with a commitment to provide 400 million before the end of 2020. Mr Soirot said the company was building a number of supply chains across the world "to support global access at no profit during the pandemic and has so far secured manufacturing capacity for two billion doses of the vaccine". "Having a vaccine is one thing but you need to produce it at scale and I can tell you that It is not an easy thing to do," the pharmaceutical boss told Today.
6-5-20 Taking hydroxychloroquine may not prevent COVID-19 after exposure
Health-care workers taking the drug still got sick after coming in contact with the coronavirus. Hydroxychloroquine is no better than a sugar pill at stopping health-care workers and others exposed to COVID-19 from getting sick, the first results from a clinical trial testing the drug as a prophylactic suggest. In a study of 821 people who had been exposed to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19, 11.8 percent of people taking hydroxychloroquine and 14.3 percent of people taking a placebo developed symptoms. There is no statistically meaningful difference in those numbers, researchers report June 3 in the New England Journal of Medicine. “This study definitely tempers enthusiasm for post-exposure prophylaxis among health-care workers,” says Rachel Hess, a primary care doctor and health services researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City. She was not involved in the study, but is testing hydroxychloroquine in a clinical trial of people newly diagnosed with COVID-19. A far larger study of the drug’s potential to prevent disease, which involves thousands of health-care workers, is still ongoing and expected to report results later this year. Interest in hydroxychloroquine stems from studies in lab dishes that have suggested that the antimalarial drug could block coronavirus entry into cells and slow viral replication. But studies testing the antimalarial drug against severe cases of COVID-19 largely haven’t panned out. A study published May 22 in the Lancet also had suggested hydroxychloroquine carries a higher risk of death for people with serious cases of COVID-19, leading the World Health Organization to temporarily stop one part of a clinical trial testing the drug. But editors of the Lancet issued an expression of concern June 3 that the study might be based on faulty data provided by a company founded by coauthor Sapan Desai. Surgisphere Corp, based in Chicago, refused to turn its proprietary database over to reviewers, so the other authors of the study retracted the paper June 4. The WHO also announced June 3 that testing of hydroxychloroquine will resume after a safety review found no reason to halt the trial.
6-4-20 Covid-19 news: People in the UK are sleeping less well under lockdown
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. 60 per cent of people in the UK say they’ve experienced worse sleep since the lockdown was announced on 23 March, according to a survey conducted by researchers at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI. Half of people surveyed said their sleep has been more disturbed than usual and 39 per cent said they have slept fewer hours per night on average. 29 per cent of people said they have slept for longer but feel less rested than usual. People who said they find coronavirus stressful or they are facing financial difficulties due to coronavirus disruptions were more likely to report experiencing worse sleep. Younger people were more likely to report sleep changes than older people, and 38 per cent of people surveyed reported having more vivid dreams than usual. The poll surveyed 2254 people in the UK aged 16 to 75 between 20 and 22 May. UK transport minister Grant Shapps announced today that face coverings will become compulsory on public transport in England from 15 June. There will be some exemptions, for example for people with breathing difficulties. Trials investigating the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19 have been restarted by the World Health Organization (WHO). The trials were suspended based on a study that used data from US-based health analytics company Surgisphere, which is now being questioned. At least 80 million children under the age of one are estimated to be missing out on routine vaccinations because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to data from the WHO and other non-governmental organisations. Many of these children live in South East Asia and Africa. Countries including Nepal, Cambodia and Ethiopia are currently experiencing outbreaks of preventable deadly diseases, including measles, cholera and yellow fever.
6-4-20 Crops sprayed with 'barcoded' spores could help trace food poisoning
Spraying crops with bacterial or yeast spores that have unique DNA “barcodes” would make food safer by allowing the source of food poisoning to be rapidly identified, says a team at Harvard University. They have genetically engineered the bacteria, developed a rapid test for them and shown that the spores – which are inert and harmless – persist and remain detectable, even on cooked food. It’s estimated that almost 1 in 10 people worldwide get food poisoning and more than 400,000 die of it every year, according to the World Health Organization. Tracing the source of contamination is difficult and can take many weeks, says Jason Qian at Harvard University. His team has genetically engineered strains of Bacillus subtilis bacteria and Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast to give them unique DNA “barcode” sequences. These species are very common and also form tough, long-lasting spores. The spores of the barcoded microbes are inert. The genes required for B. subtilis to come out of dormancy have been deleted, and the yeast spores are heat-treated to kill them. Both types are also unable to make a key amino acid, so can only grow when fed it. The team then sprayed the spores on various surfaces including sand, soil, carpet and wood. They were able to detect them three months later even on surfaces that were swept or vacuumed, or subjected to simulated wind or rain. Next, the spores were sprayed on plants growing in pots. A week later, the team were able to identify which pot a leaf came from. To their surprise, the spores remained detectable even after washing, boiling, frying and microwaving. So if unique spores were sprayed on crops at different farms before harvesting, authorities could rapidly find out where any specific produce came from.
6-4-20 Electric current helps dampen tics in people with Tourette's syndrome
An unusual new treatment for Tourette’s syndrome involves applying an electrical current to the wrist, which travels up nerves to the brain and changes brainwaves. The approach, which moderately reduced the number of tics in volunteers with Tourette’s, suggests the condition is linked with an underactivity in brainwaves that normally keep us still. People with Tourette’s syndrome make frequent involuntary jerks, facial twitches and noises. Tics usually arise around the age of 6, and while they often fade with time, for some they continue and can be debilitating. “Sometimes children literally break bones because they’re flinging themselves around so much,” says Stephen Jackson at the University of Nottingham in the UK. In most people, when they are motionless, brainwaves cycle at about 12 times a second in part of the brain called the motor cortex, located at the top of the head. “It’s like the handbrake on a car – it maintains a stable posture,” says Jackson. Previous research has shown that stimulating brainwaves in this area by using a strong oscillating magnetic field above the head can reduce tics in people with Tourette’s. Jackson wondered if there was a way to get this effect more easily. His group placed an electrode on the wrist to deliver a mild current with a frequency of 12 times a second; the current was noticeable but not uncomfortable. The idea is that this current travels via nerves to the sensory cortex of the brain and induces oscillations at the same frequency in the neighbouring motor cortex. When 19 people with Tourette’s tried out the electrode, it reduced the frequency of their tics by a third, compared with when the electrode was turned on for the same length of time but had no regular frequency. Voluntary movements were only slowed a little.
6-4-20 Lidar reveals the oldest and biggest Maya structure yet found
Excavations and airborne mapping unveil a society that from its beginnings built big. Ancient Maya society got off to a monumentally fast start around 3,000 years ago. Excavations and airborne mapping at a previously unknown site in Mexico, called Aguada Fénix, have uncovered the oldest and largest known structure built by Maya people, say archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona in Tucson and his colleagues. This raised ceremonial area made of clay and earth was constructed from around 1000 B.C. to 800 B.C., the scientists report June 3 in Nature. The new discovery adds to recent evidence that from its very beginnings around 3,000 years ago, the Maya civilization built monumental structures (SN: 4/25/13). A similar but smaller ritual area previously discovered by Inomata’s team at a Maya site in Guatemala called Ceibal dates to 950 B.C. The finds run counter to the idea that Maya society developed gradually from small villages to urban centers with pyramids and other massive buildings, as some scientists have suggested. Those Maya cities and kingdoms of what’s known as the Classic period didn’t flourish in parts of southern Mexico and Central America until around A.D. 250 to 900. What’s more, the study is yet another example of how an airborne remote-sensing technique called light detection and ranging, or lidar, is dramatically changing how archaeological research is done in heavily forested regions. The technique, which uses laser pulses to gather data on the contours of jungle- and vegetation-covered land, has uncovered other lost ruins at the Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala (SN: 9/27/18) and a vast network connecting ancient cities of Southeast Asia’s Khmer Empire (SN: 6/17/16), among other finds. In the new study, researchers turned to lidar to peer through forests in Tabasco, Mexico and uncover the previously hidden surface remains of 21 ceremonial centers, including Aguada Fénix. Lidar maps showed that each site contains a round or square mound near a long, rectangular platform, running west to east. That layout characterizes similar structures in areas where public rituals were held in many later Maya cities.
6-3-20 Chronic Lyme disease: How one tick bite can ruin your health for ever
For some people, the symptoms of Lyme disease never go away after treatment. Now we have clues about why this happens, supporting the idea that "chronic Lyme" really does exist. BARELY a summer day went by that I didn’t hear someone talking about Lyme disease. In the four years I lived on Long Island in New York, checking for ticks became second nature. After a walk in the woods. After a stroll in the marshy grasses by the beach. After a backyard barbecue. I remember the first one I found on my clothing: a lone star tick, its distinctive white dot almost shining up at me from the crook of my elbow. I panicked until I found out that lone stars don’t transmit Lyme disease. The first time I found the kind of tick that does spread the disease burrowing into my leg, I retched, then rushed to the doctor; the second time, I calmly went to the clinic to have it removed and get tested. In time, panic gave way to low-level, background worry. Maybe I was right to be alarmed. Lyme disease is on the rise around the world. This bacterial infection spread by tick bites can lead to joint pain, fatigue, neurological damage and even temporary facial paralysis. If caught early, it is treatable – in most cases. But some people report symptoms that never go away, even after treatment. This condition is commonly known as chronic Lyme disease. Yet we still don’t know whether Lyme disease, which is maddeningly difficult to diagnose, is the true culprit. What is clear is that a growing group of people are in pain and distress. Helping them means finding an answer to a surprisingly difficult question: does chronic Lyme disease exist? Can a single tick bite really undermine your health for the rest of your life?
6-3-20 First life on Earth may actually have been built from both RNA and DNA
Key building blocks of DNA and RNA can be made from the same raw materials. This finding suggests that instead of one or the other kick-starting life on Earth, both chemicals were involved in the first organisms. DDNA and RNA are central to life. They are the molecules that carry genes, which are passed from parent to offspring and underpin heredity. Most organisms have genes made of DNA, although some viruses use RNA. Many researchers investigating how life began suspect that RNA came first – an idea called the “RNA World”. Later, when life had become more complex, it would have developed the ability to make DNA – and DNA would then have ultimately replaced RNA as the carrier of genes. However, a new experiment supports a different scenario: that DNA and RNA co-existed from the start. John Sutherland at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues have found a way to make two of the building blocks of DNA from simple carbon-based chemicals that were probably abundant before life evolved on Earth. These included cyanoacetylene, each molecule of which contains only five atoms, and which is common in the universe. The synthesis was powered by everyday occurrences: the chemicals were variously mixed with water, exposed to ultraviolet radiation and dried out. The method uses many of the same chemicals that Sutherland’s team used in 2009 to make two RNA building blocks. “When you look at RNA and DNA, everybody can see they’re related,” says Sutherland. “This work really suggests that they’re molecular siblings, as opposed to one being the parent of the other.” “The chemistry is really impressive,” says Kamila Muchowska at the University of Strasbourg in France. “It’s a really nice proof of concept that shows RNA and DNA could have coexisted together.”
6-3-20 124 coronavirus vaccines are in development – but will any work?
JUST months after the coronavirus pandemic began, 10 vaccines designed to prevent covid-19 are already being tested in people, and another 114 are in development. A vaccine that provides effective, long-lasting protection against the coronavirus would be a game-changer, far better than any treatment. “Do we need a vaccine? Absolutely we do. It’s really better to prevent,” says Peter Horby, who is leading a UK trial evaluating several covid-19 treatments. However, we don’t yet know whether it is possible to induce long-lasting coronavirus immunity with a vaccine. When people are infected by other kinds of coronaviruses, their immunity seems to fade rapidly – although subsequent infections are milder. There are concerns this could mean that any protection from a vaccine would fade too. “It may be that we don’t get a one-dose vaccine that lasts for a lifetime,” says Martin Hibberd at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. A vaccine that ensures people only become mildly ill would still be good, says Hibberd. “We would be pretty happy with that.” Vaccines work by teaching your immune system to recognise part of a pathogen. There are a variety of ways to do this and just about every approach is being tried for the coronavirus. Four of the 10 already being tested in people are inactivated vaccines, which administer the coronavirus in a chemically inactivated form that is unable to replicate. Another of the front runners is a subunit vaccine, consisting of the spike protein on the outside of the coronavirus, which the virus uses as a key to gain entry to our cells. Inactivated and subunit vaccines tend not to provoke a big immune response, so chemicals often have to be added to boost their effects. Many vaccines we use today are one of these two types, including many flu vaccines.
6-3-20 Coronavirus: Ibuprofen tested as a treatment
Scientists are running a trial to see if ibuprofen can help hospital patients who are sick with coronavirus. The team from London's Guy's and St Thomas' hospital and King's College believe the drug, which is an anti-inflammatory as well as a painkiller, could treat breathing difficulties. They hope the low-cost treatment can keep patients off ventilators. In the trial, called Liberate, half of the patients will receive ibuprofen in addition to usual care. The trial will use a special formulation of ibuprofen rather than the regular tablets that people might usually buy. Some people already take this lipid capsule form of the drug for conditions like arthritis. Studies in animals suggest it might treat acute respiratory distress syndrome - one of the complications of severe coronavirus. Prof Mitul Mehta, one of the team at King's College London, said: "We need to do a trial to show that the evidence actually matches what we expect to happen." Early in the pandemic there were some concerns that ibuprofen might be bad for people to take, should they have the virus with mild symptoms. These were heightened when France's health minister Oliver Veran said that taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, could aggravate the infection and advised patients to take paracetamol instead. A review by the Commission on Human Medicines quickly concluded that, like paracetamol, it was safe to take for coronavirus symptoms. Both can bring a temperature down and help with flu-like symptoms. For mild coronavirus symptoms, the NHS advises people try paracetamol first, as it has fewer side-effects than ibuprofen and is the safer choice for most people. You should not take ibuprofen if you have a stomach ulcer, for example.
6-3-20 What parents need to know about kids in the summer of COVID-19
With the pandemic keeping kids home, it's challenging to study how they spread the coronavirus. As states reopen, the coming months bring the prospect of gatherings at pools, playgrounds and even amusement parks. But in this summer of COVID-19, many parents are left wondering what their kids can safely do. There isn’t a satisfactory answer, because there’s still so much unknown about the coronavirus in regards to children. While studies from China to Italy to the United States have reported fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 in children than adults and fewer seriously ill children than adults, recent reports of a dangerous inflammatory condition (SN: 5/12/20) illustrate that harms may still emerge. And concerns about COVID-19 extend beyond kids to their family members and other contacts. If children easily spread the coronavirus between each other and bring it home, they could put relatives at risk and perhaps ignite local outbreaks. At this point, it’s “still unclear whether they contribute significantly to transmission,” says Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “But they well may.” Scientists don’t have a full understanding of COVID-19 and children in part because they don’t have a lot of data from places well suited to provide it, such as schools and day care centers. With the pandemic keeping most kids from engaging with their communities as they usually would, we’re left with an incomplete picture of how readily children spread the virus. But there are studies and reports that have provided clues. This research provides a preliminary snapshot of what the illness means for kids and what we know so far about their role in spreading the infection. Much remains unknown about why COVID-19 can be devastating to some healthy adults and children. But at this stage, studies report relatively few cases of severe illness in kids. “Children overall are doing much better and are less sick than adults,” says Samuel Dominguez, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
6-3-20 Why have there been so many coronavirus deaths in the UK?
THE UK has been a leader in its coronavirus response, but not in a way any government would aspire to. The country now has the highest absolute excess deaths in Europe, 59,537 more than usual since the week ending 20 March, and the second highest per million people, behind only Spain for countries with comparable data, according to a Financial Times analysis. The total number of confirmed covid-19 deaths when New Scientist went to press was second only to the US, and was still rising by more than 100 a day. “I think it’s nothing short of a disgrace, and a dereliction of duty,” says former UK chief scientific adviser David King about the figures, which are coupled with more than a quarter of a million lab-confirmed cases. King, who last month launched an independent alternative to the government’s scientific advisory group, says that while differences in culture, demographics and data collection can make international comparisons hard, they cannot explain the gap between the UK and countries including Australia, Greece and South Korea. “You’ve got an enormous disparity. I don’t believe the reason is any other than the actions taken by the government very early on,” says King. Ministers’ focus on other issues meant they failed to act in February and March, he says. This view is shared by infectious disease and public health experts. “We have been playing catch-up from the start,” says Helen Ward at Imperial College London. She cites slowness on testing, tracing and isolating people, and on social distancing. A national lockdown wasn’t imposed until 23 March, about two months after the country’s first confirmed case. Neil Ferguson at Imperial, who was a member of the government’s science advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), until early May, says that while the high number of deaths is partly down to the UK being so connected to the rest of the world, speed was also a factor. “Part of it is clearly down to implementing lockdown relatively later than other countries did,” he says.
6-3-20 The Dead Sea Scrolls contain genetic clues to their origins
Animal DNA gleaned from parchments is helping researchers piece together the scrolls’ history. Genetic clues extracted from slivers of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls are helping to piece together related scroll remnants and reveal the diverse origins of these ancient texts, including a book of the Hebrew Bible. The scrolls are made of sheepskin and cow skin, which retain DNA from those animals. Analyzing that DNA represents a new way to figure out which of the more than 25,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments come from the same animals, and thus likely the same documents, say molecular biologist Oded Rechavi of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues. Findings so far suggest that the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect religious and biblical developments across southern Israel around 2,000 years ago, not just among people who lived near the caves where many scrolls were stored, as some scholars have contended, Rechavi’s team reports June 2 in Cell. Researchers estimate that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D., during what’s known as the late Second Temple period. That was a critical time in the development of Judaism and the emergence of Christianity. “Our results demonstrate the heterogeneity inherent in Second Temple Judaism, which formed the matrix for [early] Christianity,” says Tel Aviv University Biblical scholar and study coauthor Noam Mizrahi. The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of about 1,000 ancient manuscripts, including the earliest known versions of books of the Hebrew Bible and non-biblical religious, legal and philosophical documents. Most scrolls and scroll fragments were found between 1947 and the 1960s. The largest set of finds comes from 11 caves near Qumran, a site located in the Judean desert on the Dead Sea’s northwest shore. Many researchers have surmised that scrolls from the Qumran caves reflect the beliefs of a small Jewish sect that broke from mainstream Judaism and settled in Qumran (SN: 11/17/17). But DNA evidence in the new study suggests that ideas in those documents also extended beyond the Qumran community.
6-3-20 These tube-shaped creatures may be the earliest known parasites
Animals that lived over 500 million years ago may have stolen food from their hosts’ mouths. Tube-dwelling creatures that spent their lives cemented to the shells of clamlike brachiopods over 500 million years ago may be the earliest known parasites. “Parasitism is an integral part of life on Earth, but it’s been hard to determine when it emerged,” says Tommy Leung, a parasitologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. But, he says, it likely arose early, in part because today “practically every living thing has some kind of parasitic thing living on or in them, even down to parasites themselves.” Sometimes, scientists get lucky and find parasites preserved with their hosts in amber (SN: 12/10/19). But usually parasites don’t fossilize well because their bodies are often small and soft, Leung says. And even if two organisms happen to be entombed in the same fossil, it can be difficult to discern whether their relationship was parasitic, mutualistic or somewhere in between. Fossils of tongue worms from 425 million years ago represent a clear early example of parasitism, but previously found older fossils from the Cambrian only hint at possibly parasitic relationships. Now, a 512-million-year-old bed of tube-encrusted brachiopods in Yunnan, China offers compelling evidence of a parasite-host relationship, Zhifei Zhang, a paleontologist at Northwest University in Xi’an, China and his colleagues report June 2 in Nature Communications. In a tan-colored outcropping in southern China, researchers discovered thousands of brachiopods clustered together. Hundreds of them had numerous tubelike, tapered structures affixed to the exterior of the shells. Those structures were arrayed like the spines of a fan with the mouthlike parts positioned along the open edge of a shell. The tubes appeared only on brachiopods, never alone or associated with other fossils, suggesting that the organism couldn’t survive on its own.
6-2-20 Covid-19 news: Death in severe cases are 70 times higher in over 80s
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. People over 80 in England who are hospitalised with covid-19 are 70 times more likely to die compared to people under 40, according to a report from Public Health England. According to the report, the probability of death is about three times higher for people aged 40 to 49, nine times higher among those aged 50 to 59, 27 times higher for those in their 60s and 50 times higher for those in their 70s. However, these probabilities were calculated from cases where people had severe enough symptoms to get tested for covid-19. The analysis did not take milder cases into account. The data also shows that black people are between two and three times more likely to be diagnosed with coronavirus than white people, and death rates from covid-19 are highest among people from black and Asian ethnic groups. People of Bangladeshi ethnicity had the highest risk of death of any ethnic group, around twice the risk compared to white people. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between a 10 and 50 per cent higher risk than white people. severe-cases-are-70-times-higher-in-over-80s/#ixzz6OJCe40KkKeeping two metres away from other people is much more effective at limiting the transmission of coronavirus than one metre, with the risk halving for every additional half metre of distance up to three metres, according to a review of 172 studies published in The Lancet. Wearing a face covering and eye protection can also significantly reduce the spread of the virus. The UK government’s presentation of coronavirus testing numbers is misleading, unclear and difficult to understand, David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote in a letter to health minister Matt Hancock today. Norgrove said the way the government presented the numbers seemed to be designed to show “the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.” China took more than a week to release the sequenced genome of the coronavirus, according to recordings of World Health Organization meetings in the week of 6 January obtained by the Associated Press. Chinese authorities also delayed the release of diagnostic tests and other data about patients which was needed to evaluate the coronavirus epidemic.
6-2-20 Genetically altered human cells can vary their transparency like squid
Human cells genetically engineered to vary their transparency by making a squid protein could one day lead to see-through tissue. In the short-term, the approach might help biologists get better images of living tissues under the microscope. In the longer term, it might be possible to make patches of tissue more or less transparent at will, or even to genetically engineer organisms that can control their transparency. “That’s the crazy, far-out idea,” says Alon Gorodetsky at the University of California, Irvine. “But when you see squid doing it, then you think it’s not so far-out after all.” Many cephalopods can not only change the colour of their skin, but also control their transparency. For instance, opalescent inshore squid (Doryteuthis opalescens) are largely transparent, but the white testis of males is visible inside their bodies. Females deter aggressive males by turning transparent tissue white to create a white stripe that resembles the male testis. They do this with the help of a layer of cells containing a protein called reflectin. When the reflectin molecules are separated from each other, most light passes through them. But when the proteins clump together inside a cell, their refractive index – the speed at which light can travel through a material – changes. The proteins scatter more light, making the cell appear white. Gorodetsky and his team took human embryonic kidney cells – which are naturally transparent – and grew them in a dish after genetically engineering them to produce the reflectin protein found in opalescent squid. By altering the salinity of the fluid surrounding the kidney cells, they were able to make the reflectin inside the cells clump together or separate. This changed the proportion of visible light that was either reflected by the cells or passed through them.
6-2-20 DNA analysis sheds new light on ancient biblical Dead Sea Scrolls
Fresh evidence from DNA analysis is helping to piece together the Dead Sea Scrolls – 25,000 fragments of parchment discovered in the Qumran caves and surrounding areas in the West Bank over the past 70 years, which contain the oldest known copies of biblical texts. Oded Rechavi and Noam Mizrahi at Tel Aviv University in Israel and their colleagues sequenced traces of ancient DNA from the scrolls, which were made from animal skin. They used this genetic information to group together fragments that originated from the same skins, so were probably made at the same time. Until now, many of the scroll fragments have been classified according to the style of writing or other features of the text, says Mizrahi. The DNA analysis confirmed some of these previous classifications, as many of the scroll fragments that had previously been grouped together were also found to be genetically closely related, he says. But the researchers’ analysis also revealed some scrolls that may have been incorrectly classified. While most of the scroll fragments were made from sheep skin, the sequencing revealed that some of the fragments were made from cow skin, suggesting they originated outside of the Judean desert where cow husbandry wouldn’t have been possible due to the dry climate. The researchers looked at scroll fragments dating back approximately 2000 years. Rechavi says it was only possible to analyse such old fragments because of recent advances in DNA sequencing technology, which made it possible to distinguish tiny amounts of animal skin DNA from contaminating DNA, such as DNA from humans handling the scrolls or from bacteria in the environment. “It’s really a revolution,” he says. Knowing the origins of different fragments is important not only for piecing together these ancient texts, but for understanding the cultural contexts in which they were created, says Mizrahi.
6-2-20 Oldest known parasite is a worm-like animal from 512 million years ago
Hundreds of fossilised animals seemingly covered in worm-like creatures are the oldest hard evidence of parasitism, dating from 512 million years ago when complex animals were still new. “We’re documenting the oldest case of parasitism in the fossil record,” says Timothy Topper at Northwest University in Xi’an, China. The discovery suggests that the first parasites arose during an unprecedented evolutionary flowering. Zhifei Zhang, also at Northwest University, has spent years excavating a quarry in Yunnan province in southern China. The rocks preserved an ecosystem from the Cambrian period. This era saw the first complex animal life, such as the first arthropods, which include insects, and echinoderms, which include starfish. Zhang’s team found hundreds of fossilised brachiopods, animals with two shells resembling those of clams, called Neobolus wulongqingensis. The soft animal inside the shell has a tentacle that generates a water current to suck in food particles. Many of the brachiopods had tube-shaped objects attached to them: sometimes one or two, but in other cases more than a dozen. These are the fossilised remains of hard tubes that once encased animals. These animals aren’t preserved, but they were probably worm-like. Evidently these animals lived with the brachiopods, but was it a cooperative relationship or a parasitic one? If the worm-like creatures were parasites, brachiopods that hosted them should have been less healthy than those without them. “We took a whole bunch of measurements of the sizes of the shells of the brachiopods,” says team member Luke Strotz. “Those that didn’t have tubes were larger overall.” This suggests that the wormlike creatures were parasites. “This looks like it is a host-parasitic relationship,” says Xiaoya Ma at Yunnan University in Kunming, China, who has previously found evidence of Cambrian parasitism. She says the huge number of animals studied makes the finding “very sound”.
6-2-20 A new 3-D map illuminates the ‘little brain’ within the heart
Nerve cells in the organ are poorly understood. The heart has its own “brain.” Now, scientists have drawn a detailed map of this little brain, called the intracardiac nervous system, in rat hearts. The heart’s big boss is the brain, but nerve cells in the heart have a say, too. These neurons are thought to play a crucial role in heart health, helping to fine-tune heart rhythms and perhaps protecting people against certain kinds of heart disease. But so far, this local control system hasn’t been mapped in great detail. To make their map, systems biologist James Schwaber at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and colleagues imaged male and female rat hearts with a method called knife-edge scanning microscopy, creating detailed pictures of heart anatomy. Those images could then be built into a 3-D model of the heart. The scientists also plucked out individual neurons and measured the amount of gene activity within each cell. These measurements helped sort the heart’s neurons into discrete groups. Most of these neuron clusters dot the top of the heart, where blood vessels come in and out. Some of these clusters spread down the back of the heart, and were particularly abundant on the left side. With this new view of the individual clusters, scientists can begin to study whether these groups have distinct jobs. The comprehensive, 3-D map of the heart’s little brain could ultimately lead to targeted therapies that could treat or prevent heart diseases, the authors write online May 26 in iScience.
6-2-20 My maternal focus on survival in the grocery store
In this bizarre world we now inhabit, I find that the mother lion and I are simpatico. uring the first weeks of sheltering in place, in an attempt to provide some at-home education before the schools sent along actual curriculum, our family watched a National Geographic nature documentary entitled "The Flood." Narrated by Angela Basset, "The Flood" traces a year in the life of Botswana's Okavango Delta. Packed with wildlife footage so intimate and unbelievable that one is forced to ask aloud, at regular intervals, how the filming was even possible, the documentary follows the lifecycle of the flood plains — capturing everything from underwater vegetation, to insect and bird life, to the antics of a herd of elephants. Then, of course, there are the big cats. Americans love a big cat — as another recent smash-hit docuseries has made abundantly clear. Though lacking the dramatic flare of Joe Exotic, the big cats featured in "The Flood" are captivating in their own right — their grace and power at times breathtaking. A scene featuring a leopard lying in wait for an unsuspecting antelope to come grazing beneath the tree that she has scaled has us at the edge of our seats. We jump back and cover our mouths in horror as she pounces from above, taking the antelope by surprise and tackling it to the ground. Nature, I am reminded, isn't pretty. Grocery shopping during a pandemic is a strange and stressful endeavor. In my densely populated suburb, it entails masking up and donning gloves upon leaving home. Once inside the store, the goal is to spend as little time in the actual building as possible. In preparation, I make a comprehensive and precise list so the whole thing can go down like a surgical strike, and not like a meandering stroll. To shave time off my trip and incur less human contact, I master the self-checkout. All this preparation means I can be in and out of my local store in less than 20 minutes, securing just what we need to subsist for two more weeks. What this also means is that an activity that once filled me with joy, acquiring the food necessary to feed my family, has taken on new significance. Where I was once gatherer, I am now hunter. Patience is a hallmark of the feline huntresses of the Okavango. These lady cats do not pounce on the first clueless impala to cross their path. Instead they wait, watch, and bide their time. The aforementioned leopard spent a day observing under which tree her prey was most likely to congregate. Then, she plotted a course to the base of the tree, finding a quiet moment to climb it — largely unnoticed by those around her. Once precariously perched on her branch, she remained poised and ready for hours — her camouflage and stillness luring the antelope back with a false sense of security. Slowly, they returned to continue grazing under her tree, unaware. When at long last one of the herd began to move within her range, she continued to wait and hold, releasing her grip and springing from up high only when she was certain to land her target. Watching the giant cat sail through the air toward the antelope's waiting back, it becomes abundantly clear what a high stakes gambit this hunting is; thoughtful preparation is all.
6-2-20 Chicxulub collision put Earth’s crust in hot water for over a million years
Asteroid crater on the Yucatán peninsula reveals surprising new geologic details. The asteroid that slammed into Earth 66 million years ago left behind more than a legacy of mass destruction. That impact also sent superheated seawater swirling through the crust below for more than a million years, chemically overhauling the rocks. Similar transformative hydrothermal systems, left in the wake of powerful impacts much earlier in Earth’s history, may have been a crucible for early microbial life on Earth, researchers report May 29 in Science Advances. The massive Chicxulub crater on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is the fingerprint of a killer, probably responsible for the destruction of more than 75 percent of life on Earth, including all nonbird dinosaurs (SN: 1/25/17). In 2016, a team of scientists made a historic trek to the partially submerged crater, drilling deep into the rock to study the crime scene from numerous angles. One of those researchers was planetary scientist David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. A dozen years earlier, Kring had found evidence at Chicxulub that the layers of rock bearing the signs of impact — telltale features such as shocked quartz and melted spherules — were subsequently cut through by veins of newer minerals such as quartz and anhydrite. Such veins, Kring thought, suggest that hot hydrothermal fluids had been circulating beneath Chicxulub some time after the impact. Hydrothermal systems can occur where Earth is tectonically active, such as where tectonic plates pull the seafloor apart, or where mantle plumes like the one beneath Yellowstone rise up into the crust. The molten rock rising through the crust in these regions superheats water already circulating within the crust.
6-1-20 UK contact tracing plans criticised as lockdown begins to lift
The UK government has been criticised for lifting some coronavirus lockdown restrictions without contact tracing measures fully in place to deal with any resulting covid-19 outbreaks. Lockdown was further relaxed in England on Monday, with groups of up to six able to meet in a socially distanced manner outdoors and schools encouraged to open to certain year groups. However, the UK Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) said in a statement that it feared the government was “lifting too many restrictions, too quickly”. The group said there were signs over the weekend that the public was no longer so strictly following guidance. A relatively high R – the average number of other people one person with a disease is likely to infect – of between 0.7 and 0.9 for the UK means “the room for manoeuvre is tight”, the ADPH said. It is essential to keep R below 1 to keep the outbreak in decline. “It’s a little bit of wiggle room so we will not be able to go all the way back to normal,” says Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London. “Contact tracing will help. That gives us a bit more leeway, but it’s not a panacea. It’s not sufficient to allow everybody to go back to normal.” Ferguson and his colleagues have analysed anonymised mobile phone data and found that the public’s adherence to social distancing and restrictions has been high across the UK. But a group of public health experts and academics warned on Saturday that potential breaches of guidance by prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had damaged public trust and could hurt future compliance with rules. As part of the efforts to lift lockdown, about 25,000 people have been recruited to working on a test and trace scheme in England. They will phone those who have tested positive for the disease to establish their recent close contacts and then call those people to tell them to self-isolate. Similar programmes have launched in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
6-1-20 People who work in offices with more daylight sleep better at night
When office employees return to work, they may find that buildings with increased natural light help them to work better during the day and sleep better at night. We know that sunlight exposure is important for regulating our body clocks and sleep patterns. But many people don’t get enough natural light because they usually spend their days in artificially lit offices with small windows or windows that are shaded with blinds to reduce glare. Mohamed Boubekri at the University of Illinois and his colleagues wondered if increasing natural light in offices would help employees to sleep better. In November 2019, Boubekri and his colleagues randomly allocated 30 office staff to work in a typical office suite with a sheer fabric blind covering three-quarters of its window, or an identically-arranged suite next door with a window made of electrochromic glass, which can be tinted electronically to let in maximum natural light while minimising glare. The participants spent a week working in one office before switching to the other for a week. The study was funded by the US company View, which supplied the electrochromic glass windows used in the study and participated in the research. While in the office with the electrochromic window, participants were exposed to about eight times more natural light than in the other office suite. They slept 37 minutes more per night on average, as measured by motion-detector devices worn on their wrist. They also scored 42 per cent higher in a range of strategic thinking tests. “This is a very simple intervention to improve sleep,” says Jonathan Cedernaes at Uppsala University in Sweden. The benefits of good office lighting could go beyond work performance and may also have a range of health benefits, he says. Office staff who are working from home due to the covid-19 crisis may have sub-optimal lighting, which could affect their sleep and cognitive performance, says Boubekri.
6-1-20 Parkinson’s disease may spread from brain to gut and vice versa
Parkinson’s disease may start in the gut and travel to the brain – but it can also spread from the brain to the gut, according to findings in baboons. Misfolded proteins thought to trigger brain damage seem to travel in the blood, and cause equal amounts of brain cell death whether they originate in the brain or the gut. People with Parkinson’s disease often experience gastrointestinal symptoms, such as constipation. Research conducted over the past 17 years or so suggests that the misfolded proteins that characterise the disease might spread from the gut to the brain, but much of this work has been conducted in mice. To get a better idea of what might be happening in humans, Benjamin Dehay at the University of Bordeaux in France and his colleagues studied 15 baboons of various ages, ranging from the human equivalents of teenagers to middle-aged adults. They took misfolded alpha-synuclein, which is thought to trigger brain damage in people with Parkinson’s, from donated brains of people who had died with the disease, and then implanted it into either the guts or the brains of two-thirds of the baboons. Two years later, the researchers looked at the baboons and found the misfolded protein in both the brains and guts of all the baboons given it, regardless of where it had originally been implanted. All these animals also showed signs of brain damage and had lost around 40 per cent of dopamine-producing cells in a region of the brain that is important for movement. The extent of the damage “was really unexpected”, says Dehay. The baboons hadn’t yet developed any problems with movement, but that is because these symptoms aren’t thought to appear in humans until people lose around half of these brain cells, says Dehay.
6-1-20 The case for doing everything outside
If you want to reopen the economy, you have to think outside of the building (weather permitting, of course). There are many things we don't know about COVID-19. But we do know being outside is safer than being inside, where we're forced physically closer together and ventilation systems are a known culprit in spreading infection. It's not impossible to catch the coronavirus outdoors, but public health experts consider outside transmission extremely unlikely if people take appropriate precautions. "I think outdoors is so much better than indoors in almost all cases," Virginia Tech engineering professor and aerosol expert Linsey Marr told The New York Times. "There's so much dilution that happens outdoo This means two things. First, people going to the beach, pool, or park aren't being reckless if they're maintaining distance from others and practicing proper hygiene. And second, if we want to safely move toward normalcy before there's a vaccine, reliable treatments, or widespread natural immunity, we should move life outside as often as we can. This isn't the wild idea it may seem. In Scotland, an outdoor learning model is being considered as an option for safely reopening schools this fall. "There are a growing number of fully and partially outdoor childcare settings in Scotland," Scottish Children's Minister Maree Todd said to The Guardian. "This model could have many benefits for maintaining physical distancing and minimizing risk of transmission as part of the transition from lockdown back into early learning and childcare and school." Scotland's "forest schools" offer unique benefits for a few students already. Even very small children learn to happily spend all day outside in the rain (a lot of rain — it's Scotland) and the sun alike. Taking education outside obviously has its obstacles. Weather is a real consideration, particularly for older students whose coursework can't center on wandering through the woods. Computer labs can't move outdoors; bathroom logistics must be settled; and school-provided lunches probably require a cafeteria kitchen. But is the alternative truly better? CDC guidance for opening schools and other childcare facilities proposes masking children from age 3 onward. Does that seem likely to succeed? Or how do you keep a class of 20 kindergartners from touching each other's toys, as the CDC suggests? And who is going to disinfect every desk in every room while high schoolers change classes? Do we want to give teachers another responsibility? Do we trust 14-year-olds to do it themselves? Or consider the guidance to create one-way walking paths in school halls. Have you seen middle schoolers when the bell rings? Education isn't the only activity we could shift outdoors. Already some cities are considering closing parking lanes or entire streets to give restaurants more room for "patio" seating. Reopening at 25 or 50 percent capacity to comply with distancing regulations often won't be feasible: Many restaurants would spend more money on basic operating costs than they can earn at that scale. The only way to make reopening better than hibernation is to increase outdoor capacity, and, especially in older downtown areas, the street is the only space restaurants can use to expand. Gathering outside could work for churches and other religious assemblies, too. Drive-in services don't strike me as much better than a Zoom call — maybe they're preferable for congregations with more cars and fewer tech skills, but they can't really replicate the normal feeling of community. Meeting outdoors would put churches in compliance with many reopening plans, like California's, and missing comforts like pews and childcare would encourage shorter, safer services.
6-1-20- Remote working: How cities might change if we worked from home more
For many of us, our homes have become our workplaces over the past few months, and a full return to the office still appears a remote prospect. Major tech companies say they are open to their staff working from home permanently. Employees are coming to realise remote working is not only possible but, in some cases, preferable. A shift to a new way of working might already be under way. Such a shift could have profound implications on our home life, and by extension on the life of our towns and cities: almost a quarter of all office space in England and Wales is in central London alone. To understand those implications, we brought together four experts on city life, all of whom were working from home. Office life for many has changed significantly. The fastest-growing places for people commuting to London are incredibly far away - Peterborough, York, Somerset. People are living miles out in order to get affordable land and more space. That will be accelerated. And it will be particularly accelerated unless we are willing to release land close to transport nodes that will give access to jobs. Some will choose to continue working from home, while for others shielding, they have no choice in the matter. But when space is at a premium and bedrooms have been turned into work spaces, we want to know what life hacks you've come up with to make the most of tiny areas you are now living and working in.