6-5-21 After 40 years of AIDS, here’s why we still don’t have an HIV vaccine
The complex biology of HIV makes the virus a tough target to tackle. Forty years ago, researchers described the mysterious cases of five gay men who had fallen ill with a pneumonia caused by the bacteria Pneumocystis carinii. Two of the five men had already died. That type of pneumonia usually affects only individuals who are severely immunocompromised, researchers wrote in the June 5, 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Scientists would soon discover that a disease that would come to be known as AIDS was devastating the men’s immune systems. Three years later, scientists pinned the blame for AIDS on a virus dubbed HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. Margaret Heckler, the then-U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said in an April 1984 news conference that a vaccine to build protection against the virus would be ready to test within two years, holding out promise that protection was on its way. We’re still waiting. Meanwhile, the HIV pandemic, which probably got its start in Congo in the 1920s, has led to devastating loss. More than 75 million people have been infected around the world as of the end of 2019. Approximately 32.7 million people have died. That toll would undoubtedly be much higher if it weren’t for advances in antiviral treatments that can prevent infected people from dying from HIV and from transmitting the virus to others (SN: 3/4/20; SN: 11/15/19). To date, only three people have beaten an HIV infection (SN: 8/26/20). For most, it lasts a lifetime. That long-lasting infection is just one reason why no vaccine against HIV exists yet. It’s also a tricky virus to pin down, with many variants and an uncanny ability to evade the immune system. And money is an issue too. The lack of an effective HIV vaccine stands in stark contrast to COVID-19 vaccines that took less than a year to develop (SN: 11/9/20). For COVID-19 vaccine development, “the money poured in, which was the right thing to do,” says Susan Zolla-Pazner, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Funding for HIV vaccine research comes in five-year installments, making it difficult to allocate the money in an efficient way to get a vaccine off the ground. Still, that funding stream has allowed for advances in HIV research, which partly enabled the rapid success of multiple COVID-19 vaccines.
6-4-21 How do you travel abroad safely during the covid-19 pandemic?
As vaccination numbers continue to climb, rich countries are beginning to journey back towards normality. That is also true of travel itself. On 1 June, seven EU countries set out on the long road back to freedom of movement, allowing unimpeded travel between them as long as arrivals can prove they are either immune to SARS-CoV-2 or uninfected. Many other countries are also inching back to business as usual. But the world of travel is still a long way from its destination. So how do we get back to where we started? And if you plan to travel abroad over the coming months, what do you need to know? The risks of returning to international travel as it was done before covid-19 are obvious: as people move about, so does the SARS-CoV-2 virus, hastening the spread of dangerous variants and potentially reigniting the pandemic in places where it was under control. For this reason, international travel has been severely restricted for more than a year. But governments around the world are now confronting the tough task of reopening their borders. “We can take measures to allow people to enter countries,” says Jeffrey Lazarus at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain. “But countries have varying degrees of seriousness about how they approach controlling their borders.” The trick, he says, is to be like Denmark, not like Spain. Lazarus travels frequently between the two because he lives and works in Spain but has strong ties to Denmark after a stint at the World Health Organization’s regional office in Copenhagen. To get into Denmark from Spain, he has to show two negative tests, one done no more than 48 hours before arrival and the other done in the airport before going through passport control. A positive test would mean an immediate return to Spain, but two negatives allow him to enter the country. He then has to self-quarantine for 10 days, though on day four can do a PCR test and get out of quarantine if negative. The test is available for free, paid for by the Danish government.
6-4-21 Long covid has lasted over a year for 376,000 people in the UK
An estimated 1 million people in private households in the UK say they had long covid in the four weeks to 2 May, according to the latest survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Of these people, an estimated 869,000 first had covid-19 – or suspected they had covid-19 – at least 12 weeks earlier, while 376,000 first had the virus or suspected they had it at least a year ago. Long covid was estimated to be adversely affecting the day-to-day activities of 650,000 people, with 192,000 reporting that their ability to undertake such activities was limited a lot. Long covid, also known as post-covid syndrome, is used to describe ill effects that continue for weeks or months after a coronavirus infection. Common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration, insomnia, dizziness, joint pain, depression and anxiety, tinnitus and diarrhoea. The previous figures, covering the four weeks to 6 March 2021, suggested that 70,000 people in private households in the UK had experienced symptoms of long covid for at least 12 months. The new figure of 376,000 is markedly higher because it takes in people infected during the peak of the first wave. The prevalence of self-reported long covid was greatest in people aged 35 to 69, females, those living in the most deprived areas, those working in health or social care, and those with another activity limiting health condition or disability, the ONS found. Fatigue (weakness or tiredness) was the most common symptom, affecting 547,000 out of 1 million people, followed by shortness of breath (405,000), muscle ache (313,000) and difficulty concentrating (285,000). Scientists are still unsure why some people experience such long-lasting illness, but some studies suggest the virus may cause premature ageing of the immune system, and this may be a cause of long covid.
6-4-21 Global plan aims to make vaccines for future pandemics within 100 days
The UK government and life science industry leaders have pledged to work towards a plan that could see vaccines ready in just 100 days in the event of a new pandemic. Meeting the ambitious goal would involve new therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines against potential future diseases being part-developed before a fresh outbreak began, the UK’s Department of Health said. It would require continued collaboration between companies, academic and medical researchers, regulators and global health bodies, the department added. The UK government acknowledged that cutting the time to deliver vaccines from a little more than 300 days – the period in which this feat was achieved in 2020 – to just 100 days in any future pandemic situation would take such work to “the next level”. Chief executives and representatives of firms including AstraZeneca, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline gave their support to the so-called 100 Days Mission set out by the Pandemic Preparedness Partnership, after discussions at the G7 Health Ministers’ Meeting this week. Lord Bethell, minister of innovation at the UK Department of Health, and the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance held sessions between industry and experts to discuss how challenges around new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines could be overcome. “The first 100 days in a pandemic are crucial to changing the course of a disease,” said Vallance. “In those three months, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines are key weapons.” “Given the extent of the social, economic and health impacts caused by covid-19, the 100 Days Mission is rightly ambitious and sets a goal for us to which we can all aspire,” he said. “Safe and highly effective vaccines have been delivered in record time, which is an incredible achievement, with life-saving jabs produced at scale and now being delivered to countries globally,” said UK health secretary Matt Hancock. “We are going to build on that with the 100 Days Mission. We are only going to get out of this global pandemic if the whole world is able to get out.”
6-4-21 Many people with covid-19 have neurological or psychiatric symptoms
Neurological and psychiatric symptoms such as anosmia and depression are common among people with covid-19 and may be just as likely in people with mild cases, new research suggests. Evidence from 215 studies of people with covid-19 indicates a wide range of ways in which the condition can affect mental health and the brain. The studies, from 30 countries, involved a total of 105,638 people with acute symptoms of covid-19 – the initial illness, rather than the longer-term impacts seen in long covid – including data up to July 2020. “We had expected that neurological and psychiatric symptoms would be more common in severe covid-19 cases, but instead we found that some symptoms appeared to be more common in mild cases,” said Jonathan Rogers at University College London, the lead author of the study. “It appears that covid-19 affecting mental health and the brain is the norm, rather than the exception.” The most common neurological and psychiatric symptoms were anosmia – loss of smell – reported by 43 per cent of people with the illness, weakness (40 per cent), fatigue (38 per cent), loss of taste (37 per cent), muscle pain (25 per cent), depression (23 per cent), headache (21 per cent) and anxiety (16 per cent). Major neurological conditions occurred more rarely, such as ischaemic stroke seen in 1.9 per cent of cases in the data set, haemorrhagic stroke (0.4 per cent) and seizure (0.06 per cent). People with severe covid-19 were overrepresented in the data set, as most of the studies focused on those admitted to hospital, and even the studies of people outside hospitals included few with very mild or no symptoms. However, the study found that among people with symptomatic acute covid-19 who weren’t admitted to hospital, neurological symptoms were still common.
6-4-21 China's COVID-19 vaccines don't appear to be effective at preventing outbreaks in the real world
The World Health Organization recently granted emergency use approval to China's Sinopharm and Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines, but the countries that have put the Chinese-made vaccines in the arms of their residents are reporting mixed results, at best. "In the Seychelles, Chile, and Uruguay, all of whom have used Sinopharm or ... Sinovac in their mass vaccination efforts, cases have surged even as doses were given out," The Washington Post reports. And in Bahrain, one of the first countries to embrace the Sinopharm shot, The Wall Street Journal adds, "daily COVID-19 deaths have leapt to 12 per million people in recent weeks — an outbreak nearly five times more lethal than India's — prompting the island nation's government to shut down shopping malls and restaurants in an effort to limit the spread." Dr. Waleed Khalifa al Manea, Bahrain's undersecretary of health, told the Journal that the recent upsurge in cases "came mainly from family gatherings — we had Ramadan, which is a very social event in Bahrain," but he also said the country is urging older people and those with chronic illness to get a six-month booster shot with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Bahrain and the neighboring United Arab Emirates started offering booster shots in late May "after studies showed that some of those vaccinated had not developed sufficient antibodies," the Post reports. "In Dubai, the most populous of the seven members of the UAE, the emirate's health authorities have also quietly begun revaccinating with Pfizer-BioNTech those residents who had been fully inoculated with Sinopharm," the Journal reports. "Despite the concern about Sinopharm's effectiveness, experts say the vaccine still works as intended in most cases and that it could play a significant role in shortages of vaccine doses around the world," the Post reports. The WHO says it has a low level of confidence in the vaccine's effectiveness in older people, due to a lack of data. A peer-reviewed study published May 26 found the Sinopharm vaccine was 78 percent effective against symptomatic illness, but the trial participants were mostly healthy young men, the Journal reports. "In a separate, unpublished, real-world study of Sinopharm in Serbia, 29 percent of 150 participants were found to have zero antibodies against the virus three months after they received the first of two shots of the vaccine. The average age of the people who participated in the Serbian study was higher than 65."
6-4-21 How science museums reinvented themselves to survive the pandemic
During lockdown, institutions untethered their programs from their buildings with some creative results. On January 30, 2020, Science Gallery Dublin assembled a small group of experts to discuss a strange new disease that had recently emerged in China. Four panelists talked about the origins of the new coronavirus, whether it might be airborne and the prospects for a vaccine. While they agreed that it was important to take the virus seriously, the speakers urged the audience not to panic. There had been no known cases in Ireland. The prospect of a local outbreak seemed remote. “And that was the last live event we held in the gallery,” says Aisling Murray, the gallery’s head of programming. That very day, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” Six weeks later, with cases on the rise all over the globe, Science Gallery Dublin shut its doors. It was a moment of reckoning. “What does Science Gallery mean when we don’t have a space?” Murray recalls wondering. “How do we continue to engage our audience?” As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spiral out of control in March 2020, science museums around the world were forced to abruptly close. In a matter of days, ticket revenue vanished. “It was an existential crisis,” says Christofer Nelson, president and CEO of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, or ASTC, in Washington, D.C. “The fundamental business, operational, staffing, community service model of these organizations just went away overnight. And the question was ‘What do we do next?’ ” The weeks and months that followed were excruciatingly difficult for science museums, which lost more than $600 million in revenue in just the first six months of the pandemic, the ASTC estimates. Many museums and science centers were forced to adopt deep cost-cutting measures; some laid off more than half of their employees.
6-4-21 Something mysteriously wiped out about 90 percent of sharks 19 million years ago
No obvious climate shift can explain the newly discovered die-off. About 19 million years ago, something terrible happened to sharks. Fossils gleaned from sediments in the Pacific Ocean reveal a previously unknown and dramatic shark extinction event, during which populations of the predators abruptly dropped by up to 90 percent, researchers report in the June 4 Science. And scientists don’t know what might have caused the die-off. “It’s a great mystery,” says Elizabeth Sibert, a paleobiologist and oceanographer at Yale University. “Sharks have been around for 400 million years. They’ve been through hell and back. And yet this event wiped out [up to] 90 percent of them.” Sharks suffered losses of 30 to 40 percent in the aftermath of the asteroid strike that killed off all nonbird dinosaurs 66 million years ago (SN: 8/2/18). But after that, sharks enjoyed about 45 million years of peaceful ocean dominance, sailing through even large climate disruptions such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum — an episode about 56 million years ago marked by a sudden spike in global carbon dioxide and soaring temperatures — without much trouble (SN: 5/7/15). Now, clues found in the fine red clay sediments beneath two vast regions of Pacific add a new, surprising chapter to sharks’ story. Sibert and Leah Rubin, then an undergraduate student at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, sifted through fish teeth and shark scales buried in sediment cores collected during previous research expeditions to the North and South Pacific oceans. “The project came out of a desire to better understand the natural background variability of these fossils,” Sibert says. Sharks’ bodies are made of mostly cartilage, which doesn’t tend to fossilize. But their skin is covered in tiny scales, or dermal denticles, each about the width of a human hair follicle. These scales make for an excellent record of past shark abundance: Like shark teeth, the scales are made of the mineral bioapatite, which is readily preserved in sediments. “And we will find several hundred more denticles compared to a tooth,” Sibert says.
6-3-21 Sharks were almost wiped out in an extinction 19 million years ago
Sharks living in the open ocean seem to have experienced a previously unknown mass extinction about 19 million years ago. The event may have wiped out nearly 90 per cent of sharks at the time. Many sharks are currently threatened with extinction as a result of human activities, including overfishing, plastic pollution and illegal shark finning. What makes this situation more striking is that sharks have existed for at least 420 million years and have been considered resilient to large mass extinctions, several of which have happened during that time. Elizabeth Sibert at Yale University – who conducted the study while at Harvard University – and Leah Rubin at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry say they have now found the first evidence of a mass extinction of the “pelagic” sharks that live in the open oceans. They isolated microfossils of shark scales, called ichthyolith denticles, from samples of mud taken from the sea floor in both the North and South Pacific Ocean. The mud samples come from the upper 15 metres of the seafloor, and were deposited over the past 40 million years. Sibert and Rubin counted and characterised a total of 1263 fossilised denticles. They say the sediment samples reveal a sudden drop in the abundance and diversity of shark scales around 19 million years ago, during an epoch known as the Miocene. “There seems to have been a major extinction event in the early Miocene, which knocked out about 90 per cent of sharks in the open ocean,” says Sibert. This is more than twice the level of extinction that sharks experienced during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction 66 million years ago, which wiped out the dinosaurs. Sibert says the extinction occurred relatively abruptly, geologically speaking, over a span of 100,000 years.
6-3-21 University students with morning lectures tend to have lower grades
University students tend to get lower grades if their classes and lectures begin early in the morning. Attending classes and sleeping well are both associated with increased engagement and performance at university – but a course with lectures scheduled early in the morning might compromise students’ ability to do both. To investigate, Joshua Gooley at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and his colleagues analysed the grades of 27,281 undergraduates enrolled at the National University of Singapore. The students were attending classes between 2018 and 2020, but before the covid-19 pandemic. On average, those with more days of morning classes had a lower overall grade than those with more afternoon classes. “We made sure that the students we selected had the same course workload, in terms of course credits,” says Gooley. The students with no morning classes at all had a higher overall grade, on average, than all other groups. The researchers also found that attendance was much lower at early morning classes – for students with lectures starting at 8 am it was 15 per cent lower than at classes at 10 am or later. They investigated attendance using Wi-Fi connection data associated with 24,678 students – which included some of the initial 27,281 students. If a student was connected to a Wi-Fi router near to their lecture hall, the team assumed that person was in attendance. Students knew this information was being collected, and it was anonymised before inclusion in the study. “Based on each student’s course timetable, we already knew the location of their classes,” says Gooley. “We just determined which Wi-Fi routers correspond to which lecture halls.” To understand why students weren’t attending morning classes, the researchers gave 181 of them a sensor to wear for six weeks that can measure sleep cycles and activity. “In nearly a third of instances for 8 o’clock classes, students didn’t wake up in time to reach their class,” says Gooley. Conversely, they rarely slept past the start of classes that began at noon or later.
6-3-21 After vaccinating 95 percent of adults, a Brazilian city is returning to normal
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths dipped following mass vaccination of adults in Serrana. In Serrana, Brazil, schools are reopening and plans are under way for a large open-air concert. Health care workers suddenly have time for sit-down meals rather than rushing to grab street food during a spare free moment. These scenes approaching normalcy stand in stark contrast to what’s happening across the rest of the country, where hospitals are jam-packed, businesses are largely closed and 2,000 people are dying each day from COVID-19. Serrana, a city of 45,600 in the state of São Paulo, can begin to make these plans because an experiment called Projeto S, which vaccinated nearly all adults, appears to be drastically reducing COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths there. Symptomatic cases have dropped 80 percent, with hospital admissions down 86 percent, down from a peak of around 600 cases per 100,000 people in early March, Projeto S leaders announced at a news conference on May 31. By two weeks after the second shot, only two fully vaccinated people landed in the hospital with COVID-19. The incidence of COVID-19–related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants also dropped 95 percent in the city, the team leaders said, although the raw data behind the numbers has yet to be released. In April, the city recorded only six COVID-19 deaths, according to the Health Secretariat of Serrana. The project, in which over 95 percent of the city’s adults were given the Chinese-made CoronaVac vaccine, is a real-time experiment to measure the effectiveness the vaccine, including how well it protects against coronavirus variants (SN 5/5/21). In clinical trials, the CoronaVac vaccine had an efficacy of just over 50 percent, raising concerns of how well it would work in the real world.
6-3-21 50 years ago, scientists predicted steady U.S. population growth
Excerpt from the June 5, 1971 issue of Science News. 1971: The United States’ population is growing at a rate of one percent a year, and even with lower fertility rates this trend will probably continue. If the fertility rate dropped to 2.1 children per woman, the population of the country would level off in the year 2037 at 267 million. But, this would require an unlikely 50 percent decrease in the birth rate. Update: Those projections, based on 1970 census data, recently veered off course. As of April 2020, about 331.5 million people lived in the United States, according to census data. But from July 2019 to July 2020, the population grew by just 0.35 percent — the lowest annual growth rate in over a century. For most of the last 50 years, the population grew by about 1 percent per year, thanks in large part to immigration. While the fertility rate dropped below 2.1 children per woman after 1971 and the birth rate declined by 29 percent from 1970 to 2014, the foreign-born population quadrupled from just under 10 million people to over 40 million. Over the last several years, though, immigration has slowed and life expectancy has decreased (SN: 12/21/17). In 2020, the fertility rate dropped to a record low of 1.64 children per woman and the birth rate — at 56 births per 1,000 women — became the lowest on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
6-2-21 People who are blind navigate better after echolocation training
People who are blind are able to better complete various practical and navigation tasks with the help of echolocation, new research suggests. Echolocation occurs when an animal emits a sound that bounces off objects in the environment, returning echoes that provide information about the surrounding space. While the technique is well known in whales and bats, some people who are blind use click-based echolocation to judge spaces and improve their navigation skills. Lore Thaler at Durham University in the UK and colleagues looked into the factors that determine how people learn this skill. Over the course of a 10-week training programme, the team investigated how level of vision and age affect the learning of click-based echolocation, and how learning this skill affects the daily life of people who are blind. Blind and sighted participants aged between 21 and 79 took part in 20 two-to-three-hour training sessions over the study period. Blind participants also took part in a three-month follow-up survey assessing the effects of the training on their daily life. The researchers found that people who are blind and those who are sighted improved considerably on all measures, and in some cases performed comparably with expert echolocators at the end of the training. In the follow-up survey, all participants who were blind reported improved mobility, and 83 per cent reported better independence and well-being. The results are published in the journal PLoS One. The results suggest the ability to learn click-based echolocation isn’t strongly limited by age or level of vision, the researchers say, and this has positive implications for the rehabilitation of people with vision loss or in the early stages of progressive vision loss. “I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback,” said Thaler.
6-2-21 Drunk review: Could alcohol-induced creativity be key to civilisation?
SOME years ago, when author Edward Slingerland gave a talk at a Google campus, his hosts ushered him into an impressive room. This is where coders pop in for liquid inspiration when they run into a creative wall, they told him. It wasn’t a place to get drunk alone. In his engrossing book, Drunk, Slingerland writes that such spaces, which allow for both face-to-face communication and easy access to alcohol, can act as incubators for collective creativity. The boost that alcohol provides to individual creativity, he emphasises, is enhanced when people get drunk in groups. For millennia, people have used alcohol and other mind-altering substances to get high. Some archaeologists even suggest that the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread. If intoxicants were merely hijacking pleasure centres in the brain by triggering the release of “reward” chemicals, or if they were once adaptive but are vices now, then evolution would have put the kibosh on our taste for these chemicals, says the author. So, what is going on? Slingerland, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has a novel thesis, arguing that by causing humans “to become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural, and communal… intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups”. In short, without them, civilisation might not have been possible. This may seem an audacious claim, but Slingerland draws on history, anthropology, cognitive science, social psychology, genetics and literature, including alcohol-fuelled classical poetry, for evidence. He is an entertaining writer, synthesising a wide array of studies to make a convincing case. Without a science-based understanding of intoxicants, we cannot decide what role they can and should play, he stresses. In small doses, alcohol can make us happy and sociable. But still, consuming any amount of intoxicant can seem stupid, he concedes, because the chemical targets the prefrontal cortex. This late-maturing brain region is the seat of abstract reasoning, which also governs our behaviour and ability to remain on task. Research suggests small children are very creative because their prefrontal cortex is barely developed.
6-2-21 China reports 1st human case of H10N3 bird flu strain
China confirmed on Tuesday its first human case of the H10N3 bird flu strain, after a 41-year-old man in the eastern province of Jiangsu was diagnosed with an infection. Health officials said the strain is not as severe as others and the risk of a large-scale outbreak is low, Reuters reports. The man went to the hospital after coming down with a fever and other symptoms, and on May 28 it was confirmed that he had the H10N3 virus. Health officials did not say how the man became infected, but did share that he is in stable condition and about to leave the hospital. People close to the man have been under medical observation, and none have come down with the virus. H10N3 is "not a very common virus," Filip Claes of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Emergency Center for Transboundary Animal Diseases told Reuters. From 1978 to 2018, roughly 160 isolates of the virus were reported, primarily in waterfowl and wild birds in Asia and some areas of North America. There have been no detected cases in chickens.
6-2-21 Vaccinating people in developing countries costs far less than doing nothing
Shots for half those adults will cost $9.3 billion, the Rockefeller Foundation reports. As the United States and other nations celebrate what looks like the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic — with a quarter to half their populations vaccinated — many less well-off countries are lagging far behind. Some have vaccinated less than 1 percent of their populations, leaving them vulnerable to emerging coronavirus variants and at risk for future surges. Now a new analysis puts a price tag on what it would cost those countries to catch up. Getting shots to half the adult population of the world’s lowest-income countries in 2021 will cost $9.3 billion, the Rockefeller Foundation, a global charitable foundation based in New York City, reports June 1. That estimate includes 92 nations (representing about 3.8 billion people) that are eligible for vaccine access through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public–private global health partnership based in Geneva. With that money, the Alliance could purchase 1.8 billion vaccine doses. If COVID-19 vaccine doses had been distributed equitably to every nation, these doses “would have been enough to cover all health workers and older people” by now, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a May 24 assembly of the organization’s member states. The fallout of failing to vaccinate people in countries with fewer resources will come with a high cost not only for human life — there have been more than 3.5 million COVID-19 deaths so far — but also the global bottom line (SN: 2/26/21; SN: 5/9/21). The word’s economy stands to lose more than $9 trillion if lower-income countries aren’t able to access vaccines, the International Chamber of Commerce estimates.
6-2-21 The mindfulness revolution: A clear-headed look at the evidence
Mindfulness is hailed as a treatment for a vast array of problems and the apps are now hugely popular. But do the claims about its benefits stack up? New Scientist investigates. THERE is nothing wrong with thinking. It is what makes us human. Our ability to remember the past and imagine the future has made us the most successful species on the planet. But can we take it too far? Scientists and self-help gurus alike argue that spending too much time ruminating on our worries can make us stressed and miserable, while blinding us to the joys of what is happening right now. The cure, we are told, is to be more mindful. The practice of mindfulness – paying attention to our experience in a non-judgemental, accepting way – promises to help us escape the tyranny of our thoughts, boosting our mood, performance and health along the way. At this point, there can’t be many people on the planet who haven’t tried mindfulness at least once. Secular versions of the practice were first developed from Buddhist roots in the 1970s, paving the way for scientific studies into its effects on the mind. Since it burst into the mainstream in the 1990s, high-profile research papers and media reports have claimed dramatic changes in brain structure and function, and benefits ranging from sharper attention to boosted mood, memory and a younger-looking brain. Mindfulness is now prescribed by doctors, taught in schools, provided by employers and is readily available to download on our smartphones. It is no longer a fringe topic, but part of daily life. “Now, everyone’s got the app,” says a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California. In recent years, though, some researchers have begun to urge caution, warning that the benefits of the practice have been hyped and potential harms ignored. It is also unclear whether apps, the way most people now access this practice, work the same way as formal training. So, what is the truth about mindfulness? Does it really work, and if so, what can it do?
6-2-21 Why it's so important we believe people about their mental health
When Meghan Markle said she thought of ending her life during her time living with the royal family in the UK, people online said: No, actually, you didn’t feel like that. When British MP Nadia Whittome said she was taking time off because she had PTSD, again people said no, she’s just stressed, stress is normal. And when tennis player Naomi Osaka said recently she would stop giving press conferences because of the impact they have on her mental health, people decided for themselves what that phrase meant, and concluded she was being unfair, unreasonable and overdramatic. It is relevant that these three public figures are women of colour, and therefore especially likely to be scrutinised. But it is also indicative of a deeply problematic trend in the way mental health is being discussed in the public domain. Mental distress is largely invisible. You can’t see symptoms of most mental health conditions, things like depression and social anxiety (both of which Osaka has experienced). And when the person talking about their difficulties is famous or successful, it is easy to be sceptical. It is easy to think: well, they look fine. This disbelief happens when it comes to celebrities but also for regular joes too. For example, undergraduate students today commonly talk about their mental health problems, and I think the suspicion of some academics is obvious. Students can’t all be that unwell, the logic goes, so none of them are. Part of the problem, ironically, is exactly how much we are talking about this. Spearheaded by charity campaigns like Time To Change, there has been a huge drive to talk more openly about all and any mental health problems. This, paired with vagueness around the right terminology to use, means people are more confused than ever about what mental distress does and doesn’t “count”, and what we should do about it.
6-1-21 Here’s what we know about the risks of serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines
Risks of rare allergic reactions, blood clots and maybe heart problems don’t outweigh benefits. Many people have experienced sore arms and feeling wiped out for a couple of days after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Some get fevers, chills and headaches. Those familiar side effects have become widely accepted as the price of protection against the too-often-deadly coronavirus. But it’s the rare, more serious side effects that have grabbed the headlines — and given some people pause about whether to get vaccinated or get the shots for their children. Such side effects include rare allergic reactions to an ingredient in the mRNA vaccines (SN: 1/6/21) and rare blood clots in young women associated with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine (SN: 4/23/21). Now, a group that monitors vaccine safety for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating whether there is a link between Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine and a few mild cases of heart inflammation, called myocarditis, in adolescents and young adults. So far, cases of myocarditis have not risen above the number normally expected in young people, and no one actually knows whether the vaccine triggers the heart inflammation or not. “We are seeing these potential side effects because we are looking for them, and that’s a perfect example of how our safety system is supposed to work,” says Alexandra Yonts, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. “We’re being very aggressive and proactive, and that’s good.” Here’s what is known, the experts say: The risk of serious side effects from vaccination remains far smaller than its benefits. The vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, even against variants (SN: 5/11/21). The vaccines may also help block infection and transmission of the coronavirus (SN: 3/30/21).
6-1-21 Coronavirus: WHO announces Greek alphabet naming scheme for variants
THE World Health Organization (WHO) has announced a naming system for variants of the coronavirus that uses letters of the Greek alphabet. Under the new naming scheme, the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK, commonly referred to as the Kent variant, is labelled “alpha”, the B.1.351 variant identified in South Africa is “beta”, the P.1 variant which first originated in Brazil is “gamma” and the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India is “delta”. These Greek letter labels will only be given to “variants of concern” and “variants of interest” as defined by the WHO. Researchers had been calling for an alternative naming system for coronavirus variants for some time, arguing that the scientific names are challenging to pronounce, leading many people to refer to the variants by geographical names such as “the Indian variant”. This “unfairly places blame on the people in those locations”, says Mark Pallen at the Quadram Institute in Norwich, UK, who recently developed an automated system to generate Latin and Greek-based names for new bacterial species. Writing in New Scientist in March, Pallen suggested that an approach similar to that used for naming storms might be useful for generating neutral and more memorable names for coronavirus variants. The established systems for naming and tracking genetic lineages of the coronavirus will remain in use by scientists and in scientific research, as these “convey important scientific information”, the WHO said in a press release on 31 May. But the new Greek alphabet-based labels will “help with public discussion”, tweeted Maria Van Kerkhove, covid-19 technical lead for the WHO. Avoiding referring to coronavirus variants by geographical names could also encourage countries to detect and report variants rapidly, which is crucial for managing their spread. “No country should be stigmatized for detecting and reporting variants,” said Kerkhove. “Globally, we need robust surveillance for variants.”