Science

News at a glance: Declining childhood vaccinations, rising ‘superbug’ infections, and a disputed Brazilian fossil

GLOBAL HEALTH

Pandemic contributes to big drop in childhood vaccinations

In what UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell called a “red alert,” childhood vaccination rates in many countries worldwide have dropped to the lowest level since 2008, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF and the World Health Organization together track inoculations against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus—which are administered as one vaccine—as a marker for vaccination coverage overall. In 2021, only 81% of children worldwide received the recommended three doses of the combined vaccine, down from 86% in 2019. As a result, some 25 million children remain insufficiently protected against the three dangerous diseases. The majority of children who missed shots live in India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and the Philippines, but the largest relative drops occurred in two countries with much smaller populations: Myanmar and Mozambique. A similar number of children did not get their first dose of the measles vaccine, and millions also missed polio and human papillomavirus inoculations. The pandemic has limited the ability of health care workers to provide immunizations and disrupted supply chains, UNICEF says; armed conflicts and vaccine misinformation also contributed to the declines.

COVID-19

At last, U.S. OKs Novavax vaccine

After a long wait, Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine last week joined the short list of pandemic shots authorized in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization for the two-dose vaccine on 13 July. Novavax’s product is a “protein subunit” vaccine, containing the coronavirus spike protein and an immune stimulant; the company hopes this will appeal to people who worry about side effects from Pfizer’s and Moderna’s messenger RNA vaccines and Johnson & Johnson’s adenovirus-based vaccine. FDA’s blessing was delayed in part because Novavax struggled for months to meet the agency’s manufacturing standards. The authorization only applies to the primary series of inoculations, but the company hopes that in the coming months FDA will authorize a booster dose of the vaccine. Uptake of the Novavax vaccine in the European Union, where it was authorized in December 2021, has been slow: Only about 250,000 people have gotten it so far.

I was worried about my goldfish getting too hot. Now I’m worried about the survival of my family and my neighbors.

  • Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading,
  • about Europe’s worsening heat wave, which she calls “a wake-up call about the climate emergency.”
CONSERVATION

What makes an old growth forest?

President Joe Biden’s administration last week asked for public comment to help it define what constitutes an “old growth” forest, to inform its efforts to inventory and protect those on federal lands. A better, “universal” definition that reflects evolving scientific understanding of these “unique” ecosystems is needed, says the formal request for comment issued on 15 July by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which together manage nearly 80 million hectares of forests. Although big, ancient trees are often seen as key markers of old growth, forests containing them “differ widely in character” depending on factors such as geography and climate, the agencies note. Suggestions are due by 15 August, and disagreement is likely: Environmentalists want the new definition to be expansive, and the timber industry prefers a narrower one.

COVID-19

U.S. ‘superbug’ infections rise

Infections and deaths caused by some of the most harmful antibiotic-resistant pathogens in U.S. hospitals leapt by at least 15% during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week. The spike boosted 2020 deaths from these infections to 29,400 and was a turnabout from declines in “superbug” infections during the previous decade. Causes included overworked hospital workers forced to let sanitation precautions slip and shortages of personal protective equipment, CDC said. Resistant microbes deemed among the most dangerous drove the largest reported increases in rates of hospital-acquired infections. For example, the rate for Acinetobacter bacteria resistant to carbapenem antibiotics increased by 78%, with 7500 such cases. The microbe commonly infects patients on ventilators, such as those hospitalized for COVID-19.

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I want young people to see that this is possible for them, and that it’s not off limits because they are Black.

  • Marine geologist Dawn Wright, in Nature,
  • after becoming the first Black person to visit Challenger Deep, Earth’s deepest spot, aboard a submersible this month. She and a crewmate used side-scan sonar for seafloor mapping.
PALEONTOLOGY

Disputed fossil to return to Brazil

A German science ministry plans to repatriate an unusual dinosaur fossil to Brazil, where scientists alleged the artifact had been removed illegally. Scientists at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe (SMNK) published a paper in 2020 describing the chicken-size dinosaur with spearlike feathers that they called Ubirajara jubatus. But after the team failed to provide proper documentation of the fossil’s legality, the journal withdrew the paper. Last year, a Science investigation prompted the science ministry of Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state, which manages SMNK, to investigate; this week, authorities concluded that the museum provided the ministry with false information regarding the fossil’s acquisition, prompting the decision to return it.

FUNDING

Center tackles ecological data

The University of Colorado, Boulder, will host a new research center to synthesize large amounts of data about environmental change, such as increasing wildfires and biodiversity loss. The Environmental Data Science Innovation and Inclusion Lab will fill “an enormous need,” said a statement last week from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announcing it will fund the new center with $20 million over 5 years. The project will train visiting scientists on computational tools, such as machine learning, to make sense of the vast data being collected by efforts such as the NSF-funded National Ecological Observatory Network and the Ocean Observatories Initiative.

ASTRONOMY

Native Hawaiians gain voice in managing Mauna Kea

News at a glance: Declining childhood vaccinations, rising ‘superbug’ infections, and a disputed Brazilian fossil
Mauna Kea’s summit is both a premier site for astronomy and sacred ground.THOMAS LINKEL/LAIF/REDUX

The state of Hawaii this month created a new management body for Mauna Kea, one of the world’s best sites for astronomy, that could help resolve a long-running dispute over telescopes on its summit. Many Native Hawaiians consider the mountain sacred and have long objected to the observatories, especially the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a U.S.-led international project. Under a new state law, control of the summit will be transferred over 5 years from the University of Hawaii to a new body whose 11 members will be appointed by the governor and include representatives of Native Hawaiian groups, the Mauna Kea observatories, and others. Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, one of the Native Hawaiian groups that has opposed TMT’s construction, objected that the panel’s Native Hawaiian members will not be chosen by the groups and may be heavily outnumbered.

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