Science

News at a glance: COVID-19’s toll on TB care, new rules on nonstick chemicals, and a spinning spider

In focus

A striped fishing spider spinning an egg sac was among the winners in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo competition sponsored by the Natural History Museum in London. Members of this species (Dolomedes scriptus), native to eastern North America, carry the sacs, which can contain more than 750 eggs, until the eggs hatch. This spider’s leg span is 6 centimeters.

COVID-19

Roster for origin panel 2.0 unveiled

The World Health Organization (WHO) last week proposed the 26-member lineup of its new, permanent Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), one of several groups that will continue to explore what caused the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel retains six of the 10 members chosen by WHO for an earlier, ad hoc team that sought the source of SARS-CoV-2; that group drew criticism after it concluded, following a fact-finding trip to China, that a laboratory origin was “highly unlikely.” The SAGO roster, chosen from more than 700 applications, includes representatives from 26 countries. One member is from China, which has challenged WHO’s call to more fully probe the lab-leak hypothesis. SAGO will also recommend and coordinate efforts to track down other novel pathogens and prevent major outbreaks. Supporters hope constituting it as a standing panel focused on science will standardize and depoliticize its work. WHO plans to finalize the roster later this month after a comment period.

#METOO

U.S. academy boots archaeologist

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) this month expelled prominent archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters of Peru, a former minister of culture, for sexual harassment. The ouster is the academy’s third for sexual harassment since May and the first of an international member. It followed a 2020 investigation of Castillo Butters, an expert on the Moche culture, by his university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP). That probe was triggered by a blog post that year by independent journalist Michael Balter containing allegations from several unnamed women. Unnamed professors corroborated two of the accounts. Castillo Butters told Science, “I am completely and absolutely innocent. … The NAS process is not fair.” The university’s report found evidence of harassment but stated PUCP could not initiate disciplinary proceedings because the alleged offenses occurred prior to 2016, when the university adopted sexual harassment regulations. In 2019, NAS adopted bylaw changes that for the first time allowed it to expel members for misconduct.

Many thousands of deaths … could have been avoided.

  • A U.K. parliamentary report that faulted the government for being slow to start COVID-19 lockdowns and testing. The result, it said, was one of the United Kingdom’s “most important public health failures.”
WORKFORCE

Large charity bets on diversity

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) last week said it will spend $2.2 billion on a slew of programs aimed at eliminating racial disparities among biomedical faculty at U.S. universities and medical centers. The philanthropy is banking on continued robust growth in its $22 billion endowment and a significant contraction in recent years of its flagship investigators program to finance the initiative, which stretches from the undergraduate years to the ranks of senior faculty members. More than half the money will be funneled to 125 early-career scientists, to be chosen for their scientific excellence and commitment to diversity. (Federal law prohibits HHMI from limiting eligibility for the awards to those from groups underrepresented in science.) Other efforts include mentorship training for advisers to HHMI-funded graduate students and postdocs. HHMI officials hope the spending, budgeted through 2040, will trigger additional investments by other private entities and government agencies to address the persistent underrepresentation of minorities in the biomedical workforce.

ENVIRONMENT

Biden targets nonstick chemicals

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week said it will propose enforceable standards for levels in drinking water of a class of long-lasting, toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These compounds, which feature nonstick, stain-repellent properties, break down extremely slowly, have been found in many drinking water supplies, and are linked to health effects such as cancer and low birth weight. Among other new measures, EPA will require companies to provide it with toxicity data on many types of PFAS, a step that the chemical industry has long resisted. Environmental advocates have criticized previous commitments by the administrations of former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump to control PFAS as coming up short.

ARCHAEOLOGY

Viking presence is 1000 years old

Reconstructed Viking age building
Vikings built structures at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada like this reconstructed example.Glenn Nagel Photography

In the 1960s, scientists discovered what is still the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America, at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. But researchers couldn’t determine exactly when the Norse had lived there: Radiocarbon dating of artifacts suggested it was within a 275-year window starting in the 790s. Now, using chemical clues left by ancient solar storms, scientists report in this week’s issue of Nature that they’ve determined the Vikings were present in 1021. When big solar storms hit Earth, the particles cause a spike in the creation of carbon-14 atoms, which are incorporated into growing trees. One such storm hit in 993, previous research found, and researchers used tree rings containing the telltale carbon spike to calculate that three pieces of cut wood found at L’Anse aux Meadows had all come from trees felled 28 years later.

PUBLIC HEALTH

COVID-19 reverses TB progress

The coronavirus pandemic has greatly hurt the worldwide fight against tuberculosis (TB), according to the World Health Organization’s Global Tuberculosis Report, published last week. As many countries shifted resources to combating COVID-19 and overwhelmed health care systems treated fewer patients with other conditions, an estimated 1.5 million people died from TB’s bacterial infection, up from 1.4 million in 2019. This marks the first time TB deaths globally have risen since 2005. At the same time, TB diagnoses dropped from 7.1 million in 2019 to 5.8 million last year, suggesting a growing number of people sick with TB remain untreated. The number of people who received preventive medication because they were exposed to TB or are HIV positive dropped by one-fifth in 2020. The impact may not show up as increased TB case numbers and deaths until next year, the report’s authors warn.

FUNDING

Senate bills would boost research

Health, climate, and defense research would get major funding increases under bills released this week by Democrats in the U.S. Senate. But Republicans are demanding major changes, including equal boosts for civilian and military spending, rather than the proposed ones of 13% and 5%, respectively. The nine-bill package would give 12% more to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), bringing their appropriations to $48 billion and $9.5 billion. NIH would get a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health while NSF would gain a technology directorate. Legislators also proposed an 8% boost for NASA’s science programs, a 16% hike for in-house labs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and 10% more for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. For the first time in a decade, the spending bills also included earmarks, projects sought by individual lawmakers to benefit their state.

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