Webb telescope embarks on new era in astronomy
The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope—NASA’s most expensive science mission ever—is already more than halfway to its new post 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Launched on 25 December 2021 from French Guiana, the 6.5-meter telescope is considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope; it will gather infrared light to help scientists study the universe’s first galaxies and the atmospheres of alien planets. NASA said the launch and two subsequent trajectory maneuvers were both precise and thrifty: Webb will have enough propellant left to maintain its orbit at L2, a gravitational balance point beyond the Moon, for “significantly” more than 10 years. As Science went to press, operators had unfurled Webb’s kite-shaped, tennis court–size sunshield and tightened its membranes—two of the many mechanical deployments that have kept astronomers on edge. Later this week, operators will move the primary and secondary mirrors into their final positions. After Webb arrives at L2 in late January, it will take another 5 months to chill its instruments and align the 18 hexagonal segments of the main mirror before taking a first snapshot.
Plasma shows COVID-19 promise
The antibody-rich plasma of recovered patients can avert hospitalization if given early in the course of a COVID-19 infection, a clinical trial has found. The treatment already has an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for certain severe cases. But last month, the World Health Organization recommended against the use of convalescent plasma in SARS-CoV-2–infected people with “nonsevere” illness, citing 16 previous studies that found the treatment didn’t prevent death or reduce the need for mechanical ventilation. In a study of 1181 U.S. patients within 8 days of symptom onset, posted as a preprint on 21 December 2021 on the medRxiv server, 2.9% of those who received convalescent plasma were hospitalized, versus 6.3% of those who got a placebo. The trial’s investigators propose that health authorities allow use of convalescent plasma for outpatients and in settings where monoclonal antibodies or antiviral pills are not available.
Rx for COVID-19 falsehoods
Some of the most widely trafficked misinformation about COVID-19 is finding fewer believers, a study suggests. A survey in November 2021 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that 74% of 1800 U.S. adults correctly identified as false a statement that COVID-19 vaccines change people’s DNA; two-thirds said a claim the vaccines cause infertility was probably or definitely false. For both, that’s less than in earlier polls by the university’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the researchers think accurate media reporting and statements by health authorities may explain the increases. The changes are welcome because the false statements have helped dissuade some people from receiving the vaccines, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the center’s director.
Pandemic infants show delays
Babies born at two New York City hospitals in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic showed significant delays in development at 6 months of age compared with prepandemic babies, says a small study published this week. Compared with 62 infants born at one of the hospitals before the pandemic, the 227 pandemic-era infants scored significantly lower on measures of gross and fine motor skills, as reported by their mothers using a standardized assessment tool. The children also lagged on a measure of personal and social development, but not on measures of communication and problem solving. The results were adjusted for factors including the infant’s gestational age at birth and the mother’s age and educational level. Lower educational attainment was found in children born during the influenza pandemic of 1918, note the researchers, who report the new findings this week in JAMA Pediatrics. The new findings, they write, “support the need for long-term monitoring of these children” to prevent outcomes seen in previous pandemics.
I felt pressured to vouch for tests I did not have confidence in.
- Former Theranos lab director Adam Rosendorff, in testimony about Elizabeth Holmes, the company’s former CEO, whom a U.S. jury this week convicted of four of 11 charges of fraud. Holmes had touted the company’s blood-testing devices to investors after Rosendorff told her he questioned their accuracy.
Bullying complaints draw apology
A month before leaving her position as head of the U.K. Medical Research Council for a top job at an influential European science agency, stem cell biologist Fiona Watt issued a public apology to MRC colleagues who accused her of bullying behavior. A 15 December 2021 press release from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the body that includes MRC and six other funding agencies, says an independent investigator looked into complaints made against Watt in 2020. The agency did not disclose the findings or the exact nature of the incidents. But it says Watt has accepted the outcome and apologized to her accusers. “I was devastated to learn that my actions and behaviour had affected colleagues in a negative way,” Watt said in the press release. UKRI Chief Executive Ottoline Leyser called it “profoundly upsetting that people have experienced this behaviour” and said she was grateful to the whistleblowers. Watt told Science she cannot comment before 10 January, when she leaves MRC to become director of the European Molecular Biology Organization, an appointment announced in July 2021.
Fossil hunter Richard Leakey dies
Paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey died at his home near Nairobi, Kenya, on 2 January at age 77. The son of famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, Richard Leakey added to their legacy with numerous important finds in Kenya, where he was born. His team found fossils crucial to our current understanding of human evolution, including skulls of Australopithecus boisei, Homo rudolfensis, and the famed H. erectus skeleton, “Nariokotome boy.” Several of his finds helped support the once-contentious notion that more than one type of ancient hominin had lived side by side. Leakey also worked for conservation, directed the Kenya Wildlife Service, and helped limit the poaching of elephants for ivory. He supported students and scientists, especially other Kenyans, studying their country’s scientific riches.
Goodbye to two champions of biodiversity
December’s end saw the deaths of two of the world’s most influential naturalists and advocates for using science to protect the world’s flora and fauna. Edward O. Wilson, 92, an ant researcher and evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, died on 26 December 2021. He introduced controversial theories about the evolutionary basis of animal societies, including human ones, and became a Pulitzer Prize–winning author of books about the natural world that inspired millions of readers. Thomas Lovejoy, a National Geographic Society conservationist who coined the term “biological diversity,” drew attention to species loss in the Amazon, and helped rally the political will to protect them and their habitats, died at age 80 on Christmas Day. Both men were known for quirks of dress—Lovejoy for his bowties and Wilson for his field vest full of pockets—and both did research that drove home that smaller natural areas like those created by human activities tend to be more vulnerable to losing species. In large part through Wilson’s writings, Lovejoy’s “biological diversity” became “biodiversity” and a household word. The scientists “were really sort of bookends of the conservation movement,” says Daniel Simberloff, an ecologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a former Wilson student.
Ancient head lice offer DNA source
For millennia, head lice have afflicted humans, including the elite, as shown by evidence from mummies. Now, a study reports that the ancient parasites offer archaeologists a valuable new tool. Studying the heads of mummies found in Argentina, an international team extracted human DNA and environmental DNA from the hard natural glue, or cement, that lice secrete to attach their eggs to human hair. The work, reported in the 28 December 2021 issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution, suggests the cement preserves DNA and offers an alternative to extracting DNA from ancient teeth and bones, which requires destructive sampling. Analysis of DNA from lice cement on the eight Argentine mummies, which are about 1500 years old, revealed details about migration patterns of people in that era. The researchers also detected the earliest known presence of the Merkel cell polyomavirus, which causes skin cancer.
USDA unveils GM food label
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a new consumer label for genetically engineered food, “bioengineered,” that is intended to reduce confusion—but which advocates for transparency fault as flawed and deceptive. Previously, states were free to decide whether to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, such as soybeans altered to resist herbicides. But a 2016 law directed USDA to create a national labeling standard. Environmental groups complain that the new rule, which took effect on 1 January, has loopholes. For example, the label is only required if bioengineered DNA is detectable, but it’s often undetectable in oil and starch. And foods need not be labeled if the proportion of genetically modified ingredients is less than 5%.
Researchers probe bird flu epidemic hitting Europe, Israel
A growing epidemic of avian flu is afflicting wild birds and has caused major losses of domestic fowl in parts of Europe and Asia in recent weeks, with thousands of animals dead or culled to slow the spread. The virus, A(H5N1), had been detected in poultry in 16 European countries as of early December 2021, with most cases in Italy. In the United Kingdom, which is facing its worst outbreak ever, farmers have killed more than half a million fowl. In Israel, the deaths of more than 6000 cranes are a sign of “the most serious damage to wildlife in the history of the country,” said Israeli Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg last week. Researchers at Hebrew University are using GPS receivers attached to birds to assess the risk of the virus spreading in Israel’s Hula Valley, where more than 30,000 common cranes (Grus grus) spend the winter. The virus, which causes highly pathogenic avian influenza, spreads easily among bird species, and migratory flocks carry it vast distances. It rarely jumps to humans, but can be lethal if it does. As of 13 December 2021, only China said it had detected human illnesses, reporting 13 cases to the World Health Organization.
COVID-19 pills for the poor
Many health advocates celebrated after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month authorized the emergency use of two different oral treatments for early SARS-CoV-2 infections. They also lauded decisions by the pills’ manufacturers, Pfizer and Merck & Co., to allow other drug companies to make low-cost versions accessible to the poorest countries via the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP). Set up in 2010, the nonprofit was modeled after a cross-licensing agreement to free airplane patents controlled largely by the Wright brothers. MPP’s founder, attorney Ellen ’t Hoen, notes that it has helped bring cheaper AIDS and hepatitis C drugs to many millions. ’T Hoen, who works at the nonprofit Medicines Law & Policy, spoke with Science about the COVID-19 deals. (A longer version of this interview is at https://scim.ag/COVIDpillpool.)
Q: Some prominent groups have criticized MPP’s deals with Pfizer and Merck for not allowing generic manufacturing everywhere that could benefit. What do you think?
A: Those big, brand name NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] suffer a little bit from knee-jerk responses to things that aren’t perfectly perfect. If you read the license agreements carefully, there are no barriers to [generic manufacturers] supplying drugs in countries where patents have not been filed or have not been granted—or where governments have decided to issue a compulsory license.
Q: Where has patent sharing yet to succeed with COVID-19?
A: Both Pfizer and Moderna have dug in their heels: They don’t want to license their vaccines. What I’m hoping is that this experience Pfizer now has [with MPP] will lead it to take the next, and much more important, step to license its vaccine technology. And that would have to include a technology transfer package.
Q: The tech transfer is far more important for vaccines than drugs?
A: Indeed. It’s the [manufacturing] know-how that needs to be transferred, and you don’t find enough of that in the patent.
Correction: The news article “Omicron sparks a vaccine strategy debate” in the 24 December 2021 issue included an image described as a false-color electron micrograph of the coronavirus variant. Instead, it was an illustration based on an electron micrograph.