News at a glance: Hong Kong’s high COVID-19 death rate, Biden’s ‘test and treat,’ and a ResearchGate lawsuit | Science


Big COVID-19 trial notches another effective drug

The world’s largest study of COVID-19 treatments has yielded another drug that can reduce mortality. On 3 March, researchers with the United Kingdom’s Recovery trial announced that baricitinib, an oral drug that dampens an overactive immune system and is commonly used by people with rheumatoid arthritis, reduced hospitalized COVID-19 patients’ risk of dying by 13%. Baricitinib inhibits enzymes in the Janus kinase family, which play an important role in regulating immune responses. Several smaller randomized trials had concluded it helped against COVID-19, but this arm of the Recovery study, which enrolled more than 8000 people, is by far the largest. It also showed the drug benefits patients who take other drugs known to cut COVID-19 deaths, such as the steroid dexamethasone. Baricitinib, sold under the brand name Olumiant, comes in generic versions that low- and middle-income countries can afford.


Death disparity underscores power of vaccines

Hong Kong is paying a heavy price for the vaccine hesitancy among its older residents, as a comparison with New Zealand underscores. Both countries minimized COVID-19 cases until the Omicron variant spread in February, but are now enduring big surges. Although New Zealand’s deaths from COVID-19 have remained flat—at 65 for the whole pandemic as of 7 March—Hong Kong’s have skyrocketed, with the weekly average nearing 200 per day, among the world’s highest recorded fatality rates. The key difference seems to be vaccination: New Zealand authorities say 100% of residents 75 and older are fully vaccinated (and 96% of those ages 12 and up), but in Hong Kong only about 30% of those 80 and older have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. (The figure is 70% for all adults and children ages 3 and up.)

A stark contrast

Extensive vaccination in New Zealand and lagging rates in Hong Kong have led to a sizable difference in death rates.

Graphic comparing COVID cases and deaths in Hong Kong and New Zealand

Test, treatment plan knocked

The U.S. government this week began to ship antiviral pills for a program of free testing and immediate, free drug treatment for those with COVID-19 at hundreds of pharmacy clinics and long-term care facilities. The “test to treat” plan—one of several new proposals announced last week by President Joe Biden’s administration to manage the pandemic as U.S. caseloads drop—is aimed at helping people who lack ready access to a physician. The antiviral pills being dispensed work best if given quickly after diagnosis. Many public health officials and scientists applauded the proposal. But the American Medical Association complained that the COVID-19 drugs could interact harmfully with drugs for other conditions and that physicians, who don’t typically staff pharmacies, are best equipped to prescribe them safely.

quotation mark

We are never going to get all the information to create a perfect recovered form of an extinct species.


Cancer trials need old people

Older adults make up more than half of cancer patients but only about 25% of participants in clinical studies, and last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged drug companies to tackle the problem. It recommended that companies boost representation of people over 65 years old in their trials, including in the earliest phase studies. Those studies could help refine drug doses in older patients to guide larger, later trials. Many older people don’t qualify for trials or find them difficult to access. But leaving them out can lead to surprises, including serious side effects, when they take cancer drugs tested primarily in younger, otherwise healthier patients. Oncologists hailed the recommendations, although they aren’t binding.


U.N. OKs push on plastics treaty

International negotiators are aiming to draft a global treaty within 2 years to control plastic pollution, after the United Nations Environment Assembly resolved last week to tackle the growing problem. Already, an estimated 11 million tons of plastic waste reach the ocean each year. Although several treaties deal indirectly with plastic pollution, such as marine litter, no agreement covers the full scope of the problem, for example by reducing the manufacture of new plastic. The assembly approved a resolution calling for nations to set their own legally binding waste reduction targets and create a new global scientific advisory body. The body also agreed to create a new science policy panel, akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to advise nations on emerging problems in chemical pollution and research trends.


USGS, ARPA-E heads nominated

President Joe Biden this week moved to fill two long-vacant research spots in his administration by nominating geologist David Applegate to lead the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Evelyn Wang to head the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) within the Department of Energy. Applegate has focused on geological hazard response and planning since joining USGS in 2004 and has been its acting head since the start of the Biden administration. Wang, who studies thermophotovoltaics, joined the MIT faculty in 2007 less than a year after earning her Ph.D. and since 2018 has led its mechanical engineering department. Biden’s emphasis on combatting climate change through resilience, mitigation, and sustainable energy technologies has raised the profile of both USGS and ARPA-E. The nominations require approval by the U.S. Senate.


Split decision on ResearchGate

Two publishing giants last week said they will appeal a ruling by a German court in their copyright infringement lawsuit against ResearchGate, a social media platform. Many scientists have posted paywalled journal articles there that users can read for free. In 2017, the American Chemical Society (ACS) and Elsevier sued over 50 such papers, a sliver of what they allege are 4 million from all publishers. A regional court in Munich ruled that ResearchGate hosted them illegally but that ACS and Elsevier are not entitled to damages because not all authors on those papers had assigned them ownership. A similar lawsuit continues in a U.S. court. Two other large publishers—Springer Nature and Wiley—allow ResearchGate users to access their copyrighted material through universities’ online portals.


Extinct beasts re-created digitally

Besides the Columbian mammoth, new virtual models include the dire wolf and saber-toothed cat. LA BREA TAR PITS

A team has created the first scientifically accurate, animated digital models of extinct mammoths, ground sloths, and other ice age animals excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. An artist and video game developer based the “paleoart” on photos of mounted skeletons and videos of behavior in related modern-day species. Visitors to the tar pits can use a smartphone app or wear an augmented reality viewer to watch the animated creatures moving around the grounds. Simpler versions of the models can be viewed on Snapchat.


Bacteria make seaweed nutritious

To reap the nutritional benefits of seaweed, humans get help from gut bacteria that have acquired a special set of genes, a microbiome study reveals. Researchers studied the ability of different human gut microbes to degrade seaweed extracts in a lab dish and compared their genetic sequences with those in microbial databases to assess their genes’ origins. They concluded that at least once since people began to munch on marine flora, human gut bacteria called Bacteroides and Firmicutes took in packets of DNA that enabled them to break down the unusual carbohydrates that seaweed contains. Those genes—potentially borrowed from marine bacteria ingested accidentally with seafood—then spread to other gut microbes, endowing them with new digestive capabilities, the researchers reported last week in Cell Host & Microbe. These modified microbes are most common in Chinese and Japanese populations, the team noted, but if they can be packaged into a probiotic pill, they might enhance the benefits of snacking on seaweed.