Koalas declared endangered as wolves get reprieve
The iconic koala is now endangered in parts of Australia, the government announced last week. The status of the marsupial was changed from threatened, on the advice of an expert panel that blamed dwindling numbers on habitat loss from land clearing and bush fires, droughts and heat waves, and disease. Koala populations have declined by 50% to 60% in eastern Australia since 2001, environmental organizations estimate. The endangered listing triggers greater protection of habitats, and the government promised to adopt a national recovery plan. Last month, it announced it will spend $36 million over 4 years to support conservation. Scientists say saving the koala will depend on quickly implementing these and other countermeasures. Meanwhile, a federal court in the United States last week struck down a decision by former President Donald Trump’s administration to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list in much of the country outside of the Rockies and Yellowstone National Park. The ruling restores protection from hunting.
FDA chief confirmed in close vote
For the first time in more than 1 year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is set to have a permanent head. On 15 February, the Senate confirmed Robert Califf, a cardiologist with close ties to the drug industry, as commissioner. The 50-46 vote was unusually close, with four Democrats and independent Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) opposing Califf, whom President Joe Biden nominated in November 2021. The vote returns Califf—a longtime clinical research leader at Duke University who has recently been senior adviser for Google Health—to a job he held under former President Barack Obama in 2016 and early 2017. Dissenting Democrats protested Califf’s ties to drugmakers and FDA’s approval of five new prescription opioids during that tenure. Abortion opponents protested Califf’s role in FDA’s easing of access to medical abortion pills in 2016. Six Republicans voted in favor of Califf, assuring his confirmation.
I just wish when people say ‘Follow the science,’ it’s … followed by ‘and here’s the evidence.’
- Princeton University science historian Michael Gordin, in The Washington Post, about the phrase’s use and misuse by policymakers and others in public discussions of COVID-19.
Omicron treatment wins U.S. nod
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week gave emergency use authorization to a monoclonal antibody that in test-tube studies neutralizes the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant and its “subvariant” BA.2. The monoclonal, bebtelovimab, made by Eli Lilly and Company, can be used in people at least 12 years old who have mild to moderate COVID-19 and are at high risk of progressing to severe disease. In January, FDA revoked emergency use authorizations for two other monoclonal treatments—one made by Eli Lilly, the other by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals—that did not neutralize Omicron. Sotrovimab, another monoclonal authorized before Omicron appeared, appears to have “sufficient” activity against it and BA.2, according to studies briefly described in press releases by its makers, Vir Biotechnology and GlaxoSmithKline. But a preprint report, posted on bioRxiv on 9 February, suggested BA.2 had “marked resistance” to sotrovimab in lab studies. In addition to the monoclonals, three antiviral drugs widely used for months to treat COVID-19 are also effective against Omicron, their makers say.
French co-discoverer of HIV dies
Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in discovering HIV, died last week at age 89. After receiving the award, he later lost the respect of many colleagues for embracing unscientific theories about cofactors he claimed were needed for the virus to cause AIDS, water’s ability to hold memory, and the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines. In a landmark Science paper in 1983, Montagnier’s Pasteur Institute lab reported the first isolation of a novel retrovirus from an AIDS patient. But it wasn’t until 1 year later that Robert Gallo’s group at the U.S. National Cancer Institute conclusively proved the virus caused the disease. This led to a blood test and a prolonged, impassioned, high-profile patent battle between Montagnier, Gallo, and the French and U.S. governments. A 1987 settlement described the two scientists as “co-discoverers” of the virus, but Gallo did not share the Nobel, awarded in 2008.
Dry heat fuels increase in nighttime wildfires
Rising nighttime temperatures around the globe are helping fuel more intense and long-lasting wildfires, researchers report. Wildfire fighters have often relied on cooler temperatures and higher humidity at night to help calm blazes. But detailed satellite observations of fires stretching back 2 decades, paired with 4 decades of hour-by-hour weather data, have revealed a change. In fire-prone ecosystems around the world, the number of nights during which atmospheric conditions would encourage fires to keep burning has increased by 15% since 1979. That added five more nights per year on average when blazes are unlikely to be snuffed by cooler, more humid weather. In some regions, the effect was greater: In the western United States, the increase was 45% since 1979—the equivalent of 11 additional fire-friendly nights. The research team said the changes may be associated with climate change but did not document a causal link. But, “The ‘night brakes’ on fires are failing,” they write in this week’s issue of Nature.
Stormy skies for satellite swarm
SpaceX’s Starlink project to ring the globe with thousands of internet satellites was buffeted this month by natural and institutional forces. A 3 February launch that put 49 satellites into orbit ( joining 1800 already lofted Starlinks) suffered a blow the next day when a blast of particles from a solar storm swelled Earth’s atmosphere, dragging as many as 40 of the satellites to a fiery death on reentry. Then last week, NASA and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) sent letters to the Federal Communications Commission about SpaceX’s proposal to expand its approved constellation of 12,000 Starlinks by another 30,000. NASA cited concerns about collision hazards, interference with Earth-observation satellites and space telescopes, and a reduced number of launch windows for rockets. NASA does not oppose the expanded fleet but says coordination will be required to protect assets from damage. NSF noted the work SpaceX has already done to lessen impacts on radio and optical observatories but says such efforts will be “even more critical” for larger constellations.
Judge blocks higher carbon cost
A federal judge last week prevented President Joe Biden’s administration from increasing its estimate of how much carbon pollution costs society. Federal agencies use that number to evaluate the costs and benefits of new regulations, particularly in the energy sector; the figure is called the social cost of carbon because it factors in costs, such as declines in health outcomes and agricultural productivity, that are not reflected in market prices. The administration plans to raise the estimate of this cost from about $7 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions to $51 per ton. But U.S. District Judge James Cain of the Western District of Louisiana sided with Republican attorneys general in ruling that the higher cost would harm states that produce fossil fuels, and that the administration had overstepped its authority. Environmental advocates say the ruling, if upheld, would make it harder to tighten limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Webb space telescope takes selfie
NASA last week released the first images taken by its flagship James Webb Space Telescope. Although unspectacular, they mark an initial step in tuning the instrument’s segmented mirror to observe the earliest galaxies and nearby exoplanets. One composite image showed 18 blurry dots—all the same star—taken by each of the mirror’s 18 segments. In the coming weeks, engineers will adjust the alignment and curvature of the segments to create a single reflecting surface and focus those scattered dots into a single pinpoint of light.
U.S. steps in to help porpoise
The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office filed a complaint against Mexico last week for failing to protect the vaquita, a critically endangered porpoise. It is the first complaint under the trade agreement between the two countries and Canada that took effect in 2020; the pact includes stronger environmental regulations than its predecessor. If the dispute is not resolved, the United States could impose trade sanctions. Until July 2021, the Mexican government had prohibited fishing in a part of the Gulf of California that harbors the roughly 10 vaquitas that are the last survivors of their species. But that month, Mexico changed its policies to allow up to 60 boats to fish there at once. The vaquita population has dropped drastically because of entanglements in illegal fishing nets used to catch an endangered fish, the totoaba, whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy and is used medicinally in China.
Depression in poor rarely treated
Few people worldwide receive treatment for major depressive disorder, particularly in low and lower middle income countries, a meta-analysis shows. Only 8% of patients living in poorer countries were treated, versus 33% in wealthy countries, researchers report this week in PLOS Medicine. Their analysis covered 149 studies conducted in 84 countries. Major depressive disorder is defined as a persistent loss of pleasure or interest in activities for 2 weeks or longer; symptoms can range from mild to severe. Globally, about 5% of adults suffer from it, with an associated economic loss estimated at $1 trillion per year, according to a report by The Lancet–World Psychiatric Association Commission on Depression published this week. “There is arguably no other health condition which is as common, as burdensome, as universal, or as treatable as depression, yet it receives little policy attention and resources,” said commission Co-Chair Christian Kieling of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. The commission’s recommendations include folding treatment for depression into routine health care.
U.S. Army takes on climate change
The U.S. Army wants to step up its attack on a pervasive, global adversary: climate change. The military branch’s first ever climate strategy, released last week, outlines an ambitious plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from one of the world’s largest energy users, while also preparing to fight on battlefields transformed by global warming. Goals include starting a large-scale shift to electric vehicles in 2027, achieving net-zero emissions from Army installations by 2045, and boosting the number of soldiers and civilian employees with advanced credentials on climate change topics. The plan also calls for incorporating the latest climate science into decisions such as where to build bases and position forces. The Army put no price tag on its plan, but said setting clear goals is a necessary first step toward realizing them.