News at a glance: Relaxed U.S. mask guidance, kids’ COVID-19 vaccine, and Facebook’s ‘F’ on climate misinformation | Science


CDC relaxes guidance on wearing masks in public

The often-acrimonious U.S. debate over wearing masks entered a new phase last week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) loosened its guidance and suggested about 70% of the population could jettison them. The turnabout comes as the Omicron wave ebbs and scientists consider how to recalibrate public health precautions, given the mostly mild or moderate disease the virus variant causes in vaccinated people. CDC’s new approach relies on regional COVID-19 hospital admission rates, the percentage of hospital beds filled by those patients, and new cases per 100,000 people during the past week. Previously, case numbers had played the starring role. Some scientists praised the agency’s change; others criticized it because the U.S. population includes many vulnerable people, like those with compromised immune systems, and children under age 5, for whom COVID-19 vaccines aren’t yet available. State and local health authorities in the United States determine mask wearing rules but often turn to CDC for guidance.


Vaccine’s protection for kids dives

Children ages 5 to 11 inoculated with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine lose most protection against infection by SARS-CoV-2 in as little as 1 month, although defense against hospitalization seems to persist, new evidence shows. The news disappointed public health specialists because the Pfizer vaccine is the only one authorized in the United States for that age group. The findings drew on New York state medical databases and compared more than 1 million vaccinated 5- to 17-year-olds with their unvaccinated peers. Among 5- to 11-year-olds who received two doses of Pfizer’s messenger RNA–based vaccine by the second half of December 2021, the vaccine’s effectiveness against infection dropped from 65% to 12% a month later; in teenagers vaccinated in that same period, the decline was smaller, from 76% to 56%, according to the analysis by researchers at the New York State Department of Health. The authors of the study, posted on 28 February as a preprint on medRxiv, suggest younger children may have lost more protection because they received smaller doses of the Pfizer vaccine than teenagers.


Subvariant proves no more severe

BA.2, a more contagious version of the already highly infectious Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant, does not make people sicker than the original Omicron, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded last week, based on data from three countries where the subvariant has become dominant. Both a 19 February preprint from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases and a 25 February report by the UK Health Security Agency showed no increase in the risk of hospitalization for people who carried BA.2, compared with those infected by the original Omicron variant, known as BA.1. And in a 22 February preprint, the Danish public health agency reported that reinfection by BA.2 did not lead to worse symptoms than an initial BA.1 infection, which were mild or moderate.


Panel to mull risky virus research

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. government is revisiting its oversight of “gain-of-function” studies that modify pathogens in ways that could make them more harmful to people. This week, the White House and National Institutes of Health asked the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to review the scope and effectiveness of policies for research on “enhanced potential pandemic pathogens.” The assessment could examine whether controversial coronavirus experiments previously funded by the United States in China fall under that definition and should have received stricter scrutiny. The board will also look at existing policies on “dual-use research of concern” involving pathogens that could be misused to cause harm. Some board members cautioned against overly restrictive rules that could shut down research essential to fighting pandemics. But some critics have called existing policies too permissive. A report is due by December.

quotation mark

Fifty percent is a failing grade. It’s an F. Someone with the resources of Facebook should be aiming for an A.

  • Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, on its finding that Facebook is failing to label about half the posts that promote articles from publishers of climate misinformation.

Nobelists denied CRISPR patent

The team that won a Nobel Prize for its groundbreaking creation of the CRISPR genome editor lost a key patent battle this week. An appeals board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that a rival group led by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard convincingly showed it first “reduced to practice” the use of CRISPR as an editor of eukaryotic cells in October 2012. Nobel laureates Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier and their colleagues first described using CRISPR to edit specific DNA in 2012, but the group, known as the CVC, struggled to make it work in eukaryotic cells. The patents for CRISPR in eukaryotic cells represent a huge financial windfall because these are the foundation for human medicines. The CVC, which lost an earlier patent battle over a similar claim, retains 40 other U.S. patents related to CRISPR and an intellectual property portfolio in 30 countries. A CVC representative said the team “is considering various options to challenge this decision.”


Edited gene’s effect persists

The first team to edit a disease gene by deploying CRISPR, the DNA scissors, within the body, reported this week that levels of a toxic protein stayed low for as long as 1 year, suggesting long-term benefits. In June 2021, Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals announced that 1 month after receiving an injection of fat particles carrying messenger RNA for the CRISPR enzyme and a guide RNA sequence, six people with transthyretin amyloidosis, an inherited, progressive disease, had a drop in blood levels of a misfolded liver protein that can damage the heart and nerves. The companies said in a 28 February press release and webcast with investors that the reductions in levels—ranging from 41% to 93%, depending on the CRISPR dose—have remained stable in the six original participants and nine more, all treated between 2 and 12 months ago. The researchers do not know yet whether the patients’ neuropathy symptoms have improved.


Colonialism in fossil studies

fossils seized by Brazilian police
Brazilian police seized fossils illegally offered for sale and presented them to a museum at a 2021 event.RENAN BANTIM

Two basins—one in northeastern Brazil, the other in northern Mexico—have provided dozens of well-preserved fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods for research. But many journal articles about those finds, published during the past 3 decades, serve as glaring examples of what a new analysis calls “paleontological colonialism.” Examining about 200 such published studies, a team of scientists including ones from those countries found that approximately half the studies were led by foreign researchers. Of those, half lacked any local researchers as co-authors or showed no evidence of any collaboration with them—even though Brazil and Mexico require such partnerships. Many publications did not state whether the authors obtained permits for fieldwork, and many of the specimens described in the papers had been illegally deposited in foreign collections, according to the study, published on 2 March in Royal Society Open Science.


LGBTQ disclosure linked to papers

LGBTQ scientists who don’t disclose their sexual orientation in the workplace publish fewer papers than their peers, a study has found. Researchers surveyed 1745 academic scientists in 2016, 1093 of whom identified as a sexual minority, asking them questions about their publishing history and openness in the workplace. Based on the information each provided, straight men and openly gay or bisexual men published the most papers, whereas LGBTQ individuals whose colleagues weren’t aware of their sexual orientation published the fewest. The authors of the study, which appeared this week in PLOS ONE, say the publishing gap may reflect the challenges that LGBTQ individuals face when working in environments in which they’re not comfortable sharing their identity.