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Science Policy Around the Web March 26th, 2020

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By Mohor Sengupta, PhD

Image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay 

No, the coronavirus wasn’t made in a lab. A genetic analysis shows it’s from nature

When COVID-19 started raging across the globe, different theories surfaced about its origin. One was that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was genetically engineered and the other was that it might be a spill from a lab culture. Proximity of the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the wet market, to which the first COVID-19 case was traced, did not make things easier. However, a recent paper published in Nature Medicine has put to rest all unfounded theories about the origin of the virus. 

Scientists from Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, have studied the recently decoded RNA sequence of this virus and identified patches in the sequence unique to the novel coronavirus. This proves that the SARS-CoV-2 is not a result of genetic engineering, because the unique RNA sequence stretches don’t follow any previously known model or template that a human-made software would use for this purpose. The scientists then studied the virus structure in detail. 

The spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which it uses to latch on to human cells, has a unique RNA-binding structure that is not found in the SARS virus. This structure is cleaved by a human protein, called furin. The cleavage of this unique RNA-binding structure by furin causes SARS-CoV-2 to attach tightly to human cells, making it highly contagious. 

The spike protein also has additional structures which bind to sugar molecules and protects the virus from being recognized by the human immune system. If the novel coronavirus was indeed an escaped organism from lab culture, it wouldn’t have evolved to shield itself from the host immune system, which is absent in lab viral cultures. 

ACE2, a protein on human cells bind with the SARS virus. Computer models had predicted that this binding would be weaker in the case of SARS-CoV-2, but to everyone’s surprise, ACE2 bound more strongly to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. The findings prove that the novel coronavirus is a product of natural selection, and not of human design or spillage of a lab culture. 

(Tina Hesman Saey, Science News)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 31, 2020 at 9:16 am

It’s time to talk about menstrual health, period.

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By Federica La Russa, PhD

Image by Carrie Z from Pixabay

Menstruation is a natural occurrence for 1.8 billion girls and women of reproductive age. Yet millions of menstruators across the world are denied the right to experience menses in a safe and dignified way. Women worldwide still face menstruation related health, social, and economic challenges which require immediate attention.

One of the most common health-related issues to menstruation is pain associated with periods, called dysmenorrhea. This is often associated with underlying debilitating pathological conditions such as endometriosis, which affects 200 million women worldwide. Research, diagnosis, and management of dysmenorrhea are dramatically overlooked at tremendous detriment to the quality of life of affected women. Lack of education, stigma, and taboos define major social and cultural-related issues around menstruation. A study performed by UNICEF showed that 1 out of 3 girls in South Asia had no prior knowledge of menstruation before menarche, whereas in Western cultures, hiding menstrual status was prevalent in social or work-related settings. As a consequence, women experienced high levels of fear, shame, and feelings of social and personal restriction across multiple cultures. In the UK, nearly 80% of adolescent girls experienced concerning menstrual symptoms without reporting them to a health professional.

Social and cultural-related issues are accompanied, and often worsened, by economic-related issues. The most pressing burden is period poverty, or limited access to sanitary products, due to a lack of availability and/or affordability or proper hygienic measures and infrastructures.  A study showed that 65% of women and girls in Kenya were unable to afford sanitary pads, and only 32% of rural schools in the country had access to running water near the toilets, hand washing facilities, and soap. Period poverty is also a problem for high-income countries. A recent study conducted in the United States revealed that 64% of the surveyed women were unable to afford sanitary supplies at some point during the previous year, and 46% of the women interviewed had to decide between menstruation hygiene or food. Further, anecdotal information suggests that on average, women spend more than $4000 over a lifetime on sanitary products, not including out-of-pocket costs of health-related issues. 

Moreover, endometriosis is estimated to cost $69.4 billion per year in excess health expenditures in the United States alone. Hence, the economic burden of health-related menstrual issues does not only affect patients and their families, but also the health care system. The economic burden of menstruation and period poverty can result in detrimental health and behavioral practices. The absence of facilities in many countries, coupled with the shame and fear of exposing the menstruation state, exacerbate anxiety and stress during menstruation and result in many adolescents being forced to miss or even drop out of school. It was estimated that in Africa, 1 in 10 girls missed school due to menstruation, and a similar statistic was reported in a recent study conducted by Plan International UK, where 1 in 10 girls aged 14–21 years were forced to stay home from school due to period poverty. Growing evidence suggests that missing school results in a lack of education, which has a long-lasting impact on girls’ economic potentials and empowerment. Indeed, it has been shown that low levels of education can exacerbate girls facing an increased risk of sexual exploitation as well as early marriage and pregnancy. The economic burden of menstruation also causes productivity loss at school or work. In the United States, 13% of the 32748 women interviewed in a cross-national survey reported absenteeism at work, and 80% reported decreased productivity, highlighting the impact of this phenomenon not only on women, but on society as a whole. 

In the light of this, it is not surprising that tackling period poverty, and the consequences  interjecting health- and social-issues, has historically attracted attention with public and private stakeholders seeking to address menstrual hygiene challenges in schools and workplaces with a variety of programsAFRIPads, for instance, is a social enterprise founded by a Canadian couple in 2010 aimed to locally produce and globally distribute Menstrual Kits to provide protection and comfort to girls and women during menstruation. A powerful, although rather new, approach to the problem is the rapid increase in activism against period poverty. In the United States, the menstrual movement Period aims to end period poverty and stigma by advocating for free sanitary products in schools, shelters, and prisons, and eliminating the so-called “tampon tax”. Period was founded in 2014 by two 16-year- old students. To date, it has reached a network of 400 chapters distributed in all 50 states and addressed over 850,000 periods through product distribution. More recently, campaigning against period poverty has resulted in legislative changes. After proposing the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill in 2017, the Scottish parliament member Monica Lennon finally saw it pass through the first of the legislative stages on February 25th, 2020. As a result, at least 1000 women and girls from low-income homes will benefit from free sanitary products. 

Ignoring menstrual health and hygiene is an unacceptable violation of a woman’s right to dignity, non-discrimination, equality, and freedom from violence and abuse.  Addressing menstrual health as a global challenge is therefore of vital importance not only for women, but also for health systems and societies as a whole. Menstrual health and hygiene are indeed interlinked with many of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals, which provide a shared strategy to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, achieve gender equality, empower women and girls, and aid available and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Without overcoming the challenges linked to menstrual health, none of these can be successfully completed. Therefore, menstrual health and hygiene should become part of a more structured and organized economic agenda that fully supports the health of girls and women worldwide.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 27, 2020 at 3:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web March 26th, 2020

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By Mary Weston, PhD

Image from Flickr

Gilead Declines ‘Rare Disease’ Status For Experimental Coronavirus Drug

Last Wednesday, the drug company Gilead withdrew its request to the FDA that Remdesivir, a potential COVID-19 treatment, be categorized as an Orphan Drug. The Orphan Drug Act, passed in 1983, is intended to incentivize companies to develop drugs to treat rare conditions affecting 200,000 people or less. After status approval last Monday, Gilead was highly criticized by patient advocates and lawmakers who argue the company is abusing the program and taking advantage of the escalating health crisis.  

The lucrative orphan drug status is intended to help companies recover their research investment by providing seven-year market exclusivity (the sole right to market the drug), tax credits, and expedited approval. While the drug did meet the requirements for a rare disease when the application was submitted in early March, the number of COVID-19 infected patients in the US will inevitably exceed 200,000.  A letter by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen to Gilead argues that “calling Covid-19 a rare disease mocks people’s suffering and exploits a loophole in the law to profiteer off a deadly pandemic.” Additionally, the drug was developed with at least 79 million dollars of publicly funded research money, according to a paper published by KEI. 

Gilead has defended its actions, asserting that they believed the orphan status was the quickest way to approve the drug. However, after working with the regulatory agencies, they are confident that they can maintain a faster approval timeline without orphan status and therefore rescinded their request.  Remdesivir is an intravenous, antiviral medication that is being tested in clinical trials around the world as a treatment for COVID-19. 

(Sydney Lupkin, NPR)

5G Could Disrupt Accurate Weather Forecasts

As telecommunication companies prepare to implement 5G wireless technologies, which will allow faster and more efficient mobile communication, there may be dangerous consequences for weather forecasting. 

Weather instruments on Earth-orbiting satellites measure the 23.8 gigahertz (GHz) frequency naturally emitted by atmospheric water vapor. This signal is a dependable indicator of humidity, allowing accurate weather predictions on hourly and daily scales.  However, some of 5G’s frequency bands transmit at 24 GHz, which is so close to water vapor that national and international science agencies and independent expert are very concerned about possible interference, which may drastically reduce weather prediction capabilities. 

To prevent these signals from interfering with one another, researchers recommend limiting the amount of noise allowed to leak from 5G networks. A joint NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study recommends that noise be buffered at -50 decibel watts to protect weather vapor predictions. However, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), which regulates US wireless networks, has set noise limits at a much less stringent level of -20 decibel watts. This contrasts with recommendations from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the US Navy.  Neil Jacobs, acting director NOAA, estimates that capping noise at -20 decibel watts will reduce satellite water-vapor data by up to 77%. This could lead to a 2-3 day lag in predicting hurricane movement. 

This pattern of less strict noise levels is also seen internationally, with limits being set at various maximums between -29 to -42. In December 2019, a the House Science Committee made a bipartisan request to the Government Accountability Office to investigate why the FCC’s 5G recommendations substantially differ from those of other federal agencies. 

Moving forward, the FCC is also considering auctioning other frequency bands that may interfere with precipitation, clouds, and sea ice. 

(The Editors, Scientific American)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 26, 2020 at 9:21 am

Science Policy Around the Web March 24th, 2020

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By Maria Disotuar, PhD

Image from Flickr

The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We know It

Have you heard of the start-up company Clearview AI? If not, you’re not alone. Most individuals have not heard about this tiny company, and yet it’s bound to transform our privacy and the world. Clearview is a facial recognition application founded by Hoan Ton-That, an Australian computer programmer and part-time model. The app allows users to upload a picture of a stranger and then it searches a database containing more than 3 billion images scraped from social media sites such as Facebook, Venmo, YouTube, and Instagram. The search results provide images of the stranger and direct links to the photos. The app software also has the capability to be paired-up with augmented-reality glasses which means you could identify anyone on the street and know who they are and where they live in seconds. 

For now, the app has only been distributed to Homeland Security, the FBI, local cops, and a few companies for security purposes. These individuals have used the app to solve a series of murder, identify theft, and kidnapping cases. Yet, experts are concerned about future implications of the app and some argue it should be banned all together. Currently, the app has not been tested by an independent party and so there is no data to determine the rate of false or positive matches. Importantly, these types of apps tend to be controversial because they tend to deliver false matches for certain ethnic groups, particularly individuals of color. To date, there is no clear indication about if or when Clearview will be made publicly available, however, experts like Al Gidari, a privacy professor at Stanford University note that without a strong federal privacy law Clearview could end anonymity as we know it. 

(Kashmir Hill, The New York Times

CRISPR treatment inserted directly into the body for the first time

For the first time in history, CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing has been directly administered into a clinical trial patient to treat Leber’s congenital amaurosis 10 (LCA10), a rare genetic eye disorder that often leads to blindness in infancy. Typically, clinical trials that use CRISPR edit the genome of cells removed from the body. The CRISPR elements are introduced into the cells and then these cells are transplanted into the patient. In this case, however, the CRISPR elements are injected directly into the eye and used to remove the mutation in the gene CEP90 that results in LCA10.

This is not the first time gene editing has been used directly on a clinical trial patient. In 2018, Sangamo Therapeutics used an older gene editing system called zinc-finger nucleases to alleviate the symptoms of Hunter’s syndrome, a metabolic disease that can lead to organ damage. The results of the trial showed that the therapy was not effective. CRISPR, however, is more powerful and easier to use and design in the laboratory. Scientists hope direct insertion of CRISPR elements will remove the DNA mutation and lead to reactivation of the inactive photoreceptors. 

Yet, this landmark event does not come without challenges. There are inherent safety and efficacy concerns when using this type of technology directly on an individual. The challenge with direct application is getting the CRISPR system to edit the correct place and understanding if the system made unwanted off-target edits. For now, the first volunteers to get the therapy will receive a small dose to test for efficacy and later they will receive larger doses to minimize any health risks.  

(Heidi Ledford, Nature)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 24, 2020 at 9:04 am

Climate Change and Human Health

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By Sanjay Gautam, PhD

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay 

The World Health Organization recently listed climate change as one of the ‘urgent global health challenges’ for upcoming decades. A healthy planet offers every living being a better place to live. The effect of climate change on human health is obvious and anyone who ignores this fact are ‘fooling themselves’ (George Benjamin, Executive director of American Public Health Association). Climate change essentially refers to an increasing rate of global temperature commonly referred to as global warming. This happens when there is an imbalance between incoming solar radiation to the earth’s surface and its exit with greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) being the sole culprit.  So, how does this affect the epidemiology of infectious diseases? 

There are multiple mechanisms described to relate the increasing incidence of communicable diseases and earth’s raising temperature. For example, warmer air retains more moisture and causes heavy rainfall in some places and drought in others. Increased availability of stagnant water and temperature above 16°C allows the malaria transmitting mosquitoes to breed increasingly well. In contrast, places with drought will have increased numbers of West Nile virus infection as water scarcity brings its primary host mosquito and bird in close proximity resulting in disease transmission.  As the environment gets warmer, the spread of flu is not limited to a single season, but rather continues year-round (William Schaffner, Vanderbilt University). An investigation by Towers and colleagues investigated the pattern of Influenza seasons in the United States between 1997 to 2013 and concluded that severe epidemic and early onset of the disease is preceded by warmer winters (Towers et al., PLoS Curr, 2013). Similarly, countries with cooler climate are getting record number cases of vector borne diseases (for example, dengue, chikungunya) and spread of diarrheal illnesses in colder seasons. 

The effect of climate change makes live, livelihood and economy vulnerable and therefore warrants a coordinated approach which fortunately is within the reach. A strong political will is key to recognize the depth of the issue and prioritize the measures to mitigate the effects of adverse environmental phenomenon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)has issued a policy on climate change and health with an objective to place the system to detect and track the adverse health effects with no delays; and, work towards effectively managing and responding the public health challenges. The impact of climate change in human health can be predictable or not and may vary with regions and communities.  The CDC’s priority area for public health preparedness includes, credible dissemination of information, tracking the data, model and predict the health effects, scientific capacity building, identification of communities at high risk, establish partnership with stakeholders, provide leadership, implement preparedness and response plans, provide technical assistance and promoting the workforce development. Similarly, American Public Health Association and the World Health Organization are actively prioritizing the discussions on global warming, health and  policy action agenda to adequately prepare to mitigate the human health challenges due to change in rising global temperature. There is an urgent need to develop and implement sustainable development programs and educate young generations the effects of poor climate, for example through incorporating the issues of climate change in curriculums.  

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 20, 2020 at 4:01 pm

Science Policy Around the Web March 19th, 2020

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By Kellsye Fabian, MSc, PhD

Image from Pixabay

Trial of Coronavirus Vaccine Made by Moderna Begins in Seattle 

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced that the first-in-human clinical trial of an experimental vaccine for COVID-19 began on March 16, 2020. The vaccine is composed of genetic material called mRNA that induces the creation of a stabilized form of the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 (also known as coronavirus and 2019-nCoV), which causes COVID-19. Once present in the body, this protein stimulates an immune response to SARS-CoV-2, hopefully resulting in the development of immunity to COVID-19. It was developed by Moderna Inc in collaboration with investigators from the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at NIAID. The clinical trial is being conducted at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, which was chosen before the US had any known coronavirus cases and not because of the outbreak that erupted there. 

The main goal of this Phase I trial is to determine if the vaccine is safe. Three different doses of the vaccine will be tested on healthy adults, with 15 individuals in each group. So far, 4 participants were vaccinated on March 16 and 4 more were planned to be injected on March 17. There will be a pause to monitor the individuals before more people receive the vaccine. How well the participants tolerate the vaccine and whether the vaccine stimulates the immune system to make antibodies that can stop the SARS-CoV-2 from replicating will be assessed. After safety is established, later studies will be conducted to investigate its efficacy.

The Chinese authorities shared the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 on January 11, 2020 and only two days afterwards, the VRC and Moderna finalized the sequence for the vaccine. The first clinical batch of the vaccine was completed on February 7. In February 24, after analytical analyses were performed, the batch was shipped to NIAID for use in clinical trial. On March 4, The Food and Drug Administration gave the go-ahead for the trial to begin. The rapid development of this vaccine was possible due to previous knowledge on related coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, that had caused other outbreaks. However, despite the accelerated progress and even if the vaccine is proven to be safe and effective, it will not be available to at least a year.

(Denise Grady, New York Times

Alcoholics Anonymous vs. Other Approaches: The Evidence Is Now In

A new report from the Cochrane Collaboration that reviewed 27 studies showed that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and similar Twelve-Step Facilitation (TSF) programs (AA/TSF) had increased rates and lengths of abstinence when compared with other common methods, such as motivational enhancement therapy (MET) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The data show that other treatments might result in about 15-25% of people who remain sober, compared to 22-37% of AA participants. AA/TSF also reduced drinking intensity, measured by drinks per day, at the same rate as methods provided by therapists or doctors who don’t rely on AA’s peer connection.

Rigorous studies of programs like AA are always confounded by the question: Do participants do better than nonparticipants because they are more motivated (i.e. self-select) or is it something inherent in the program? Even randomized trials can suffer from bias from self-selection if people assigned to AA don’t attend and if people assigned to the control group do. Despite the challenges, outstanding randomized trials studying AA have been conducted in recent years. 

One study found that subjects randomly assigned to therapist-directed AA/TSF resulted in more AA meetings attended, more active AA participation, and more abstinent days. Other studies also show that increased AA participation is associated with improved alcohol abstinence. Overall, the findings suggest that people already in treatment could get superior outcomes if they also participate in AA. 

In addition to increased abstinence, AA also has the benefit of lower cost. AA meetings are ubiquitous, frequent, and free. Furthermore, several studies found that participation in AA/TSF resulted in decreased psychiatric visits, outpatient visits and inpatient care, which leads to decreased health care cost. According the lead author of the Cochrane review, Dr. John F. Kelly of Harvard School of Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital, “It’s the closest thing in public health we have to a free lunch.”

Alcohol use disorder and alcoholism are often overlooked public health priority despite the fact that in the US, alcohol causes approximately 88,000 deaths per year, accounts for the majority of all addiction treatment cases, and results in $250 billion in economic lost. The newly released review gives hope that a cost-effective and efficacious method to address this problem has been available for approximately 85 years – Alcoholic Anonymous. 

(Austin Frakt and Aaron E. Carroll, New York Times

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 19, 2020 at 2:15 pm

Science Policy Around the Web March 17th, 2020

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By Hannah King PhD

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay 

How China is planning to go to Mars amid the coronavirus outbreak

China will continue its first trip to Mars despite the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down large sections of the country.

The launch is planned for July, with the next possible launch window not occurring for two years. NASA and the UAE both also plan to launch Mars probes this July, while the European and Russian space agencies have announced they will delay their launches by two years – to finish testing needed for the mission, but also influenced by the current coronavirus pandemic.

In order to continue to achieve their planned launch during the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese team is implementing social distancing measures while still pressing forward. The number of people physically working in the facility building the rover has been reduced, with alternating shifts of different workers to reduce the impact if a scientist were to test positive for SARS-CoV-2. Also helping the team continue working is the waiving of the requirement (currently in place in China) to self-quarantine for two weeks following travel, as some scientists performing necessary tasks on this project need to travel across the country to do so.

The launch is an important political event in China. With 2021 marking the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party a successful launch will be viewed as an “100-year anniversary gift”, according to Wang Chi, the director general of the National Space Science Center (NSSC) in Beijing. Unfortunately, due to the COVID outbreak no guests will be allowed to attend the launch – although there are nearby sites from which interested observers can still watch.

Smriti Mallapaty, Nature

Bee-saving practices sometimes are more marketing than real help

Many businesses like to advertise their “bee-friendly” credentials – either touting their bee friendly farming techniques or selling products advertised as “bee hotels” providing habitat for bees­. This support for bees is important, with higher than average decline in bee numbers seen over the winter months (40% in winter 2018/2019).

Unfortunately, however, many of these advertised strategies may be more “hype” than “help” for many American native bee species. Most bees in America, including honeybees, are introduced species. While honeybees face threats, such as Colony Collapse Disorder, which could impact agriculture, their population numbers are largely stable. In contrast, native bees are also impacted by disease and habitat loss – with 50% of species declining and 24% threatened with extinction, according to a study by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Many of these “bee-friendly” strategies that focus on honeybees may actually harm American native bees – such as “bee hotels” encouraging the spread of disease while not providing homes for native bees which nest in the ground. While native bees do not produce honey, and are not commercially managed, they are actually responsible for fertilizing 80% of plants.

Erin Blakemore, Washington Post

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 17, 2020 at 9:40 am