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Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2017

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: pixabay

Influenza

An Arms Race with Nature

H7N9, a new bird flu emerging in China, has infected roughly 1,500 people and killed 40% of them. The virus is contracted directly from infected birds but is not yet easily transmissible between humans, however researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have evidence H7N9 could potentially become transmissible between humans fairly easily. They examined a fragment of the virus that interacts with receptors on animal cells to gain entrance, and identified three minor mutations that could cause the fragment to shift from preferentially entering avian cells to preferentially entering human cells. If these mutations were to occur, it could rapidly result in a pandemic.

Tests in a viral fragment do not prove functionality in the intact virus; that would require mutating H7N9 itself. A 2014 moratorium on mutating three types of viruses (SARS, MERS, influenza) to more dangerous forms is expected to lift when the Department of Health and Human Services finishes current work drafting a new policy establishing reviews designed to assess benefit/risk ratios before funding research.

The subject is divisive, even among scientists in the field. Stanford researcher David Relman says he would support efforts to test mutations in a weakened strain of flu, but not in the H7N9 virus.  Bioterrorism expert Thomas Inglesby opposes increasing the contagious lethality of a virus, and opposes publishing such procedures due to concern that less benevolent actors would be enabled to replicate the process. NIH funded researcher, Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands, whose alteration of H5N1 to become highly contagious between ferrets (the animal model for humans) in 2011 influenced the moratorium, believes examining dangerous virus mutations in a controlled lab environment is important to identify potential pandemic viruses.

Many of these topics were discussed at the recent Immunology and Evolution of Influenza Symposium, and are sure to be a hot topic at the July 16 – 19 Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance meeting. With policy guidance needed on benefit/risk, potentially safer models, security, and publication limitations, the new HHS policy will be critical. (Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR)

Conservation

Modeling with Dough – Pick your Species

The Supreme Court found the Endangered Species Act was “intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.” Today, in light of the cost, conservation policy makers are being invited to triage species extinctions. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives recently met with ecologist Dr. Leah Gerber to discuss her proposed use of an algorithm guiding conservation funding.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Gerber says her model suggests that defunding “costly failures,” including the spotted owl, golden-cheeked warbler and gopher tortoise, could help save about 180 other species. Gerber says policy makers may opt to continue to support species that her algorithm rejects, as was done for the koala in Australia where algorithm triage has been used. In this case, a popularity contest may determine who lives and who goes extinct.

Details of the algorithm are not explicit, but Dr. Gerber’s recent publication in PNAS is a straightforward return-on-investment calculation analyzing the mathematical relationship between funds requested, spent, and species success or decline.  Gerber finds “the cost–success curve is convex; funding surpluses were common for the species least likely and most likely to recover” so it’s not simply ‘money in – species out’. Other factors – endemism, keystone status, level of species risk – are also important, though Gerber acknowledges they are not currently included.

While proponents call use of the equation “doing the best you can with what you have,” lack of data on its predictive validity make it a frightening policy tool governing something as permanent as species extinction. What if region affects costs, population growth is slower in species reaching sexual maturity later, a break-through in understanding one species’ requirements is just around the corner or we haven’t yet discovered the significance of the niche occupied by another species? What if business or political interests conflict with a species’ needs? What if the algorithm developer seeks intellectual property legal status, as is happening now with a proprietary algorithm used in parole and sentencing situations? Algorithms impacting public policy should be vetted by multiple experts in germane disciplines, validated, and kept publicly accessible for healthy scrutiny. (Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 27, 2017 at 11:42 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 8, 2013

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By: Jennifer Plank

photo credit: andre.vanrooyen via photopin cc

photo credit: andre.vanrooyen via photopin cc

Our biweekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Elephant Poaching Pushes Species To Brink Of Extinction – A recent publication in PLOS ONE states that the total number of elephants has decreased 62 percent from 2002-2011. A ban on ivory poaching in 1989 initially reduced the amount of the trade; however, over the past decade as many as 25,000 elephants have been killed yearly. The largest contributor to this crisis is increased trade within China. (Christopher Joyce)

Legislator Grills NIH Over Tobacco Grant – NIH director, Francis Collins, recently attended a hearing regarding how different Health and Human Services agencies are dealing with reduced budgets. While at the meeting, Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) questioned Collins about a grant to investigate tobacco control funded by the NCI. The PI on the grant, Stanton Glantz, was investigating the influence of  “third parties” funded by the tobacco industry. The study, published in Tobacco Control, uncovered a link between the tobacco industry and formation of the Tea Party. Harris, a member of the Tea Party, opposes this finding and would prefer that money from tax payers does not cover such research. Collins was also alarmed by the finding and hopes to strike a balance between not funding an “unfortunate outcome” and not micromanaging all NIH-funded research. (Jocelyn Kaiser)

We Have A Limited Window of Opportunity: CDC Warns of Resistance Nightmare – On Tuesday, Dr. Thomas Frieden of the CDC released new statistics regarding infections by the highly drug resistant bacteria carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (or CRE). To date, 42 states have reported at least one incidence of CRE infection, the occurrence of CRE has increased 4-fold over 10 years, and 4.6 percent of hospitals and 17.8 percent of long term care facilities have diagnosed CRE in the first 6 months of 2012. Together, these factors suggest that the situation is dire. Increasing the severity of these findings are the facts that CRE is resistant to nearly all antibiotics and results in fatality in nearly half of patients who contract the infection. The CDC has published a list of recommendations to limit the number of CRE infections; however, none of the recommendations are required or funded. (Maryn McKenna)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 8, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 21, 2012

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photo credit: mikebaird via photopin cc

photo credit: mikebaird via photopin cc

By: Jennifer Plank

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Policy Lifts Otter-Free Zone in California – In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service moved 140 sea otters to San Nicolas Island off the California coast. The goal of this effort was to maintain two distinct populations of these endangered animals in the hopes of maintaining the species in case of an oil spill. At the same time, the service also established an “otter-free zone” at the request of fisherman and the Navy. This week, the “otter-free zone” restriction was lifted, a victory for environmentalists who did not believe the otters natural migration paths should be restricted. (Felicity Barringer)

The Gun Lobby’s Favorite Part of the Health LawA section of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) entitled “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights” states that the Department of Health and Human Services can not collect information about gun ownership. It also states that insurance providers cannot deny coverage or raise premiums due to gun use. This section in the ACA was added by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D, NV). This language of the ACA is not without controversy as epidemiologists claim that gun use can kill as many people as influenza while gun-rights advocates maintain that any policies monitoring gun ownership is infringing on Second Amendment rights. (Jay Hancock)

Chicago’s Field Museum Cuts Back on ScienceThe Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is cutting $3 million from its science budget this year including a program for research on the institutes collection of fossils, plants, and animals. Nationally, museum endowments have been low due to the recession, and the Field Museum has also been financing expansion projects resulting in a significant budget crisis. Staff at the museum will provide input on how to apply the budget cuts.  (Helen Shen)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 21, 2012 at 1:35 pm