Science

News at a glance: Omicron vaccine, colonial-era exploitation, and mapping health equity

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IN FOCUS

Scientists rallied outside Canada’s Parliament on 11 August, carrying a 70-meter-long letter with more than 7000 signatures. The letter to lawmakers calls for increases in the stipends paid by graduate student scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. “We can’t do science if we can’t pay rent,” one rallygoer’s sign read.

COVID-19

U.K. OKs anti-Omicron vaccine

The United Kingdom this week became the first country to approve an updated COVID-19 booster directed at two different strains of the coronavirus. The “bivalent” booster, made by Moderna, will have the same dose of messenger RNA as the company’s prior boosters but will target both the original version of the coronavirus and the first Omicron variant, BA.1, which emerged in late 2021. Clinical trials and other research by Moderna suggest its retooled booster generates a stronger immune response against BA.1 and other versions of Omicron now in circulation than its existing vaccine, introduced in December 2020. The new shot will be available in the fall. A similar booster is expected in the United States, although in June the Food and Drug Administration asked Moderna and a second manufacturer, Pfizer, to include the spike protein component for more recent versions of Omicron, BA.4 and BA.5, rather than BA.1.

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HISTORY OF SCIENCE

A health school’s colonial past

A report on the history of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has found the prestigious institution “embraced British colonialism and the notions of racism and white supremacy.” The review, commissioned by LSHTM and released last week, describes the institute’s history from its founding in 1899 to 1960, when it was funded by the government ministry that administered colonies and overseas territories and by companies with commercial interests there. The school’s research sought to protect the health of Europeans in the colonies and the companies’ profits rather than the health of the other people who lived there, the report concludes. It details an experiment by physician Patrick Manson, before he founded the school, in which he exposed his servant to nematode-carrying mosquitoes to study the parasite’s life cycle. The investigation was recommended by a 2020 report on racism and equality commissioned by LSHTM, which has prompted the school to adopt new measures to improve its diversity, equity, and inclusion. LSHTM will offer a new funding scheme for Ph.D. scholars at partner institutions in five African countries.

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Wellcome remains an institutionally racist organisation.

  • Jeremy Farrar
  • director of the Wellcome Trust, in Times Higher Education, announcing a new push to support applicants from diverse backgrounds in its grantmaking, but with no details on funding. A report found the large biomedical research charity’s antiracism program, launched 2 years ago, has made limited progress.
INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Polio boosters for London kids

Citing new data indicating poliovirus continues to circulate in at least eight of London’s 32 boroughs, U.K. authorities recommended last week that all the city’s children between the ages of 1 and 9 receive an additional booster dose of polio vaccine. The virus, detected by routine wastewater samples starting in February, is a type derived from the oral polio vaccine, which contains live, weakened virus. Virus in the live vaccine, which is no longer used in richer countries, can spread and mutate into a version that can cause paralysis in unvaccinated people. Travelers probably introduced the virus into the United Kingdom; the country has had no cases of polio so far, but genetic analysis of the samples suggests the virus is spreading beyond a small group of people, according to a 10 August report by the UK Health Security Agency. Authorities are adding at least two dozen sewage sampling sites in London and across the country to check the full extent of the spread.

PUBLIC HEALTH

CDC puts health equity on the map

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies have launched the first national index of how pollution, illness, and poverty affect health equity. The Environmental Justice Index, which debuted last week, combines several existing indices of environmental justice—based on data from CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other sources—into an overall measure of environmental harm to health and well-being. The maps display data down to the scale of neighborhoods. That’s a useful innovation, says Philip Alberti, senior director of health equity research and policy at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “The impacts of environmental injustice tend to be hyperlocal.” Another novelty is a focus on the combined effects of multiple health inequities. CDC hopes the website will help public health officials respond to areas with the highest risk of illness, set goals, and track progress.

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MISCONDUCT

NAS can suspend, not just expel

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has changed its bylaws to permit members to be temporarily suspended, rather than permanently ejected, from the prestigious body if they breach its code of conduct, Science has learned. Separately, the academy made public that last week it has for 5 years barred a member, Jane Lubchenco, a White House official and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from receiving NAS honors and working on publications or programs for the academy or the National Research Council. The bylaw change was approved on 24 June in an online vote open to all 2500 NAS members, with more than 75% of participating members voting in favor. Requested by the standing committee that reviews alleged violations of the academy’s code of conduct, the change “will allow the NAS to take meaningful actions on conduct issues with less severe consequences,” its president, Marcia McNutt, said in a statement to Science. A two-thirds vote of NAS’s 17-member governing council will be required to restore a suspended membership. The new policy modifies one approved in 2019 that allows the body to expel members who breach its code, which prohibits scientific and financial misconduct, discrimination, harassment, and bullying. NAS has since permanently ejected at least three members: evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, and Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters. The sanctions on Lubchenco, who is now deputy director for climate and environment in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, stem from her role in editing a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on which her brother-in-law was an author. She has previously apologized for the conflict of interest and now accepts the sanctions.

DIVERSITY

3D data may aid blind scientists

a 3D-printed lithophane
3D-printed lithophanes can help optically impaired scientists “see” data, such as from protein separation gels, with their fingertips.ELIZABETH SHAW

Visually impaired scientists often rely on text readers to read journal articles, but until now there has been no easy way to render graphics and data in a way they could perceive. A group of researchers has developed a solution: 3D print a lithophane, a thin plastic sheet that displays visual data in the form of bumps and other surface features. Users can run their finger across the surface and perceive features of graphs such as data points, axes, and curves. For a stained protein or nucleic acid gel, a lithophane can represent the intensities of the stain as variations in relief. 3D printers have become widely available, and the printing only takes minutes. Bryan Shaw, a chemist at Baylor University, and his team collaborated with four optically impaired scientists to develop and describe the method on 17 August in Science Advances. (See a Science interview with them here.)

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ANTHROPOLOGY

Museum to bury disputed skulls

The University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum is planning a proper burial for 13 skulls of Black residents of Philadelphia it has held since 1966. The skulls are part of a controversial collection of more than 1300 skulls at the museum. They were gathered in the mid–19th century by anthropologist Samuel Morton and others, and used by Morton to justify racist ideas about human intelligence. The skulls to be reburied were dug up from the Blockley Almshouse, a charity hospital at the site where the museum now stands, and probably came from enslaved people, a 2021 report said. The museum and some observers see the planned reburial, in the historically Black Eden Cemetery, as a step toward reconciliation. But some members of the city’s Black community say the museum’s decision was rushed and descendants should have the final say in where the remains are laid to rest. The disposition of the remaining skulls in the collection has yet to be resolved.

LAB SAFETY

Accident kills 21,000 research fish

Chlorine poisoning likely caused the deaths last week of more than 21,000 fish at a research center on aquatic biology and aquaculture at the University of California, Davis. About three-quarters of the fish lost were part of ecological physiologist Nann Fangue’s research into the conservation and physiology of native California species. The animals lost included green and white sturgeon, one at least 20 years old, and endangered Chinook salmon. Chlorine, which is used for disinfection, is toxic to fish even in small amounts. The university apologized for the unprecedented “catastrophic failure” and is investigating the incident and reviewing plumbing and procedures at the center and elsewhere on campus.

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