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News at a glance: African swine fever vaccine, low-dose radiation, and bees as ‘fish’

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AGRICULTURE

Vaccine targets African swine fever
Vietnam’s agriculture ministry last week gave limited authorization to a vaccine hailed as an important tool to control one of the most serious animal diseases, African swine fever (ASF). In recent years the sickness has hit pig herds hard in several Asian and European countries. Vietnam’s National Veterinary Joint Stock Company developed the vaccine based on an ASF virus strain engineered by the U.S. Agricultural Research Service to lack a gene linked to virulence. A small trial of 20 animals, reported in September 2021, found strong evidence of protection; the company says an unpublished, follow-up trial of 131 pigs showed 99% of those that got full doses survived ASF infections. Based on these results, the ministry approved commercial use of the vaccine in up to 600,000 pigs. It will evaluate results before deciding whether to allow nationwide use. Endemic in Africa, ASF spread through much of Europe in the 2000s and to Asia in 2018, requiring culling and creating shortages of pork, a major source of protein throughout the region.

COVID-19

FDA panel backs Novavax vaccine
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) vaccine advisory panel this week recommended nearly unanimously that the agency authorize a protein-based COVID-19 vaccine from Novavax, which would be the first of its kind available to U.S. adults. Panel members said benefits of the vaccine, made of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein combined with an immune-boosting substance, outweighed risks when it is given in two doses 3 weeks apart to those 18 years and older. FDA doesn’t have to abide by its advisers’ recommendations but usually does. In a 30,000-person trial in the United States and Mexico, the vaccine was 90.4% efficacious at preventing symptomatic infection by early strains of SARS-CoV-2. The approval came days after FDA posted data documenting five cases of myocarditis or pericarditis—inflammations of heart tissue—in volunteers, most of them young men, soon after they received the vaccine in U.S. and U.K. clinical trials. Novavax hopes its product will attract U.S. recipients skeptical of vaccines that employ messenger RNA and booster seekers who favor its proven method, which has led to licensed vaccines for other diseases, such as shingles.

62%
Portion of 1640 clinical trials rated as “bad,” defined as those at high risk of bias because of selective reporting of results and other flaws. The bad ones wasted as much as £8 billion. (Trials)

BIOMEDICINE

Studies of low-dose radiation urged
The U.S. government should spend $100 million per year for at least 15 years to study the health effects of low-dose radiation, a high-profile review panel concluded last week. The public and workers are routinely exposed to low-dose radiation (below 100 milligray, a measurement of absorbed dose) from sources such as medical scans, air travel, and mining, which contributes to cancer and possibly heart disease and other health problems. The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science ended a long-running program to study low-dose radiation in 2016 so it could focus on other priorities. But in 2018, Congress mandated its revival and later asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a new blueprint. The research is important and should resume, although not entirely under DOE’s sponsorship, the academies’ report says, noting the conflicts of interest associated with its nuclear weapons facilities. The report recommends the National Institutes of Health fund epidemiological and biological studies; DOE should oversee computational work and modeling. Congress must now decide whether to appropriate the funding.

CONSERVATION

Bees get protected as ‘fish’
Four species of bumble bees qualify for protection under California’s Endangered Species Act because they fit a loophole in the state’s definition of “fish,” an appeals court ruled last week. Until now, the state law protected no insect species. But a state Court of Appeal based in Sacramento pointed to California’s Fish and Game Code, which includes in the definition of fish any “mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, (or) amphibian.” That wording covers any terrestrial invertebrate, such as a bumble bee, the court wrote. The ruling was celebrated by conservation organizations and bemoaned by agricultural groups, which argued that extending the protection to the bumble bees would burden farming operations. Bee populations have declined across the United States and elsewhere, posing threats to agricultural crops and other plants that depend on pollinators for healthy development.

RESEARCH SECURITY

NIH grantees lax on foreign detail
A U.S. government watchdog has found that many institutions receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) don’t follow federal rules on reporting foreign sources of support, educating scientists about those rules, and investigating possible conflicts of interest. A 22 June report by the inspector general of NIH’s parent department found, for example, that 36% of the more than 600 institutions surveyed in late 2020 don’t require their faculty members to disclose participation in another country’s talent recruitment program and 37% don’t distinguish between domestic and foreign funding. Since 2018, NIH has been especially vigilant in tracking grantees’ links to China as part of a government-wide campaign to prevent the theft of U.S.-funded research by that country. The report calls on NIH to enforce the existing rules, which institutions must obey as a condition of funding.

In Focus

Egypt’s antiquities ministry last week unveiled a new collection of artifacts from its Late Period (about 664 B.C.E. to 332 B.C.E.) found within the Saqqara necropolis, near Cairo. The new discoveries from the previously excavated cemetery include 150 bronze statues of ancient Egyptian deities and 250 wooden sarcophagi.MAHMOUD EL-KHAWAS/PICTURE ALLIANCE/GETTY IMAGES

EVOLUTION

Rice led to chicken domestication
People around the world know chicken and rice is a winning culinary combination. But now, scientists say without rice, there might not have been chickens. It wasn’t until humans began clearing forest and sowing rice seeds within the range of red jungle fowl in Southeast Asia that some of these wild pheasants swept down from the trees to feed on the seeds—and evolved into more docile chickens, according to research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This taming of the jungle fowl happened much more recently than other studies have estimated, according to the comprehensive analysis of bones and dates at more than 600 sites, which found that some bones thought to be chickens belonged to other animals. The authors say the oldest chickens appear just 3250 to 3650 years ago at a rice farming site in what is now central Thailand. Then, chickens spread across Asia with rice and millet farming.

ENVIRONMENT

PCB reduction gets poor grade
Most countries are not on track to safely dispose of their stocks of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a class of hazardous chemicals used for insulating equipment and other purposes, by an international treaty’s 2028 deadline, a report says. Officials in 42% of nations that have signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants since it debuted in 2001 have not inventoried or located their country’s stocks of electrical transformers and other products contaminated by PCBs, according to the analysis published last week in Environmental Science & Technology. Many countries, including the United States, banned PCBs, which are neurotoxins, in the 1970s. But PCB-laden products manufactured then remain in use. The United States, which was the world’s largest producer and user of PCBs, has never ratified the treaty, and since 2006, has decreased its stocks of the chemicals by only 3%, the study found.

Source : ScienceMag

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