Research teams around the world race to develop COVID vaccine

Private-public partnerships work on developing effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Research teams around the globe are working hard to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has infected more than 5.9 million people worldwide and caused approximately 356,000 deaths since its first outbreak in Wuhan, China, late last year.

Formally known as SARS-CoV-2, the virus is part of the coronavirus family, named for the spiky proteins on their surfaces that resemble the points of a crown. The Latin word for crown is “corona.”

Coronaviruses affect birds and mammals. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and  Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are also caused by coronaviruses.

When a person or animal is infected, genetic material inside COVID-19’s round core is injected from the spikes into a host’s vulnerable cells, causing the virus to take over those cells and use them to replicate itself.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 169 efforts are underway worldwide in pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine, but many researchers believe an effective one will not be developed and become available to the public until sometime in 2021.

Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said vaccine development usually takes approximately 20 years.

For example, the development of a vaccine for human papilloma virus took 26 years, and creation of one for rotavirus took 25 years, he noted.

Because more than 100 research groups are currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine, with some already testing them on people, the process this time will be much quicker.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced the launch of “Operation Warp Speed (OWS),” a public-private partnership aimed at accelerating the development,production, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021.

However, most experts believe that date is overly optimistic and do not envision vaccines becoming available before the spring of 2021 and possibly not until the fall of that year.

Vaccines work by exposing a person to proteins of the virus known as antigens, empowering their “memory cells” to recognize the virus upon exposure and activate a strong immune reaction.

Several methods are used to expose individuals to these antigens. Some vaccines inject people with the whole virus in a dead or damaged form. Others take the gene that codes for the antigen and place that into a less harmful virus that is then injected into a person.

Newer vaccine techniques, still considered experimental, use the RNA or DNA that codes for the antigen and places them inside a membrane with which people are injected.

While these new techniques take less time producing a vaccine, they have not yet been approved for public use.

Vaccines typically take a long time to produce because their development requires several phases to assure they are safe for people. Phase 1  involves testing for safety and the exact dose needed. Phase 2 involves testing on a larger group compared with a control group while Phase 3 requires the time needed for enough people to be naturally exposed to the virus.

To date, none of the possible vaccines are in Phase 3. The majority have not even reached Phase 1 and are still in the pre-clinical stages.

Among the leading efforts is Moderna, a biotech company that began working on a vaccine just three days after scientists sequenced the virus’s genome. The company has not fully released its test results but reports eight volunteers given a COVID-19 RNA vaccine developed the necessary antibody responses.

Merck, an American pharmaceutical company, is working with the non-profit research group IAVI on a vaccine similar to its Ebola Zaire virus vaccine, the first for that disease approved for people. The company and its partner have pledged to make any vaccine they develop “accessible and affordable” around the world.

Currently, Merck is in the process of acquiring Themis, a company that focuses on vaccines.

CanSino, a Chinese company, is conducting Phase 1 clinical trials with a genetically engineered adenovirus vaccine modified with COVID-19’s spikes. While this triggered an immune reaction in 108 healthy people, its weakness is that adenoviruses, which cause the common cold, are already widespread among the population, meaning many already have immunity to them.

The company’s next step is a Phase 2 trial with 500 adults that will take six months.

Sinovac, another Chinese company, is pursuing the standard route of a vaccine made up of an inactivated form of the virus.

Oxford University, which is partnering with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, is also working on an adenovirus-based vaccine known as AZD1222 and claims the group can produce one billion doses if its vaccine is successful. With a $1 billion infusion from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), they are now conducting a Phase 3 trial involving 30,000 participants.

A vaccine Oxford developed alone via its Jenner Institute, ChAdOx1, protected rhesus monkeys from getting pneumonia after being infected with COVID-19 but failed to prevent them from contracting the virus. That is currently in Phase 1 trials using more than 1,000 volunteers.

Johnson and Johnson, which has the capability of producing large quantities of vaccines, plans to start Phase 1 trials in September. Together with its subsidiary Janssen, it is working on a genetically modified adenovirus vaccine.

Inovio is working on a DNA vaccine candidate, which has been successful in mice and guinea pigs and is now in the Phase 1 study using 40 volunteers.

A team of researchers at Harvard University is also working on various DNA vaccines, a new technology they are testing on rhesus macaque monkeys.

Curevac said it plans to start Phase 2/3 clinical trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans for a vaccine starting in June while Pfizer and BioNTech announced it has started Phase 1/2 trials of an mRNA vaccine on humans in the US and Germany.

These are just a few of the vaccine research projects underway by pharmaceutical companies and research institutes worldwide.

Climate change threatens world’s oldest, tallest trees

Approximately one-third of the world’s old growth forests were lost between 1900 and 2015.

Climate change is killing the world’s oldest and tallest trees and shortening both the lifespan and height of younger trees, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

Large and old trees are being lost to warmer temperatures, wildfires, development, logging, invasive insects, and deforestation, noted the study’s lead author Nate McDowell of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA.

Old growth forests absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide. They are also home to many rare and endangered species and strongholds of biodiversity. Their loss will therefore accelerate global warming and ecological destruction.

“Perhaps more concerning is that the trajectory of all these disturbances are generally increasing over time and are expected to continue increasing in the future,” McDowell said.

A tree physiologist who works with the US Department of Energy‘s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, McDowell assembled a team of more than 20 scientists, who reviewed over 160 previous studies on the deaths of trees worldwide.

The team studied records of old growth forests between 1900 and 2015 and found that almost one-third of old growth forest was lost during this 115-year period.

They then combined these studies’ findings with satellite data and computer models to produce what is likely the most detailed report of how forests on Earth are changing.

In North America and Europe, where more forest data is available than in other parts of the world, they found that the mortality of trees over the last 40 years has doubled.

The rates of old growth forest decline vary in different parts of the world; however, the researchers warned that the effects of the loss will be felt worldwide.

Disasters over this past year, such as wildfires in Siberia, the Amazon and Australia, decimated the world’s old growth forests, as did deforestation and illegal logging in Brazil and Southeast Asia.

In addition to causing or aggravating many of these disasters, climate change is inhibiting forests’ ability to recover from catastrophic events.

While increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide can spur tree growth in some locations, that growth is nowhere near enough to compensate for the losses caused by climate change, explained Kristina Anderson-Teixiera, an ecologist who heads the ForestGEO Ecosystems and Climate Program at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and took part in the study.

“We as a human society are hitting these forests so rapidly with so many different changes that they can’t keep up,” she said.

Ocean microplastics a growing concern

Trillions of microscopic pieces of plastic are filling the oceans.

A new study led by researchers at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England indicates Earth’s oceans have much higher levels of microplastics than previously thought.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic with diameters of less than five millimeters, produced by the disposal and breakdown of plastic products and industrial waste. Because they are so small, they often elude detection and become trapped in ocean sediment.

Scientists have had a difficult time measuring the amount of microplastics in oceans because the nets used to capture samples range from 333 to 500 micrometers, or 0.333 to 0.5 millimeters. Tiny particles can pass through nets of this size.

Together with scientists from the University of Exeter, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory researchers collected samples from two locations on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean using a 100-micrometer or 0.1-millimeter net.

Both sites chosen, one off the coast of Maine and the other in the English Channel, are coastal locations, where microplastics are most likely to be heavily concentrated and harm ocean life.

The researchers collected 2.5 times as many microplastics using the 100-micrometer net as they did with the 333-micrometer net and ten times more than they did with the 500-micrometer net.

From this data, they calculated that one cubic meter holds approximately 3,700 pieces of microplastic, suggesting the world’s oceans contain between 12.5 and 125 trillion particles rather than the previously estimated five to 50 trillion particles.

“There is often a mismatch between the number and type of microplastics used in experimental studies and those found in the natural environment. This study confirms that microplastic concentration increases with decreasing size and also provides a framework for determining microplastic concentrations in exposure studies, particularly with animals such as zooplankton, that eat micron-sized food,” explained Rachel Coppock, a marine ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Pennie Lindeque, also of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said she was surprised by the consistency of the study’s microplastic level findings on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

A paper on the study has been published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Company pioneers plant-based plastic bottles

New bottles made from corn, wheat and beets to replace plastic bottles starting in 2023.

Avantium, a renewable chemicals company based in the Netherlands, announced it has developed plastic bottles made solely from plant products and that Coca Cola, world food producer Danone, and Carlsberg, a beer-making company, plan to use the new bottles.

Tom van Aken, Avantium CEO, plans to reveal partnerships with additional food and beverage distribution companies this summer and is seeking major investment into the new product by year’s end.

The new bio-plastic, which is strong enough to hold carbonated beverages, will be made via sugars from corn, beets, and wheat. While the company will initially produce 5,000 tons of the plastic each year, that amount is expected to increase with growing demand.

Carlsberg plans to sell its pilsner beer in cardboard bottles lined with plant plastic.

Eventually, Avantium hopes to make the plastic from sustainably sourced bio-waste, to prevent the harm depletion of plants would do to the global food chain.

Van Aken said development of the plant plastic is not being slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Plastic pollution has caused major damage to ocean life, and it is produced using fossil fuels, which worsen climate change. Currently, approximately 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year.

“This plastic has very attractive sustainability credentials because it uses no fossil fuels, and can be recycled–but would also degrade in nature much faster than normal plastics do,” he said.

In contrast to fossil fuel-based microplastics, which take several hundred years to completely decompose, plant plastic decomposes in just one year with use of a composter and only several more years without one, Van Akers stated.

Unlike most standard plastics, which are not recycled, Van Akers said he hopes most plant plastic products will be recycled.

The bio-plastic will be made by breaking down sustainable plant sugars into simple chemical formations that can be manipulated into a plastic form without use of fossil fuels, he explained.

Current expectation is that the new plastic will be fully in use by 2023.

NASA seeks volunteers for Mars isolation study

Volunteers will help researchers observe the effects of isolation in tight quarters for the months-long trip to Mars.

In conjunction with its goal of sending humans to the Moon and Mars, NASA is looking for US citizen volunteers to take part in an eight-month isolation study simulating life on a long spacecraft mission.

Selected participants will spend eight months in a spacecraft simulation in Moscow, Russia. Their environment will be much like that on a spacecraft heading to Mars, involving scientific research, use of virtual reality, and conducting robotic operations, much like astronauts would on the way to the Moon or Mars.

The goal of the experiment is to better understand the physiological and psychological effects of long-term isolation and confinement of a crew in a very small space. Data from the study will be used to address the challenges astronauts on future missions will face.

A spacecraft transporting astronauts to the Moon or Mars will be much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which consists of several modules and a recreation area.

Participants must be healthy US citizens between ages 30 and 55 who are proficient in both English and Russian. They must have an MS, PhD, or MD, or have completed military officer training. Those with Bachelors degrees will be considered if they have additional relevant educational, professional, or military training.

Varying amounts of compensation will be offered depending on whether participants are NASA employees, contractors, or otherwise associated with the space agency.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, those selected for the experiment will be required to quarantine for two weeks prior to the mission’s start to make sure they are not coming down with the virus or getting sick, much like ISS astronauts do.

The study is a followup to a similar four-month isolation experiment NASA conducted last year.

Anyone who meets mission requirements and wants to contribute to space exploration should visit the application site.

Carbon capture is key to meeting climate goals

Large-scale underground storage of carbon dioxide could help thwart the worst effects of global warming.

Capturing and storing just 2,700 Gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide underground would make it possible for the world to keep global warming below the critical threshold of two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2100.

That is the finding of a new study conducted by scientists at the Imperial College in London and published in the latest edition of the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The current rate of carbon capture and storage, known as CCS, is on track to meet the goal of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to hold the line to less than two degrees warming over pre-industrial levels by century’s end.

Previously, scientists had overestimated the amount of carbon storage needed to meet the above goal, citing the need to sequester 10,000 Gt of carbon dioxide to hold the line on global warming.

Carbon capture works by trapping carbon dioxide in the location where it is emitted and storing it underground where it cannot be released into the atmosphere.

In order to meet the goal of holding the line on global temperature increase to prevent catastrophic climate change, the current rate at which carbon dioxide is being stored must be upheld without delays, the study warns. Research to identify additional underground locations where carbon dioxide can be stored must actively continue.

According to Christopher Zahasky of Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering, now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the world’s capacity to store carbon dioxide underground has increased 8.6 percent over the last 20 years.

If carbon capture is conducted at this rate alongside other methods of emission reductions, such as increased use of renewable forms of energy, more energy efficiency, and powering public transportation electrically, the world could meet the crucial IPCC target, something many doubted as being attainable.

“Nearly all IPCC pathways to limit warming to two degrees Celsius require tens of gigatons of CO2 stored per year by mid-century. However, until now, we didn’t know if these targets were achievable given historic data, or how these targets related to subsurface storage space requirements,” Zahasky said.

“We found that even the most ambitious scenarios are unlikely to need more than 2,700 Gt of CO2 storage resource globally, much less than the 10,000 Gt of storage resource that leading reports suggest is possible. Our study shows that if climate change targets are not met by 2100, it won’t be for a lack of carbon capture and storage space.”

Global warming causing more powerful hurricanes

The number of hurricanes are increasing and global warming is to blame, say scientists.

Hurricanes are getting stronger as the world gets warmer, according to a new analysis.

Studying how hurricanes have changed over decades is difficult. The technological tools scientists use to study them changes constantly, making comparisons from different time periods hard to correlate. While research has generally suggested that global warming would result in more powerful and erratic hurricanes, it has been difficult to document with any degree of scientific certainty. Until now, that is.

A new study of hurricanes published May 18, 2020 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, covers a period of 39 years from 1979 to 2017. Looking at the entire four-decade span and normalizing the data, researchers found a clear trend: storms are getting stronger and major tropical cyclones are occurring more frequently.

The 39-year period of the study overlaps a period when climate change has dramatically accelerated, according to reports by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The earth’s temperature has increased each year in the past 39 years, including eight of the 10 warmest ever recorded. 2018 and 2019, too recent to be included in the study, were also the warmest on record.

“The main hurdle we have for finding trends is that the data are collected using the best technology at the time,” James Kossin, a NOAA scientist and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said in a statement. “Every year the data are a bit different than last year, each new satellite has new tools and captures data in different ways, so in the end we have a patchwork quilt of all the satellite data that have been woven together.”

To create a consistent record, researchers removed the edges from newer, sharper tropical cyclone images to fit an older standard: images where each pixel represents a 5 square mile area (8 sq/km), taken once every three hours. They also excluded newer satellite images of storms using angles not available in 1998. The remaining dataset includes roughly 225,000 similar-quality images of some 4,000 global tropical cyclones stretching back to the 1980s.

Using the images of tropical cyclones to estimate wind intensity, measured in kilotons, researchers found that the chances of a tropical cyclone becoming a hurricane (sustained winds of 74 mph/119 km/h or higher) have increased significantly over the past 40 years. In addition, the odds of major hurricanes (100-knot storms) have gone up by about 15%, with most of that increase occurring in the last 19 years of the 39-year study period.

Astronomers discover oldest disk galaxy hidden deep in the cosmos

New discovery of large disk galaxy hidden in shadows at the edge of the universe.

The Wolfe Disk is a massive rotating disk from the earliest days of the universe.

In a new study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, an international team of astronomers detected light from an ancient, huge disk-shaped galaxy in a far corner of the universe. The light took 12.5 billion years to reach Earth, meaning that the disk formed around 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang during the earliest days of the universe.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array or ALMA, one of the world’s most powerful telescopes, a research team found the galaxy when it was studying light coming from a distant, huge black hole known as a quasar. Some of the light from the new galaxy was absorbed before heading toward earth, revealing the shape of the universe in dark space. Through ALMA and other data from the Hubble Telescope, the team was able to more clearly resolve some of its features.

“Previous studies hinted at the existence of these early rotating gas-rich disk galaxies,” said Marcel Neeleman, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and lead author on the study. “Thanks to ALMA we now have unambiguous evidence they occur as early as 1.5 billion years after the Big Bang.”

The newly discovered galaxy has been officially named DLA0817g, but the team nicknamed it the Wolfe Disk in honor of astronomer Arthur M. Wolfe.

Comparing observations with analytical models, the team determined that that the dark object was is a galaxy made of a dusty, gaseous disk spinning at approximately 169 miles (272 kilometers) per second, with an estimated mass 50 to 100 times more than the sun.

The research team also believes the Wolfe Disk galaxy is forming stars at an incredibly fast rate. According to Xavier Prochaska, astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a co-author on the study, DLA0817g “must be one of the most productive disk galaxies in the early universe.”

The discovery provides some clues about how galaxies are built and why we so often see the structures resembling huge disks, while in other cases they are not visible.

New evidence shows giant meteorite impacts formed parts of the moon’s crust

The team noted that rock samples captured during the Apollo missions show remarkable variety in terms of geology.

Newly discovered evidence shows that the moon’s crust may have formed directly as a result of giant meteorite impacts.

New research published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy shows one of nature’s most destructive events led to the creation of the moon’s unusual crust.

Led by the Royal Ontario Museum, a group of astronomers say the most ancient parts of the moon’s crust appears to have formed during the time of frequent massive meteorite impacts.

“Rocks on Earth are constantly being recycled, but the Moon doesn’t exhibit plate tectonics or volcanism, allowing older rocks to be preserved,” explains Dr. Lee White, Hatch Postdoctoral Fellow at the ROM. “By studying the Moon, we can better understand the earliest history of our planet. If large, super-heated impacts were creating rocks on the Moon, the same process was probably happening here on Earth”.

The team noted that rock samples captured during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s show remarkable variety in terms of geology. The variations found contain mineralogical evidence that it formed at incredibly high temperatures (in excess of 2300 °C/ 4300 °F), which is only achievable by the melting of the outer layer of a planet in a large impact event.

“By first looking at this rock, I was amazed by how differently the minerals look compared to other Apollo 17 samples,” says Dr. Ana Cernok, Hatch Postdoctoral Fellow at the ROM and co-author of the study. “Although smaller than a millimetre, the baddeleyite grain that caught our attention was the largest one I have ever seen in Apollo samples. This small grain is still holding the evidence for formation of an impact basin that was hundreds of kilometres in diameter. This is significant, because we do not see any evidence of these old impacts on Earth.”

Factory closings linked to 85% spike in U.S. opioid overdoses, says study

Researchers examined data on overdoses in 112 counties throughout industrial areas of the U.S. south and Midwest from 1999 to 2016.

Loss of automobile-manufacturing jobs has been deadly for Americans at risk of opioid addiction, according to a new study. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, linked car plant closures to an 85% increase in fatal opioid overdoses in recent years.

Researchers examined data on overdoses in 112 counties throughout industrial areas of the U.S. south and Midwest from 1999 to 2016. During this time span, plant closures affected 29 counties; no plant closures occurred in the other 83. Within five years of any plant closure, the affected county’s overdose rate surged to 8.6 deaths per 100,000 people–or 85%–on average.

The biggest increases were among white men ages 18-34, followed by white men in the 35-65 age bracket, according to the study. It cited the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau as its main sources of data.

“These findings highlight the potential importance of eroding economic opportunity as a factor in the US opioid overdose crisis,” the authors wrote.

Study co-author Atheendar Venkataramani, assistant professor in the health policy division of the Perelman School of Medicine, told reporters that he and colleagues had been interested for some years in the impact of economic security on personal health. He said that a plant closure can severely alter a person’s outlook on the future, which in turn may cause his or her mental well-being to suffer and put the person at a greater risk of substance abuse.

Venkaratamani recommends that health-care providers and public health agencies work on more targeted screenings for substance abuse and deploying rapid treatment solutions. He also advised public officials at the local, state, and national levels to pursue policies for helping areas affected by economic or social change to become more resilient.