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.”

Astronomers discover extremely luminous nova

First nova ever found in Small Magellanic Cloud is studied in multiple wavelengths.

What might be one of the most luminous stars ever detected is actually a nova or explosion that occurred in a binary system consisting of a white dwarf and Sun-like star in the Small Magellanic Cloud.

White dwarfs are stellar remnants of stars not massive enough to have died in supernova explosions.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located about 200,000 light years away.

Using NASA’s Swift satellite, scientists at the University of Leicester discovered the extremely bright nova, caused by the white dwarf’s sucking of material from the regular star until critical pressure was reached, causing the sudden brightness increase.

Led by researchers at the South African Astronomical Observatory, the scientists also observed the nova with ground-based telescopes in several countries, including South Africa, Australia, and South America.

Designated SMCN 2016-10a, the nova, one of the brightest observed in any galaxy, was discovered on October 14, 2016.

The term “nova” means new. Centuries ago, astronomers thought these suddenly bright objects to be new stars as opposed to what they really are–dying old ones.

White dwarfs emit both visible light and high-energy X-rays. By studying their emissions in various wavelengths, scientists can determine their temperatures and compositions.

This is the first time astronomers have spotted a nova in the Small Magellanic Cloud. Approximately 35 are seen in the Milky Way each year.

“Swift’s ability to respond rapidly, together with its daily-planned schedule, makes it ideal for the followup of transients, including novae,” said Swift team X-ray analysis leader Kim Page of the University of Leicester.

“It was able to observe the nova throughout its eruption, starting to collect very useful X-ray and UV data within a day of the outburst first being reported. The X-ray data were essential in showing that the mass of the white dwarf is close to the theoretical maximum; continued accretion might cause it eventually to be totally destroyed in a supernova explosion.”

Paul Kuin of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, who organized the UV data, described the ability to observe the nova in multiple wavelengths as key to this being the most comprehensive nova study ever conducted.

Findings of the study have been published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Auroras at Jupiter’s poles act independently

Researchers take advantage of rare opportunity to observe polar regions through Juno mission and space telescopes.

Auroras in Jupiter’s north and south polar regions act independently of one another, according to observations conducted by a study team using the European Space Agency’s (ESA) X-MM-Newton telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Researchers at University College in London and at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics led a study of high-energy X-ray auroras at both of Jupiter’s poles and were surprised to learn that unlike auroras on the poles of other planets, those at Jupiter’s poles do not mirror one another but pulse independently.

Activities of Earth’s north and south pole auroras mirror one another. Saturn does not appear to experience any X-ray auroras.

X-ray pulses at Jupiter’s south pole occur regularly every 11 minutes while those at its north pole are chaotic, with unpredictable increases and decreases in brightness.

“We didn’t expect to see Jupiter’s X-ray hot spots pulsing independently, as we thought their activity would be coordinated through the planet’s magnetic field,” explained study lead author William Dunn of both UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the UK and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“We need to study this further to develop ideas for how Jupiter produces its X-ray aurora, and NASA’s Juno mission is really important for this.”

The researchers observed Jupiter using both space observatories in May and June of 2016 and in March 2007 to map the planet’s X-ray emissions and identify X-ray hot spots at its poles.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in 2016, does not have a science instrument capable of detecting X-rays; however, it is collecting other data at the polar regions that scientists hope to combine with the X-MM and Chandra data to better understand the planet’s auroras.

Scientists are fortunate that Juno is studying both of Jupiter’s poles at the same time, making it possible for them to compare activity at the poles with the giant planet’s complex magnetic interactions, emphasized study co-author Graziella Banduardi-Raymont of UCL Space and Climate Physics.

“If we can start to connect the X-ray signatures with the physical processes that produce them, then we can use those signatures to understand other bodies across the universe, such as brown dwarfs, exoplanets, or maybe even neutron stars,” Dunn stated.

One theory the researchers hope to test as they observe Jupiter’s polar activity over the next two years is that the northern and southern auroras form separately as a result of interactions between the planet’s magnetic field and the solar wind.

A paper discussing the findings has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.


Astronomers find remnant of 600-year-old nova

Based on the Korean astronomers’ description of the phenomenon, scientists today believe the outburst occurred in a binary system that contained a dead, highly dense white dwarf star and a companion.

A three-decade search for the remnant of a nova recorded by Korean astronomers almost 600 years ago has finally succeeded in finding the location of the stellar remnant.

Michael Shara, astrophysics coordinator at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, said the hunt for Nova Scorpii AD 1437 took so long because Korean records did not assign numbers or names to nearby stars, resulting in his team inadvertently looking  in the wrong location.

Novae are nuclear explosions that occur at the end stages of massive stars’ lives. Unlike the more powerful supernovae, which completely destroy their precursor stars, standard novae leave the remains of their parent stars intact.

Fifteenth-century Korean astronomers recorded what they believed was a new star that appeared on March 11, 1437 near a known star in the tail of the constellation Scorpius. The bright “new” star was visible for two weeks before disappearing.

Based on the Korean astronomers’ description of the phenomenon, scientists today believe the outburst occurred in a binary system that contained a dead, highly dense white dwarf star and a companion.

Over time, white dwarfs funnel material out of their companion stars, eventually causing them to explode.

Known as cataclysmic variables, binary systems composed of a white dwarf and a regular star experience many novae over time and possibly smaller explosions known as dwarf novae.

By analyzing data collected by the South African Large Telescope and Las Campanas Observatory’s Swope and du Pont telescopes, along with reviewing digital images of photographic plates of the sky taken by Harvard University for more than 100 years, the research team located debris from the nova in the constellation Scorpius.

Calculations of neighboring stars’ motions over the last six centuries confirmed a binary system once resided in the location where the nova was originally seen.

Evidence of dwarf novae in this location on photographic plates from the 1930s and 1940s suggests the binary system is producing both classical and dwarf novae.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature, hope to image the nova to find out what it looks like now as well as locate several additional novae recorded in history to confirm that classical and dwarf novae have common origins.

Asteroid-bound spacecraft slingshots past Earth

Gravity assist will alter its trajectory while saving fuel.

Traveling through space at 19,000 miles (30,000 km) per hour, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is flying by Earth on Friday, September 22, using the planet’s gravity to redirect its path to the asteroid Bennu.

Launched a year ago from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V rocket, the spacecraft will arrive at Bennu in November 2018. It will orbit the asteroid, identify ideal surface locations for collecting samples, then use a robotic arm to reach into the surface to take the samples and store them inside a special collection device.

In 2021, OSIRIS-REx will head back toward Earth where, two years later, it will return the samples by parachuting a canister containing them into Utah.

From there, they will be taken to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists will analyze them for organic molecules and materials that make up the building blocks of life.

An Earth flyby is necessary to propel OSIRIS-REx to its target because a direct flight would have required additional fuel that would have mandated it launch on a larger rocket.

“It was a way to substantially save on resources, either on the spacecraft or on the launch vehicle, or both,” said mission principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.

The flyby, which takes the probe within about 11,000 miles (17,000 km) of Earth’s surface, will increase its velocity by 8,400 miles per hour.

NASA will be out of contact with the probe for about an hour during closest approach while it flies over Antarctica.

“OSIRIS-REx uses the Deep Space Network to communicate with Earth, and the spacecraft will be too low relative to the southern horizon to be in view with either the Deep Space tracking station at Canberra, Australia, or Goldstone, California,” explained Mike Moreau, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center flight dynamics system lead.

The spacecraft will photograph the Earth and Moon with its three imaging cameras for as long as 10 days after the flyby.

Earth data will be collected by its thermal emission spectrometer and visible and infrared spectrometer for instrument calibration purposes.

Members of the mission team plan to release photographs collected by the probe on Tuesday, September 26.