News at a glance: A COVID-19 drug nixed, a Chinese database investigated, and a new energy research leader confirmed
A ‘fever’ hits unprotected North Korea
Aid agencies are gearing up for a robust response against what North Korea calls a “malignant fever” sweeping the country that is almost certainly COVID-19. As Science went to press, new cases of the illness appeared to be doubling every 2 days in the world’s last large population, some 25 million people, lacking immunity to the disease from vaccination or infection. “We’re looking at a major, major catastrophe,” says Kee Park, a global health specialist at Harvard Medical School. Early in the pandemic, North Korea closed itself off from the world in a bid to keep the virus at bay. That strategy largely succeeded for 2 years, despite occasional reports of possible outbreaks. Until last month, North Korea had tested just 66,000 people for COVID-19 and reported zero cases. It also ignored offers of COVID-19 vaccines. But the “great upheaval,” as North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un calls the outbreak, may persuade the reclusive nation to accept such assistance as vaccines, antivirals, and rapid diagnostic tests. “We need to fast-track the aid,” Park says.
Shots cut risks of Long Covid
A study of more than 1 million Americans has found vaccination is linked to a substantially lower risk of lingering symptoms after COVID-19 infections, often called Long Covid. The result, published on 7 May in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, confirms similar findings from smaller studies. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University used electronic medical records to compare symptoms in vaccinated and unvaccinated people before and 3 months after an infection, both before and after vaccines became available. The data include about 1.5 million unvaccinated U.S. residents and 25,000 who had been vaccinated. All participants had infections confirmed by polymerase chain reaction testing. The researchers looked for a range of new health concerns after infection, such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. They also examined the persistence of symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fatigue and body aches. For each symptom or diagnosis studied, rates were lower in the vaccinated cohort. For example, rates of persistent headaches and body aches in the vaccinated group were roughly half.
Antidepressant nixed as COVID Rx
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided this week not to approve the antidepressant fluvoxamine to treat COVID-19. Fluvoxamine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor typically prescribed for depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In October 2021, a randomized, controlled trial in Brazil showed unvaccinated people with preexisting conditions who took the drug were 32% less likely than those who took a placebo to be hospitalized or need prolonged medical care. But FDA said proof of the drug’s effectiveness was “not persuasive.” Other treatments for COVID-19, including the oral antiviral pills Paxlovid and molnupiravir, have been available since October 2021 and have proved to be more effective than fluvoxamine.
We don’t think that [China’s zero COVID-19 policy] is sustainable, considering the behavior of the virus.
- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, referring to strict lockdowns to prevent spread. China called the remark “irresponsible” and censored it.
Tooth puts Denisovans in Laos
A molar recovered from a cave in northeastern Laos in 2018 closely resembles the few known examples of molars of the mysterious extinct human species known as Denisovans, close cousins of the Neanderthals. Previous Denisovan fossils have been found in Siberia and Tibet. The new finding, from Southeast Asia, greatly expands Denisovans’ known range and suggests they occupied several ecologically diverse landscapes. The research team dated the single, human-looking molar to approximately 130,000 to 160,000 years ago. Although they couldn’t extract DNA, they managed to identify strands of ancient proteins within the enamel that confirmed it was from a member of our genus, Homo, and was most likely female, the team reports this week in Nature Communications. Some Denisovan DNA persists in modern human populations, particularly in people from Southeast Asia.
China probes academic database
China’s market regulation agency last week announced it is investigating whether the country’s largest academic database engages in monopolistic behavior. China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), launched in 1996 by Tsinghua University and a state-owned software firm, provides access to the full text of 280 million papers and dissertations in both Chinese and English collected from more than 90% of the country’s academic journals. Little of this material is found in other databases. In recent years, CNKI’s aggressive accumulation of papers has led to copyright disputes, and the database has faced complaints about fees. Last month, the Chinese Academy of Sciences refused to pay the reported 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) annual charge and dropped the service, preventing access to the database by its more than 100 research institutes.
Energy science office head OK’d
The U.S. Senate last week confirmed a soil scientist as chief of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the nation’s single largest funder of the physical sciences. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe of the University of California (UC), Merced, studies how soil absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide. Some physicists complained that Berhe, who served as interim associate dean of UC Merced’s graduate division, lacks leadership experience and relevant scientific background to lead an office that spends the large majority of its $7.48 billion budget on physics research. But some previous directors of the office argued the criticism was off base, and many climate researchers cheered her selection. The Senate confirmed her by a 54-45 vote, with just four Republicans voting for her. Berhe becomes the first Black person to lead the office.
Leader who revamped fusion project dies
Bernard Bigot, who as director-general of the giant ITER fusion test reactor under construction in France was credited with turning around the behind-schedule and overbudget project, died last week at age 72 after an illness. A theoretical chemist, Bigot took control of the world’s biggest science project in 2015, as some politicians in the United States were pushing to withdraw from the seven-member partnership. Bigot transformed ITER from an industrial stimulus program to a bona fide scientific experiment, observers say. In fact, the parts for the ITER reactor are now more than 75% complete. Last week, ITER announced the installation of the first of nine segments of its 11-meter-tall, doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber—although further work is paused as regulators look into certain safety issues. When it starts up in 2025, the facility, costing more than €17 billion, aims to fuse hydrogen nuclei to form helium, ultimately yielding 10 times more energy than is needed to produce the plasma. Bigot will be succeeded on an interim basis by Deputy Director-General Eisuke Tada.