• The global flu pandemic: 100 years later

    Called “La grippe,” “three-day fever” and the “Spanish flu,” the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 ravaged communities worldwide, claiming the lives of an estimated 25 million to 50 million people. In the United States, more than 25 percent of the population was affected by the extremely virulent influenza A H1N1 virus, forcing schools, theaters and public places to close. Nearly 100 years later, the threat of another influenza pandemic looms large as the scientific and global health communities find ways to prepare for, and battle, future outbreaks.

  • An X-factor in coastal flooding: Natural climate patterns create hot spots of rapid sea level rise

    Many scientists have found evidence that climate change is amplifying the impacts of hurricanes. For example, several studies just published this month conclude that human-induced climate change made rainfall during Hurricane Harvey more intense. But climate change is not the only factor making hurricanes more damaging. A recent study showed that two converging natural climate processes created a “hot spot” from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to Miami where sea levels rose six times faster than the global average between 2011 and 2015. We also showed that such hot spots have occurred at other points along the Eastern Seaboard over the past century. Now we see indications that one is developing in Texas and Louisiana, where it likely amplified flooding during Harvey – and could make future coastal storms more damaging. Accelerations in sea level rise are hard to predict, and it is unclear whether they will become more serious over time. But they make it even more urgent for coastal communities to take sea level rise seriously today.

  • Humidity may intensify heat stress to a point exceeding human endurance

    Climate scientists say that killer heat waves will become increasingly prevalent in many regions as climate warms. However, most projections leave out a major factor that could worsen things: humidity, which can greatly magnify the effects of heat alone. Now, a new global study projects that in coming decades the effects of high humidity in many areas will dramatically increase. At times, they may surpass humans’ ability to work or, in some cases, even survive.

  • As emerging diseases spread from wildlife to humans, can we predict the next big pandemic?

    Viruses have been moving between organisms for millions of years. And not always in a way that causes harm: Animals and humans alike host millions of different microorganisms, many of which are beneficial. For those that do harm humans, the first step is to come in contact with us. And that’s becoming more and more likely as we invade pristine forests in search of food, building materials, space for commercial developments or land upon which we can create new grassland for our livestock — or catch critters for bushmeat, pets or the “wildlife selfie” trade. Two ambitious projects aim to understand when and how the next human disease will emerge from wildlife, and what we can do to minimize harm when it does.

  • Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool

    Outbreaks of new and reemerging infectious diseases, coupled with an increasing biological threat from non-state actors, highlight the continued need for the U.S. to prioritize biodefense efforts. The Blue Ribbon Panel on Biodefense has noted that the U.S. remains underprepared for a catastrophic biological attack or global pandemic, and has highlighted the need for increased government coordination in biodefense.

  • U.S. ends 3-year ban on research involving enhanced-lethality viruses

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) yesterday announced it was ending its three-year moratorium on funding of gain-of-function research, that is, research which aims to make extremely dangerous viruses even more dangerous in order to find a vaccine or cure for them. The U.S. government instituted the ban in 2014, against the backdrop of rising worries that these “gain-of-function” studies would allow scientists to increase the ability of the infectious disease to spread by enhancing its pathogenicity, or its ability to cause disease. Scientists who supported continuing research involving enhancing the transmissibility of infectious disease were not helped by a series of safety mishaps at federal research facilities.

  • New counter-terror rules give GPs bizarre incentives to refer mental health patients as radicalization threat

    Mental health trusts in England are now to play a vital role in processing the huge number of citizens referred under the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Prevent. A new policy announced in November by the Home Office means urgent psychiatric care will now be provided by mental health trusts to those people with psychological problems who are referred to Prevent. But this will remove them from a pipeline of support under a program called Channel, aimed at those suspected of radicalizing. No one could possibly object to the provision of mental health care to those in need. But on deeper inspection, the integration of mental health trusts within the Prevent strategy reveals profound confusion within counter-terrorism policies. And the move could give health professionals perverse incentives to actually refer patients with mental health needs to Prevent – because they think it might get them help quicker.

  • “Cyberbiosecurity” and the protection of the life sciences

    Biology and biotechnology have entered a digital age, but security policies around such activities have not kept pace. New research outlines how the evolving nature of biotechnology should sound alarm bells for new ways to keep life sciences assets safe. This could be from accidental cyber-physical breaches, or more nefarious threats.

  • Biosecurity conference fosters international, multidisciplinary collaboration

    Biosecurity prevents unauthorized access, loss and intentional release of biological pathogens, information and equipment that may cause harm. Biosecurity professionals from across the United States and Mexico gathered on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus 7-8 December, the first time a biosecurity conference of this scope had taken place in Arizona and one of the largest ever to be held in the United States. Leaders in the field shared multidisciplinary approaches and perspectives on biosecurity.

  • Northeast farmers face warming climate, drenched fields

    For the past two decades, the Northeast has been getting warmer for longer periods of time. It also has seen a 71 percent increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events – more than any other region in the United States. Farmers in the Northeast are adapting to longer growing seasons and warming climate conditions – but they may face spring-planting whiplash as they confront fields increasingly saturated with rain.

  • Exposure to terror attacks may increase risk of migraine, other headaches

    Survivors of a terror attack have an increased risk of frequent migraine and tension headaches after the attack, according to a study. “We know a lot about the psychological effects of terror attacks and other extreme violence on survivors, but we don’t know much about the physical effects of these violent incidents,” said the study’s author. “Our study shows that a single highly stressful event may lead to ongoing suffering with frequent migraines and other headaches, which can be disabling when they keep people from their work or school activities.”

  • Encouraging progress at Biological Weapons Convention meeting

    The Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties (MSP) was held last week, with many participants not knowing what to expect after last year’s failure of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference. One attendee noted that “the role of the NGOs felt even more important in such a disjointed climate where the future of the BWC was in many ways, up in the air. The importance of support and pushing for future cohesion regarding not only the intersessional process (ISP), but also S&T developments, was a significant point within the NGO statement.”

  • DNA has gone digital – what could possibly go wrong?

    Biology is becoming increasingly digitized. Researchers like us use computers to analyze DNA, operate lab equipment and store genetic information. But new capabilities also mean new risks – and biologists remain largely unaware of the potential vulnerabilities that come with digitizing biotechnology. In 2010, a nuclear plant in Iran experienced mysterious equipment failures which paralyzed Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Months later, a security firm was called in to troubleshoot an apparently unrelated problem, and found a malicious computer virus called Stuxnet, which was telling uranium-enrichment centrifuges to vibrate. Stuxnet demonstrated that cybersecurity breaches can cause physical damages. What if those damages had biological consequences? Could bioterrorists target government laboratories studying infectious diseases? What about pharmaceutical companies producing lifesaving drugs? As life scientists become more reliant on digital workflows, the chances are likely rising. The emerging field of cyberbiosecurity explores the whole new category of risks that come with the increased use of computers in the life sciences.

  • The odds of a megadrought in western, southwestern U.S.

    In the southwestern United States, water management is a top concern. If a megadrought occurs, large-scale water management decisions affecting millions of Americans must be made to protect agriculture, the ecosystem and potable water systems. Understanding the odds of a widespread megadrought becomes important for planning purposes. To help untangle fact from speculation, climate scientists have developed a “robust null hypothesis” to assess the odds of a megadrought – one that lasts more than thirty years – occurring in the western and southwestern United States.

  • Social media trends can predict vaccine scares tipping points

    Analyzing trends on Twitter and Google can help predict vaccine scares that can lead to disease outbreaks, according to a new study. Researchers examined Google searches and geocoded tweets with the help of artificial intelligence and a mathematical model. The resulting data enabled them to analyze public perceptions on the value of getting vaccinated and determine when a population was getting close to a tipping point.