• With glaciers disappearing, will water become scarce?

    There are around 200,000 glaciers worldwide. They play a central role in the water cycle, particularly in the middle and low latitudes, by offsetting runoff fluctuations. Rivers are lifelines on which billions of people depend worldwide, either directly or indirectly. The world’s largest rivers begin in glaciated mountain regions. Climate change may cause many glaciers to disappear. Will water become scarce? Will the Alps, the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and the Andes continue to act as water towers? Climate change is a global problem with local consequences. If the international community succeeds in restricting the temperature rise to an acceptable level via contributions from each individual member, the effects may be mitigated. Many glaciers would still shrink significantly even with major climate protection efforts, but the consequences for water resources would be more moderate.

  • S&T sponsors workshop on “sequences of interest”

    Synthetic biology has led to the creation of new products, markets, companies, and industries. At the same time, the technology poses potential risks to biosafety and biosecurity, as recently demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox virus, a cousin of variola, the virus which causes smallpox. DHS S&T sponsored a workshop to discuss the evolving role of databases which contain genetic sequences of pathogens and toxins — termed “sequences of interest” — which pose safety or security concerns.

  • Scientists call for better global and local control of mercury

    Mercury is a complex, multifaceted contaminant which can take many different forms. It is poisonous to humans and wildlife and damaging to the environment. Currently, around two thirds of the mercury entering the environment comes from current or legacy human sources including mining, industrial activities, coal combustion and incinerators, with the remaining originating from natural sources. A special issue addressing the most up-to-date science on the fate and effects of mercury has now been published in the journal Ambio.

  • Massive reserves of mercury hidden in permafrost hold significant implications for human health

    Researchers have discovered permafrost in the northern hemisphere stores massive amounts of natural mercury, a finding with significant implications for human health and ecosystems worldwide. The scientists measured mercury concentrations in permafrost cores from Alaska and estimated how much mercury has been trapped in permafrost north of the equator since the last Ice Age. Their study reveals northern permafrost soils are the largest reservoir of mercury on the planet, storing nearly twice as much mercury as all other soils, the ocean and the atmosphere combined.

  • CDC: Flu still rising across U.S.; 16 more pediatric deaths

    We are not out of the woods yet,” said Anne Schuchat, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as she described the rising influenza activity that’s swept across the United States. According to Schuchat, this past week brought yet another increase in influenza-like illness (ILI) activity, a spike in hospitalizations, and, most distressingly, 16 new reports of pediatric influenza deaths. Now 53 pediatric deaths this season have been attributed to the flu. The last season as severe as this year’s was in 2014-15, but at this point in that season the cumulative hospitalization rate was 43.5 per 100,000 population. This week that number was 51.4 per 100,000 population, according to the latest FluView surveillance data published by the CDC.

  • Worst-case global pandemic scenario: 700,000 dead, $500 billion in economic losses

    The worldwide spread of a serious infectious disease could result in pandemic-related deaths of 700,000 and annual economic losses of $500 billion, according to a study. The dollar figure of economic losses is much higher than those found in previous studies, which, according to the study, means “there is an unmet need for greater investment in preparedness against major epidemics and pandemics.”

  • Belief in conspiracy theories associated with vaccine skepticism

    People who believe Princess Diana was murdered or that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was an elaborate plot are more likely to think that vaccines are unsafe, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, according to new research. “People often develop attitudes through emotional and gut responses,” said the lead researcher. “Simply repeating evidence makes little difference to those who have antivaccination attitudes.”

  • WHO: Widespread, high levels of antibiotic resistance across the globe

    New surveillance data released earlier this week by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals widespread and in some cases high levels of antibiotic resistance across the globe in the most common bacterial infections. “The report confirms the serious situation of antibiotic resistance worldwide,” Marc Sprenger, MD, director of the WHOs Antimicrobial Resistance Secretariat, said in a press release. “Some of the world’s most common—and potentially most dangerous—infections are proving drug-resistant.”

  • Vaccine attitude rises and falls with ideology

    Political views and a person’s trust in government play a role in whether or not they get vaccinated, according to a new study. The results suggest a person’s ideology directly impacts who they trust, allowing the person to selectively credit information related to vaccine risks and benefits in ways that reflect their ideology. A person with strong conservative political views is less likely to vaccinate than a person with strong liberal political views, according to the study, as is someone who holds lower levels of trust in government medical experts.

  • Mobility patterns influence the spread -- or containment -- of an epidemic

    Contrary to expectations, recurring mobility between different cities or districts of a large city (for example, from home to work and back again) can minimize the spread of an epidemic. During an epidemic, common sense tells us that we should isolate ourselves from the rest of the population or reduce our movements to diminish the likelihood of contagion. However, far from improving the situation, isolating ourselves may increase our chances of contracting the disease and worsen the existing local situation.

  • U.S. flu levels continue to climb, with 37 pediatric deaths confirmed

    With seven more pediatric deaths reported last week and influenza-like illness (ILI) numbers that are nearing those seen during the 2009 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said today that this year’s flu season will most likely be considered severe. In its weekly FluView report, the CDC said the total of pediatric deaths has now reached 37. Hospitalizations also continued to rise, with the vast majority (88.7 percent) of hospitalizations were associated with influenza A. Of those A strain infections that required hospitalization, 86.4 percent were H3N2 and 13.6 percent were 2009 H1N1.

  • $1 billion reward proposed for development of new antibiotics

    An international group tasked with researching and developing new economic models to promote antibiotic development is calling for a $1 billion market entry reward for new antibiotics, saying the reward could significantly boost the number of new antibiotics coming to market over the next thirty years. The proposal was made by an international consortium of public health organizations, academic institutions, and pharmaceutical companies supported by the European Medicines Initiative. The $1 billion market entry reward is one of four incentives proposed by the group to stimulate research and development (R&D) for new antibiotics and ensure that critically needed antibiotics are used sustainably and continue to be accessible. “Without incentives, some scientifically promising treatments would probably never make it to patients,” says one expert.

  • Synthetic virus tackles antimicrobial resistance

    Antibiotic resistance has become an ever-growing global challenge, with more than 700,000 people across the world dying from drug resistant infections every year. As a result, antibiotic discovery has fallen well behind its historical rate, with traditional discovery methods being exhausted. Scientists have engineered a brand new artificial virus that kills bacteria on first contact. This new virus is built using the same geometric principles that determine structures of naturally occurring viruses, known as polyhedral capsids.

  • Step-by-step horsepox study intensifies dual-use research debate

    The publication last week of a research paper offering a manual for re-creating an orthopoxvirus has been harshly criticized by both scientists and biosecurity experts as reckless and dangerous. The research demonstrates the potential to recreate the virus that causes smallpox—one of the greatest scourges the world has ever faced and eradicated. “The risks posed by the publication of methods that could ease the pathway for synthesizing smallpox should have been carefully weighed from the outset,” says one expert. Analysts say that the publication further accentuates the need for urgent global dialogue to develop clear norms and actions for reducing biological risks posed by advances in technology. “As governmental oversight continues to lag behind biotechnology breakthroughs, academic and private stakeholders conducting, funding, and publishing research - as well as those developing new technologies – also must take responsibility for mitigating risk,” says the expert.

  • The synthesis of horsepox virus and the failure of dual-use research oversight

    On 19 January 2018, the open access scientific journal PLOS One published an article that describes the de novo synthesis of horsepox virus, the first ever synthesis of a member of the orthopoxvirus family of viruses that includes the variola virus that causes smallpox. This research crosses a red line in the field of biosecurity. Given the high degree of homology between orthopoxviruses, the techniques described in this article are directly applicable to the recreation of variola virus. The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. The reemergence of smallpox would be a global health disaster. Prior to its eradication, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people, more people than all the wars of the twentieth century combined. Based on these considerations, the horsepox synthesis research is all risk and no reward. Given the known risks of this research for pioneering a technique that can be used to recreate variola virus and its questionable benefits, the publication of this article represents a failure of PLOS One to exercise its responsibility to carefully consider the biosecurity implications of the research it publishes.