Sep 9, 2021

Axios Science

Welcome back to Axios Science. I hope August brought you some fun and relaxation. This week's newsletter is 1,592 words, a 6-minute read.

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1 big thing: Delta's domination

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Mu variant of the coronavirus is something to monitor — as it appears to partially evade authorized COVID-19 vaccines — but Delta's continued dominance means "Mu is not any immediate threat," NIAID director Anthony Fauci tells Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly.

Why it matters: Sounding the alarm, Fauci says widespread vaccination is a priority to fight the coronavirus and cut down on the rate of new infections — which is currently 10 times higher than where it needs to be.

What's happening: The WHO recently labeled Mu (B.1.621 and first discovered in Colombia) a variant of interest as preliminary data indicated it may better elude immunity from prior infection or vaccination.

  • Mu may "indicate potential properties of immune escape, as it has some of these hallmarks of being able to get around that existing vaccine protection, but it doesn't mean that's what we're seeing play out in real life," says Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist and director of the UCLA Center for Global and Immigrant Health.
  • Fauci says when comparing how specific variants may escape antibody protection, Beta appears more evasive than Mu, and Mu more than Delta.
  • Only about 0.5% of new cases are showing as Mu, Fauci says, with 99.3% testing as Delta, which has such an "extraordinary ability" to transmit that it won't likely lose its global dominance in the immediate future.

Between the lines: While some have raised concerns it may be time to update the vaccines to better match these variants, Fauci says that's not needed as the current vaccines "do very well against the Delta variant."

  • "Even though the vaccine wasn't specifically [designed] against Delta, there's enough cross-protection against the different variants once you get the antibody level high enough," he says.
  • But a third dose may be needed to "extend that immunity," Rimoin says.

Yes, but: If a new variant came along that evaded antibodies and was transmissible enough to dominate Delta, scientists would take quick action, Fauci says.

  • The mRNA vaccine platform enables the development of a new version of the vaccine within roughly three months, and the FDA is expected to treat these similarly to the flu shot, as a "strain change" that can be approved relatively quickly, he adds.

"The biggest problem — the 10 elephants in the room — is the fact that we need to get people vaccinated, so we don't have people dying as much every day," says Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

  • "The biggest push has to be to get transmission down," Gronvall says, "because the unvaccinated are creating problems for the vaccinated, and they're dying, basically, of a vaccine-preventable disease."
  • Fauci says the U.S. remains in a pandemic because it doesn't have "even modestly good control," with 160,000 new cases a day when it needs to be below 10,000 a day.

The big picture: Global vaccination is key to halting this pandemic — to protect every individual from severe disease or death, to lessen the probability of long COVID, and to prevent a monster variant from developing.

Read more from the interview with Fauci here.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Data: N.Y. Times; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The U.S. is averaging about 1,500 COVID-19 deaths a day for the first time since March, per Axios' Tina Reed.

India approved a COVID-19 DNA vaccine — the first of its kind to get the green light from regulators, Smriti Mallapaty writes in Nature.

Four possible COVID deaths in January 2020 "have become part of a scattershot collection of clues about the virus’s early spread beyond China," Benjamin Mueller reports for the NYT.

3. First-ever map of the world's coral reefs

Pocillopora grandis, a coral species photographed in the Rongelap Atoll in the Pacific. Photo: Greg Asner

A group of researchers announced Wednesday they have completed the first-ever comprehensive maps of the world's shallow tropical coral reefs, Axios' Ivana Saric writes.

Why it matters: The first high-resolution map of its kind, the Allen Coral Atlas will allow users to gather detailed information about coral reefs, including the sand, rocks and seagrass that are part of these ecosystems, according to the Associated Press.

  • The new resource could be used to help monitor coral reefs, document habitat threats and disaster recovery efforts, and guide policy decisions such as fishing regulations, according to the press release.

How they did it: The maps were made using machine learning to analyze more than 2 million satellite images as well as data about habitats and water depths.

  • The researchers relied on information about local reefs from hundreds of field contributors that helped the team target their satellite imagery.
  • The atlas also includes a coral bleaching detection tool launched earlier this year that helps track coral reef health and the effects of climate change, per Mongabay.
  • Officials from 14 countries are already working with the researchers to use the maps to plan 48 new marine projects, according to the press release.

What they're saying: “[T]he true value of the work will come when coral conservationists are able to better protect coral reefs based on the high-resolution maps and monitoring system,” Greg Asner, managing director of the Atlas and director of Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation, said in the press release.

  • “We must double down and use this tool as we work to save coral reefs from the impacts of our climate crisis and other threats," he added.
4. Worthy of your time

COVID advances win $3 million Breakthrough prizes (Zeeya Merali — Nature)

The effects of a warmer world are visible in animals’ bodies (The Economist)

Two scientific journals retract articles involving Chinese DNA research (Sui-Lee Wee — NYT)

The search for America's Atlantis (Ross Andersen — The Atlantic)

5. The future of the search for life

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photos: NASA/Getty Images, Boyer/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

New probes to study nearby worlds, advanced telescopes to peer at faraway planets, and expanding ideas about the signs of life are fueling a renaissance in the search for life beyond Earth.

The big picture: The boom in the search for life isn't just about more funding and better telescopes, says Andrew Siemion of Breakthrough Listen, a project combing space for radio signatures of life.

  • "We're also seeing a Copernican revolution take place within astronomy, where the ubiquity of extrasolar planets is being viscerally felt and understood. That has really shaped the question of whether we are alone and the search for life."
  • More than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered, almost entirely in the last three decades, but as far as scientists know, Earth's life still remains unique.

What's happening: Upcoming missions will search for signs of life — and conditions for it — on worlds near and far from Earth.

  • The destinations include Venus, as well as Mars, where rock samples will be collected and eventually returned to Earth for analysis.
  • "We're not in recon mode anymore, at least in the inner solar system," says Bethany Ehlmann, a professor of planetary science at Caltech.

A probe is headed to Jupiter's moon Europa, and researchers are pitching a mission to Saturn's small, icy satellite Enceladus, a potentially habitable harbor in our solar system.

  • "Although these worlds don't exist in the classical habitable zone, conditions could be favorable for life in the vast oceans that exist beneath their ice shells," says Lynnae Quick, a planetary scientist at NASA who studies ocean worlds and is a member of the science team for the Europa Clipper mission.

What to watch: As modeling of planetary atmospheres improves and scientists' understanding of the diversity of worlds widens, they're starting to look for even more fundamental signs of life.

  • There appear to be patterns in the chemical reactions of living systems that differ from not-living systems, says Tessa Fisher, a graduate student at Arizona State University who is studying these reactions.

Go deeper: Read the full story and our Deep Dive about the future of space.

6. Something wondrous
An artificial cell mimics ingesting E. Coli bacterium. Credit: Stefano Sacanna/New York University

Researchers have engineered small structures that, without biological components, can capture and expel material — mimicking a key process in living cells.

The big picture: Artificial cells like these could eventually be used to deliver drugs or capture micropollutants in the environment, the authors suggest.

How it works: Living cells use energy to move molecules — including proteins, salts, sugars and others — in and out of the cell, from places of lower concentration to higher concentration.

  • That process of "active transport" helps cells to accumulate molecules that fuel key reactions and to get rid of dangerous waste.

What they did: Stefano Sacanna, a chemist at New York University who studies self-assembling materials, and his colleagues used polymers to create the cell mimicking structures.

  • They put a tiny hole in the capsule for material to pass through and created a light-activated artificial pump that moves the molecules.
  • When the pump is exposed to light, a chemical reaction is triggered that creates a vacuum and sucks material in. When the light is off, the pump is off and the material stays in the structure.
  • Material can be expelled by reversing the reaction.

"We didn’t make anything close to a living cell, but we managed to capture some important features, most importantly actively ingesting and expelling material," Sacanna says.

  • The researchers experimented with using the structure to ingest impurities in water and E. Coli bacteria in a solution, they report this week in Nature.

What's next: Sacanna says they are looking at different fuels — right now the pump uses hydrogen peroxide, which can be toxic in the human body — and to develop ways for the structures to chemically communicate with one another.

Thanks to Shoshana Gordon, Kavya Beheraj and Annelise Capossela on the Axios visuals team for this week's illustrations and charts and to copy editor Sheryl Miller.