Sep 23, 2021

Axios Science

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week's newsletter is 1,412 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing ... Top science advisers: Prepare now for next pandemic

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Now is a crucial time to lay the groundwork to quash future threats from pathogens, top science advisers in the U.S. and U.K. told me this week.

Why it matters: Governments, industries and organizations are trying to bolster early warning systems, improve manufacturing supply chains for vaccines and treatments, and build infrastructure to be able to better contain future outbreaks — all while the current pandemic is still raging.

Threat level: Public memory can be short, and people have a tendency to want to move on after a crisis, but it's essential that policymakers learn from the last 19 months and take steps to prepare for the next pandemic, White House science adviser Eric Lander and the U.K.'s chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance said during an event on Tuesday hosted by the British Embassy in Washington.

  • Lander recently laid out the Biden administration's pandemic preparedness plan, which comes with an ask for $65 billion from Congress over the next seven to 10 years.
    • Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told Science, "It's a good down payment, but it hardly will provide enough resources for a real plan."
  • Reality check: The Senate is reportedly looking at funding pandemic preparedness with closer to $8 billion.
  • Vallance is behind the 100 Days Mission, which aims to spur governments, industry and organizations to collaborate on making diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines available within 100 days the next time a pathogen with pandemic potential emerges.

The big picture: Developing those countermeasures on that tight of a timeline hinges on spotting an emerging pathogen as soon as possible, Rick Bright, who leads the Rockefeller Foundation's Pandemic Prevention Institute, said during the event (which I moderated).

  • There are different global, national and local surveillance systems in place today, with more in the works, including a new WHO pandemic intelligence hub in Berlin and a network of surveillance hubs being launched by the U.K. and WHO. The White House plan seeks to direct $3.1 billion of the $65 billion requested to emerging pathogen detection efforts.
  • Right now, those systems are "not connected, the information is not shared and there are no global common standards or infrastructure to share that information," Bright said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is strengthening calls to expand monitoring for pathogens to include animals that humans interact with and that can be the source of pathogens that spill over to humans, a leading hypothesis for the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

  • Conservationists worry about reverse spillovers — humans infecting endangered animals, like chimpanzees, in the wild.
  • But there is also the risk of spill back. A pathogen that has already spread in humans and that can infect a broad range of hosts can enter wild populations of animals, mutate in them and create variants of a virus that could then potentially spill back to people and escape vaccines and treatments, says Thomas Gillespie, who studies disease ecology at Emory University.
  • Without monitoring animal populations, those sources can escape under the radar.

What to watch: USAID last year launched the STOP Spillover program, a five-year project with wildlife and human disease experts on the ground in Uganda, Liberia, Bangladesh and Vietnam who monitor and characterize viruses like Ebola and influenza and coronaviruses from animals.

The catch: All the international efforts to coordinate and collaborate on surveillance will have limited effectiveness if countries don't share data and alert others when they spot a potential threat.

The bottom line: "The biggest barrier that we have to improving the system, be it surveillance, be it vaccine development or distribution, is we are still not addressing adequately the issues of collaboration, sharing and trust," Bright said.

Read the full story.

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

"New coronavirus cases are continuing to decline, and some experts are cautiously optimistic that the virus will continue to wane even into the fall and winter," Axios' Sam Baker writes.

The FDA last night approved Pfizer-BioNTech booster shots for people over the age of 65 or at high risk for developing severe COVID-19.

Pfizer reported its vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5–11 and plans to apply for emergency use authorization from the FDA by the end of the month, per the NYT's Apoorva Mandavilli.

3. Bionics of the future

Side view of a bionic ankle-foot prosthesis. Photo: MIT Media Lab

MIT is launching a new center focused on trying to create next-generation prosthetics and digital nervous systems.

Why it matters: State-of-the-art devices that can be controlled by the brain are promising technologies for the millions of people affected by losing the use of a limb, but they are highly customized, expensive and largely still experimental.

Details: The new center, co-directed by MIT professors Hugh Herr and Ed Boyden, will first focus on four projects to try to hone bionic limbs.

  1. They're developing a reconstructed bionic limb that Herr says is arguably the most advanced prosthetic in the world. The below-the-knee limb directly links with the tibia and interfaces with muscles and nerves. A person is able to move the limb by thinking and feeling the movement and sensations of touch, "closing the loop between the human nervous system and a synthetic system," he says.
  2. A preclinical study will try to advance technology for spinal cord injury and paralysis. In those injuries, muscles — the body's biological motors — are still functional, they're just not receiving signals from the brain. The researchers want to advance optogenetics — the ability to turn genes on and off with light — to control muscles with light but without triggering an immune response, which the light-sensitive opsin protein behind the tool currently can do.
  3. The researchers hope to further develop brain-controlled limb exoskeletons that use tiny magnetic spheres implanted in muscles to send data about where the brain thinks the limb should be based on muscle movement. The magnetic signals can then be used to control an exoskeleton device. The technology, which has been tested in turkeys, could be used for people who have weak muscle action, for example, from a stroke, Herr says.
  4. Creating a mobile platform to try to improve access to limb prostheses in Sierra Leone, where an estimated 2,000–4,000 people's limbs were amputated during the country's civil war. The researchers eventually want to take CT and MRI imaging tools used to design and fit prosthetics directly to people, 3D print them and deliver the devices to the patient. There are currently only four small prosthetic facilities in the country, Herr says, and he estimates less than 1,000 people there have working prosthetics.

The big picture: Robotics, neuroscience, materials science and medicine have all matured to the point where integrating them can catapult the field forward, Herr says.

4. Worthy of your time

Landmark survey reveals young people’s climate anxiety (Tosin Thompson — Nature)

Report: The U.S. is unfairly targeting Chinese scientists over industrial spying (Eileen Guo — MIT Tech Review)

DNA offers a new look at how Polynesia was settled (Bruce Bower — Science News)

A theory of my own mind (Stephen M. Fleming — Aeon)

5. Something wondrous

3D microfliers surround a propeller seed from a maple tree. Credit: F. Frankel/MIT

Tiny electronic fliers can whirl through the air like the maple seed muse of their engineers.

Why it matters: Fleets of miniature gliding electronic components outfitted with sensors could one day be deployed to monitor the atmosphere or environment, researchers propose in a new paper.

The big picture: Plants evolved a range of ways to disperse their seeds far and wide on the wind — there are helicopter-like maple tree seeds, the parachute forms of dandelions, spinners and gliders.

How it works: John Rogers, a chemist and materials scientist at Northwestern University, and his colleagues adapted biology's designs for the new miniature devices, which can fly on the wind and be less than a millimeter wide.

  • They used simulations and experiments in wind tunnels to test possible shapes and the number of wings, their geometry and weight distribution, they report in Nature this week.
  • The team landed on using the helicopter-like design because its flight trajectory was more stable than the others and the speed at which they fell was slower, giving them more time to travel, Rogers says. But the researchers are pursuing the other shapes as well.
  • "We're not simply mimicking seeds," he says. "We're going beyond."

The catch: Wind can passively power the fliers' flight, but strong gusts could perturb it so the scientists are looking at whether they can add wings to help control the devices for some applications.

What's next: Rogers wants to make biodegradable versions of the devices that can be deployed, their data collected and the electronics safely absorbed by the environment.

Thanks to Rae Cook for this week's illustration and to Sheryl Miller for copy editing this edition.