Jun 10, 2021

Axios Science

Welcome back to Axios Science. This week's newsletter — about biorisks, red snow, Venus and more — is 1,638 words, a 6-minute read.

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1 big thing: Lab risks face scrutiny

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The controversy over the origin of the COVID-19 virus is renewing focus on how the risks and benefits of pathogen-altering experiments are weighed and managed, Axios' Bryan Walsh and I write.

Why it matters: Better governance of biorisks would limit the threat of a human-made pandemic — and could help identify the origin of future outbreaks more quickly and with a lot less controversy.

What's happening: There's no conclusive evidence to support the idea that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a lab accident, but the possibility is spurring debate about the risks of some biological research and guardrails for gain-of-function research.

  • In some of that research — but not all — scientists enhance viruses to make them more transmissible or more lethal, arguing it can provide insights about the pandemic potential of a pathogen.
  • But the scope of gain-of-function research isn't sharply defined and can encompass a wide range of experiments.

Where it stands: The current framework for oversight in the U.S. is limited to federally funded research and doesn't cover the increasingly larger role the private sector plays, says Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University — nor does that oversight extend overseas.

  • "There are big gaps between what some countries are doing, and there is some international guidance, but it is very much up to individual countries and labs to have their own policies," says Gregory Koblentz of the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason University, who recently published a report about maximum biosafety labs around the world.

What they're saying: Some experts have called for an outright ban of pathogen-enhancing research, but others argue it can continue to be done in safe and more transparent ways.

  • There are concerns that new rules or regulations based on a vague definition of gain-of-function research could hamper the scientific process and the development of countermeasures against emerging viruses, says Koblentz. Such studies have yet to be definitively linked to any outbreak.
Part II: The debate over gain-of-function

Some researchers question the stated benefits of different types of gain-of-function experiments.

  • Studies that turn animal viruses that aren't transmissible or pathogenic in humans into novel ones that have those properties have "almost no value in terms of predicting pandemics and have extreme risks because their entire scientific validity rests on creating something that's inherently dangerous," Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said earlier this week at a Brookings Institution event.
  • There's a need to make sure "scientists are taking appropriate safeguards against those risks, that research has some defined benefit worth the risk, and that there is a degree of transparency and oversight so we know there is a system weighing those benefits and risks," says Koblentz.

How it works: Right now, the risk-benefit assessment for individual studies in the U.S. largely falls to internal review boards of experts at universities, laboratories and federal agencies that evaluate proposed research and enforce federal guidelines.

  • Cicero says those boards need "more tools to evaluate the actual benefits and whether there are alternative methods of learning the same thing but with lower risk."

And there are calls for more transparency in the review process, which isn't public in the name of protecting scientific methods and intellectual property.

  • "If you want to work in a field where you are creating risks at the population level, you should be willing to do it in a way that is open enough so that people can evaluate those risks," Lipsitch said at the event.
  • But other experts say revealing some aspects of the process could be counterproductive.
Part III: The big picture on biorisk

Pathogen-enhancing research is just one part of the overall risk picture of some biological science.

  • One hypothesis about the potential origin of SARS-CoV-2 is that the virus had been collected from animals in the wild and was being studied without being enhanced before researchers became infected with it.
  • Some experts propose improving tracking of laboratory-acquired infections and physically isolating the location of labs conducting experiments that carry higher risks. (Wuhan in China, for example, has a population greater than 11 million, larger than any city in the U.S.)
  • "If it came from nature, you have to decide whether you're going to continue to collect these viruses and bring them back to laboratories," says Steven Quay, a biotech entrepreneur who has studied the possibility of a COVID lab leak. "If it came from gain-of-function, you need to control that."

What to watch... what role the World Health Organization and other entities may take in developing international guidelines around governing pathogen-enhancing research, which could potentially mirror the emerging frameworks for human genome editing.

  • Another approach is that labs could accept third-party inspections by experts who evaluate their practices for mitigating biorisks and provide recommendations for strengthening them, says Koblentz.

The bottom line: Whatever the ultimate cause of the COVID-19 pandemic was — and we may never know — it's reasonable to take steps to better govern research that could go wrong.

4. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

The U.S. will buy 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to distribute to countries around the world, with the option to purchase an additional 200 million, per Axios' Dave Lawler and Caitlin Owens.

The SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant first detected in India is now responsible for more than 6% of U.S. COVID-19 infections and is becoming the dominant strain in the U.K., NPR's Jane Greenhalgh reports.

Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine generated a neutralizing antibody response to that variant in a study of blood samples published today in Nature.

In the U.S., "COVID-19 cases, deaths, related hospitalizations and ER visits have all declined considerably this year, especially among older, vaccinated adults, according to a new CDC report," per Axios' Marisa Fernandez.

5. A renaissance for Venus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA is sending missions to Venus for the first time in more than 30 years, breathing new life into the scientific quest to understand the oft-ignored planet, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

Why it matters: Understanding Venus is thought to be key to learning more about how habitable worlds form within our own solar system — and outside of it.

  • For years, researchers focused on Venus have been forced to make do with incomplete data collected by spacecraft sent there decades ago.

Catch up quick: NASA announced last week that it would be sending two new missions — DAVINCI+ and VERITAS — to Venus, marking the first time the space agency has sent dedicated missions to the world in more than 30 years.

  • DAVINCI+ will send a probe through Venus' atmosphere to gather data about how the planet turned into the cloudy world it is.
  • VERITAS plans to map the planet's surface using radar to help figure out whether Venus still has active plate tectonics and volcanic activity.
  • Both missions are expected to launch between 2028 and 2030.

The big questions: Scientists think Venus could have evolved in one of two ways. One theory posits the world once had a magma ocean that effectively ruined it from the start, creating the thick atmosphere enveloping the planet today.

  • The other theory holds that Venus was habitable, with water on its surface before extreme volcanic eruptions created the runaway greenhouse effect seen there today.
  • DAVINCI+ and VERITAS should be able to collect data to help figure out exactly which model is correct.

The intrigue: Last year, scientists announced the possible detection of phosphine in Venus' upper atmosphere, a sign that life could exist in the temperate cloud tops of the planet.

  • While it's not clear if NASA picked these missions directly because of the phosphine discovery, the two missions will be able to sniff out the stinky gas in the Venusian atmosphere, if it's there.

The big picture: DAVINCI+ and VERITAS aren't the only Venus-focused missions. Japan's Akatsuki is already studying the world from orbit, while Russia and India are both planning missions to the planet.

6. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Earth's carbon dioxide levels hit 4.5 million-year high (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

U.S. Senate passes bill for nearly $250 billion in science funding (Christie Wilcox — The Scientist)

Landmark Alzheimer’s drug approval confounds research community (Asher Mullard — Nature News)

A hallucinogenic toad in peril (Jessica Kutz — High Country News)

7. Something wondrous

Algae in red snow. Image: AlpAlga

High in the French Alps, blooms of microalgae color the snow they live in red each spring. A team of researchers this week published a study detailing some of the algae species found in these streaks of "glacier blood."

The big picture: Very little is known about snow algae — a link in the mountain ecosystem's food web — and how their blooms may be affected by rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate change.

  • "The bloom is a sign of an imbalance that promotes one species ... and it is an actor that accelerates snow melting" by reducing the amount of sunlight it reflects, says Eric Maréchal of the Laboratory of Cellular and Plant Physiology in Grenoble, France, and a member of the AlpAlga consortium of researchers studying microalgae in the mountains.
  • Sanguina algae, which previous research found were responsible for the red coloring of snow, are a green algae that can be triggered to produce carotenoids — red and orange pigments that Maréchal says may protect the algae from intense sunlight at high elevations.

What they found: The researchers collected 158 soil samples from holes dug between 4,100 feet and 9,646 feet above sea level in five locations in the French Alps.

  • By analyzing DNA left in the soil by algae that died after the snow melted, they found 50 species of microalgae — and a pattern for their distribution.
  • Sanguina algae were found only above 6,560 feet, whereas other species were limited to lower elevations.

What's next: The researchers are headed back to the mountains later this month to study the microalgae present at different snow depths.

  • They've collected 15 distinct species from the snow so far and plan to gather more to grow in the lab to try to understand what triggers the algae to produce carotenoids.
  • The research aims to understand what's driving changes in the blooms and whether they might be used as a marker for the level of intensity of global warming, Maréchal says.
  • Citizen scientists can help collect and observe red snow for the Living Snow Project, which is studying the microalgae in the mountains of the American West.

"We see snow as only water. We see it is as inert," Maréchal says.

  • But the new research is "a vivid demonstration that the snow is alive."