Aug 13, 2020

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week we look at COVID-19 treatments, the scent behind locust swarms, fire phenomenon and more.

Today's newsletter is 1,550 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Fauci's guidance on coronavirus treatments

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Antibody drugs and various medicine cocktails against the coronavirus are progressing and may provide some relief before vaccines, Eileen writes.

The big picture: Everyone wants to know how and when they can return to "normal" life, as vaccines are not expected to be ready for most Americans for at least a year.

  • Two therapies are known to be helpful and more could be announced by late September, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci tells Axios.

Where it stands: The FDA has not approved any treatments or vaccines to address COVID-19 yet, but there are 316 treatments and 202 vaccines in various stages of development. "There's treatment for late disease and treatment for early disease," Fauci says.

For people who are hospitalized with advanced disease, remdesivir and dexamethasone have been found to be helpful.

  • Remdesivir shortens hospitalization by around 30% for patients with pulmonary issues, and many trials are testing it with other drugs.
  • Dexamethasone helps lessen mortality for those with severe respiratory symptoms and on ventilators or requiring oxygen, but not at the early stages, when it might actually be detrimental, he says.
  • "[T]hat validates our concept of pathogenesis — that early on, you need to attack the virus and not interfere with the immune system, whereas later, the virus has already done its deed. You don't have to ignore it, but you've really got to focus on dampening" its impact, Fauci says.

To address the disease at an earlier stage, Fauci says they hope to get positive news from results expected in September from monoclonal antibodies trials that target the virus specifically.

  • Plus, a pre-print of the Mayo-led study indicates a transfusion of plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 within three days of diagnosis yielded “significantly reduced” mortality, although the trial didn’t use a placebo.

Why it matters: "It will take a while before we're talking about broad distribution of a vaccine," and likely "well into 2021" before most people will have access to a vaccine, says Esther Krofah, executive director of Faster Cures at the Milken Institute.

What's happening: The urgency of the pandemic has fostered international collaboration and promoted a newer type of trial — the master protocol clinical trial.

  • Those trials offer a more adaptive, faster way of testing multiple treatments at the same time on groups of patients — WHO says this reduces overall time by 80%.
  • Leaders in the adaptive trials say the programs are working: more clinics and hospitals are joining and enrolling patients, and therapies are being added/dropped as evidence accumulates.
  • However, others point out there are some issues in how these trials differ from conventional trials.

Between the lines: Scientists continue grappling with the confounding range of manifestations of this novel disease, which barely affects some but can also seriously damage the lung, heart, kidney, brain, immune and blood systems.

  • For now, this means patients may need a cocktail of treatments, depending on what they are experiencing.

What they're saying: Derek Lowe, a drug discovery scientist who writes a blog for Science Translational Medicine, says he doesn't expect there to be a small molecule cure for this virus, as it would take six-to-ten years to develop one for a complex disease that will need the drug to focus on different mechanisms.

  • "The only thing that I see getting us back to normal life is a vaccine and monoclonal antibodies," Lowe says.

Read the entire story.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti, Sara Wise/Axios
  • The U.S. is averaging about 10.5% fewer COVID-19 cases than it was last week but "states will have to keep this downward trend going for a long time before they can consider their outbreaks to be well-controlled," my Axios colleague Sam Baker writes.
  • Russia says it approved a coronavirus vaccine for widespread use — the first country to do so. The announcement drew criticism from researchers who warned without large trials to test the vaccine's safety and efficacy, people could be put at risk and other efforts could be undermined. (Ewen Callaway — Nature News)
  • SARS-CoV-2 particles isolated from the air can be infectious, bolstering the idea that airborne virus may play a greater role in transmission than initially thought. A key question stands: how much virus is required for infection? (Apoorva Mandavilli — NYT)
3. A scent that sends locusts swarming

A swarm of desert locusts in Dhamar province, Yemen, June 6, 2020. Photo: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua via Getty

A scent produced by migratory locusts triggers them to swarm — a newly discovered detail that could help efforts to stop the pests.

Why it matters: Swarming locusts can destroy crops and vegetation for livestock, wreaking havoc in their path.

How it works: Locusts, which are species of grasshoppers, are typically solitary insects. But under certain conditions they can enter a gregarious phase and form large swarms.

  • Pesticides spread via plane or on the ground are used to fight locusts, but they come with a catch: they can be hazardous to other insects and humans.

What's new: In a series of experiments, Le Kang and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences identified a pheromone that attracts and aggregates migrating locusts (Locusta migratoria), a different species than desert locusts. They found:

  • The compound 4-vinylanisole (4VA) is emitted far more by gregarious locusts than solitary ones, and attracts young and adult, and male and female, locusts — all of which swarm.
  • Both solitary and gregarious locusts were attracted to the pheromone.
  • Just four or five locusts are required to start the production of 4VA.
  • When more locusts swarmed together, there was more of the pheromone in the air.
  • The researchers used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to create locusts without the gene encoding for a receptor (OR35) in the insect's antenna and found the mutant insects didn't respond to the pheromone.
  • Finally, they placed traps containing 4VA in a field and found it attracted some locusts.

"This is a very exciting finding which advances our knowledge in the chemical communication system of locusts," Baldwyn Torto, a scientist who studies locusts at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya, tells Axios via email.

  • Yes, but: Whether 4VA plays the same role in desert locust swarming is yet to be elucidated, says Torto. And it is important to understand the role of other compounds in the behavior, he adds.

What's next: The scientists suggest the findings, reported in the journal Nature, could help to create tools that specifically stop locusts — from spraying a compound that blocks the 4VA receptor on their antenna to using 4VA as a trap to creating mutant non-gregarious locusts without the receptor.

4. Worthy of your time

Earth seen from orbit at night. Photo: NASA

Researchers use Hubble Telescope to study Earth as an alien planet (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Australia is cracking down on foreign interference in research. Is the system working? (Dyani Lewis — Nature News)

Mitochondria may hold keys to anxiety and mental health (Elizabeth Landau — Quanta)

The most over-hyped planet in the galaxy (Marina Koren — The Atlantic)

1 fun thing: AI reviews Axios Science

A new text-generating AI created a review of Axios Science.

How they did it: The team at narrowSCALE, a newsletter directory, used AI Dungeon's Dragon mode to tap OpenAI's new text-generator, GPT-3. (AI Dungeon uses the system to write different scenarios in the game.)

GPT-3, which was trained on half a trillion words from the internet, takes in a written prompt from a user and then generates text that follows.

  • NarrowSCALE input this description of the newsletter:

"Axios Science is a newsletter that looks at the scientific breakthroughs changing the world, explorations in space and in worlds beyond our own and the threats posed to us by our own planet, both out of our control and of our own making."

  • And got this review in response:
Screenshot: narrowSCALE

My thought bubble: I feel weirdly understood.

Go deeper: My colleague Bryan Walsh recently explained GPT-3 and its implications.

5. Something wondrous

Blue whirl. Photo: Sriram Bharath Hariharan/University of Maryland

A fire phenomenon known as the blue whirl can emerge from fire tornadoes. This week scientists reported new details of the structure of the mysterious clean-burning flame.

Why it matters: Researchers hope to one day harness the blue whirl as a source of energy and to clean up fuel spills. To do that, they need to understand the flame's form — and how it might be controlled.

Background: A team at the University of Maryland discovered the blue whirl in 2016 when testing the idea of using fire whirls, products of intense heat and wind, to clean up oil spilled on water.

  • Fire whirls generate soot (though not as much as typical fires) — small particles of carbon produced when fuel isn't completely burned and that give a flame its yellow color.
  • In a lab, the whirls can transition to become blue whirls, in which the fuel is completely combusted and no soot is produced.

What they did: Joseph Chung, Xiao Zhang and their colleagues at the University of Maryland created a computer simulation of the blue whirl and compared it with video of the flame forming in the lab.

  • They found the whirl is made up of "a diffusion flame and premixed rich and lean flames — all of which meet in a fourth structure, a triple flame that appears as a whirling blue ring," they write in Science Advances.
  • Blue whirls haven't been seen in nature. Why and under what conditions they may occur in nature are still open questions, says Chung.

What's next: "This is a first step to applying the blue whirl to a more practical application," says Zhang. There are more questions, she adds, for example, whether a larger blue whirl can be created so it can burn more effectively (it is currently just a few inches in size) and whether it can burn faster.

Alison Snyder