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Space Debris Could ‘Completely Wipe Out’ International Space Station 

This week a Russian missile test blasted a decommissioned Kosmos spy satellite into more than 1,500 pieces of space debris, alerting the seven-person crew on the International Space Station (ISS), who were woken up to an alarm for potential emergency collision with the debris. 

The astronauts aboard the ISS were told to shelter in transport capsules that initially brought them to the ISS, while the station passed by the debris several times within multiple hours. Luckily the ISS was left damage-free after the incident, however, NASA is calling out Russia after the potentially fatal event. 

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Space debris like the kind floating in the atmosphere from Russia’s recent missile test can travel at speeds of more than 17,500 miles-per-hour, and even scrap metal the size of a pea could be potentially deadly when it’s that close to the Earth. 

“It doesn’t take a very large hole to basically explode the space station. In fact, a hole measuring just 0.5 inches (1.3 centimeters) wide could cause irreparable structural damage that could completely wipe out the space station,” said John Crassidis, a SUNY Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo in New York who works with NASA to monitor space debris.

NASA currently is tracking more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris that measure larger than a softball. It uses computer models to estimate the positions of millions of smaller pieces of junk that are too tiny to be seen. 

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The ISS has changed courses 25 times since 1999 specifically to avoid debris. The craft is covered in more than 100 impact shields known as Whipple Shields, to protect it from any smaller unknown pieces of clutter. 

“However, where the ISS itself is well protected from incoming projectiles, the astronauts who crew and maintain it are not — and that is where the biggest risk lies. Even an encounter with the smallest piece of orbital debris could kill an astronaut on the spot. Space suits are not protected at all,” Crassidis said.

“Imagine a marble going 17,000 miles per hour at you — it would go right through you, like a bullet.”

“Unfortunately, there are no international laws preventing nations from conducting low-orbit missile tests like the one Russia just did. It may take an astronaut getting seriously injured or even killed before the world takes the space junk problem seriously,” Crassidis added.

NASA will continue to monitor the debris cloud as closely as possible.

Cancer

Study Reveals Whole-Genome Sequencing Can Improve Childhood Cancer Outcomes 

According to a pilot study performed by doctors in Cambridge, reading the full genetic code of childhood cancers can help doctors improve an overall diagnosis. The code can also help doctors learn about how tumors grow and how to find the most effective treatment therapies for specific tumors. 

In the study the doctors used whole-genome sequencing on 36 children with cancer. They found that the extra information they were provided changed four of the patients’ diagnoses and revealed new treatment options in seven cases. 

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Seeing the whole-genome sequence of the cancer’s DNA allows doctors to learn even more about the specific cancers that their patients are dealing with. Clinicians in the study were able to refine two of their previous diagnoses, learn more about the course of the disease in eight of the children, and found potential hereditary reasons for tumors in two of the subjects. 

“Our aim was to illustrate what can be achieved with whole-genome sequencing and to try and advertise its utility. Locally in Cambridge it was never really in question that this would add value,” said Dr Patrick Tarpey, lead scientist for solid cancer in the East Genomic Laboratory Hub based at Cambridge University hospitals NHS foundation trust.

The results are projected to be shared at the National Cancer Research Institute festival. NHS England has already discussed their plans of rolling out whole-genome sequencing for childhood cancers with the goal of making sequencing a normal part of treatment. This will allow doctors to continuously track specific aspects of their patients’ cancer to make adjustments in treatment for the best possible outcome. 

The 36 children involved in the study had 23 different tumor types. All participants endured a standard test to identify their cancer, and test their genome sequencing to see whether or not their current treatment was actually improving the condition or not. 

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According to the study, comparing the genetic makeup of a tumor versus healthy tissue within the same individual can help doctors identify the specific mutations that are driving the cancer, and potentially can reveal the tumor’s weakness. The work itself is no easy task, however, as it can take anywhere from two to three months to successfully and accurately interpret the genome sequence. 

Tarpey said “about three-quarters of the gene variants flagged up in the study came from whole-genome analysis rather than the standard cancer tests the children had. There are cases where the diagnosis was completely uncertain and we’ve been able to confirm it, and in doing so identify the mechanisms that impaired the genes.”

Sheona Scales is a pediatric leader at Cancer Research UK, who said that children with cancer often undergo grueling treatments, and even when they’re over the side-effects can last a lifetime, which is why studies like this are so important. 

“It is vital that we find ways to tailor treatments towards the individual and for this, whole-genome sequencing is a game-changer.” 

“Understanding more about the makeup of a child’s cancer can help doctors make the most informed treatment choices for their patients. The hope is that this will lead to better outcomes for children with cancer, not just in terms of survival, but also in the quality of the rest of their lives,” she explained.

Scientists Discover Tiny Fossil Found In 16-Million-Year-Old Amber, ‘A Once-In-A-Generation Find!’

Microscopic tardigrades are a species that have lived on Earth for more than 500 million years. It’s thought that these miniscule creatures will also outlive humans, however, due to their extremely small size, they don’t typically leave behind fossils for us to learn about them. 

Recently, however, scientists discovered the third-ever tardigrade fossil on record, and they found it suspended in a piece of 16-million-year-old Dominican amber. 

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The species found within the amber has been classified as Paradoryphoribius chronocaribbeus, a new species thought to be a relative of the modern living family of tardigrades known as Isohypsibioidea. This is the first tardigrade fossil to appear during the Cenozoic era, the current geological era that the Earth is in which began 66 million years ago. 

The study on this discovery was published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a scientific publication. 

Beneath a microscope, these tardigrades look like little water bears. They’re known for their ability to survive and thrive in extreme environments, which is why they’ve been around for so long. They’re no longer than one millimeter, have eight legs with claws at the end, a brain, nervous system, and a pharynx behind their mouth used to pierce food.

“All of these details are incredibly well preserved in the new fossil specimen, down to its tiny claws. The discovery of a fossil tardigrade is truly a once-in-a-generation event,” said Phil Barden, senior author of the study.

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“What is so remarkable is that tardigrades are a ubiquitous ancient lineage that has seen it all on Earth, from the fall of the dinosaurs to the rise of terrestrial colonization of plants. Yet, they are like a ghost lineage for paleontologists with almost no fossil record. Finding any tardigrade fossil remains is an exciting moment where we can empirically see their progression through Earth history,” Barden said.

The fossil will now allow scientists to observe all the evolutionary changes this species has endured within the past hundreds of millions of years. Javier Ortega-Hernandez, the study’s co-author, claimed that at first, they didn’t even notice the fossil in the piece of amber they collected. 

“It’s a faint speck in amber. In fact, Pdo. chronocaribbeus was originally an inclusion hidden in the corner of an amber piece with three different ant species that our lab had been studying, and it wasn’t spotted for months. Close observational analysis helped us determine where the new species belongs on the tardigrade family tree. The fact that we had to rely on imaging techniques usually reserved for cellular and molecular biology shows how challenging it is to study fossil tardigrades. We hope that this work encourages colleagues to look more closely at their amber samples with similar techniques to better understand these cryptic organisms,” Ortega-Hernández said in a statement. 

“We are just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding living tardigrade communities, especially in places like the Caribbean where they’ve not been surveyed. This study provides a reminder that, for as little as we may have in the way of tardigrade fossils, we also know very little about the living species on our planet today,” said Barden.

White Pill

Experts Are Hopeful Over Covid-19 Antiviral Pill, But Emphasize Vaccines Are Still Our Way Out Of The Pandemic 

Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics announced this past week that they created an antiviral pill that can reduce Covid-19 hospitalization and death by 50%. Experts believe this pill could be a “game-changer” in the way we treat Covid, however, they’re also emphasizing that this pill is not an alternative to getting vaccinated, and vaccinations against the coronavirus arte the most effective way Americans can bring this pandemic to an end. 

Over 255,000 Americans are becoming fully vaccinated every day, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 65% of Americans are now fully vaccinated. On the opposite end, the US surpassed 700,000 Covid-related deaths this week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The US is currently the world’s leader in Covid deaths. 

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“This new antiviral pill can be used in conjunction with the vaccine. And it’s not an alternative to vaccination. We still have to try to get more people vaccinated. The antiviral medicine could be effective for those who choose not to get vaccinated, as well as those who catch the virus while fully vaccinated,” explained Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. 

“This is the most impactful result that I remember seeing of an orally available drug in the treatment of a respiratory pathogen, perhaps ever. I think getting an oral pill that can inhibit viral replication — that can inhibit this virus — is going to be a real game-changer.”

Merck is now seeking FDA emergency use authorization for its medication, and if it’s permitted, it will become the first oral medicine that fights viral infection for Covid-19. 

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“If approved, I think the right way to think about this is; this is a potential additional tool in our toolbox to protect people from the worst outcomes of Covid. Inoculation remains our best tool against Covid-19 because the shots can prevent people from getting infected in the first place, and we want to prevent infections, not just wait to treat them once they happen,” White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said.

The FDA is also meeting with its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on October 14th and 15th to discuss booster shots for Americans who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

The FDA’s vaccine committee is also set to discuss approving Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. The company has already begun submitting data about that specific age group. 

Vaccine mandates are beginning to appear all throughout the country as well as a means of getting more Americans to receive their inoculations so the nation has an actual fighting chance at bringing this pandemic to an end.

Study Says Merck COVID-19 Pill Cuts Risks Of Hospitalization, Death In Half

According to results of a clinical trial released, an experimental COVID-19 pill known as molnupiravir could assist in cutting the chances of hospitalization or death for at-risk patients by up to 50%.

Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical company that developed the pill in partnership with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, announced in a press release that it is planning to submit an application for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Merck stated that it expects to produce 10 million courses of molnupiravir by the end of 2021, with more courses on the way in 2022.

Back in June, Merck announced a procurement agreement with the U.S. Government, where the company would supply 1.7 million molnupiravir courses at the cost of $1.2 billion. Merck is also discussing supply and purchase agreements with other governments worldwide.

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If the EUA is approved by the FDA, molnupiravir will be the first oral medicine made available to combat the risks of COVID-19. The pill will require a prescription, and is intended for those with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms.

ScienceDaily detailed how molnupiravir works, with the agent targeting the RNA genomes of the COVID-19 virus:

“When it [Molnupiravir] enters the cell, it is converted into RNA-like building blocks. In the first phase, the viral copying machine, called RNA polymerase, incorporates these building blocks into the RNA genome of the virus. However, unlike Remdesivir, which slows down the viral RNA polymerase, Molnupiravir does not directly interfere with the function of the copying machine. Instead, in the second phase, the RNA-like building blocks connect with the building blocks of the viral genetic material.”

Thanks to multiple mutations in the replications of viral RNA, pathogens are thus rendered unreproducible.

Merck noted that in their “MOVe-OUT” study, which consisted of 1,550 patients with varying COVID-19 symptoms and underlying conditions, only 7.3% of participants (28 out of 385) who received molnupiravir were hospitalized or died.

That number was significantly lower than the 14.1% of participants (53 out of 377) who were hospitalized or died while being treated with placebo. Additionally, no molnupiravir patients died through the 29th day, as opposed to eight placebo deaths.

Wendy Holman, the chief executive officer of Ridgeback, stressed how important it is to have a form of antiviral medicine that isn’t intertwined with healthcare facilities, which are currently swamped with COVID-19 related cases.

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According to Our World In Data, there are over 71,000 COVID-19 patients that are currently hospitalized in the United States. Despite hitting just around the 12,000s in July, the lowest hospitalization total in over a year, the U.S. saw that number skyrocket to nearly 99,000 in early September.

For a country that has dealt with wave after wave of the virus for months on end, it is hard not to be excited by the game-changing developments that molnupiravir could bring. It’s easy-to-obtain, practical nature could be attractive to those who have been hesitant of vaccination, or cannot take the vaccine for medical or personal reasons.

While vaccines remain the best method of protection against COVID-19, alternatives in any form are sorely needed in order to help speed up recovery processes and assist in preventing deadlier cases.

Merck and Ridgeback are not the only pharmaceuticals that have been developing COVID-19 oral drugs. Pfizer Inc., which started the first phase of their oral agent in March, is close to reporting clinical trial results, as is Swiss Roche Pharmaceuticals.

According to Retuers, Enanta Pharmaceuticals, Pardes Biosciences, and Japan-based Shionogi & Co. are all in the processes of producing oral treatments as well. Rest assured, there should be no shortage of medicine such as molnupiravir.

Doctor with Covid-19 Vaccine

BioNTech Co-Founder Says ‘Covid Will Become More Manageable’ In The Coming Months 

Co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, the German firm which developed a Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, Dr. Ozlem Tureci, told the media recently that the “world should not live in fear of the Covid-19 virus.”

“Covid will become more manageable. It already has started to become manageable, however, we will need to go back to a new normality, because this virus will accompany us for, still, some years.” 

Dr. Tureci explained that when it comes to new coronavirus variants, “BioNTech will continuously assess them as they appear, and there will be more. For all these variants which are currently circulating, it seems that boosters alone, bringing the waning immune responses back to high levels, are suitable and do protect.” 

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“However, we have to continue to screen because there might be variants upcoming for which this is not the case. And for this we have a second pillar, namely that we prepare ourselves to be quick and fast in the case that we need to adapt to a variant … And we are doing those dry runs, not alone, together with regulators, so that they are also prepared for the potential need to switch,” Tureci explained. 

Tureci co-founded BioNTech in 2008 with her husband, Chief Executive Ugar Sahin. She explained how more data is needed to guide us through the rest of the pandemic, but she can picture a future where boosters are given out every 12 to 18 months. 

BioNTech’s overall focus as a company is to “pioneer individualized immunotherapies for cancer medicine and using mRNA technology,” which is used to stimulate the body’s own immune response.

“So we had, already, the science and the knowledge about immune mechanisms and how they can be used against viruses and could leverage that. And the other pillar of our response was our technology, the mRNA technology, which allows [it] to be used as a vaccine format, which means it allows [it] to communicate with the immune system and teach it how to respond against this new enemy with high precision,” she explained. 

“And this technology, because we had used it in clinical trials in cancer patients, was already ripe. We knew how to conduct clinical trials with it, how to treat humans with it, and how to set up a manufacturing process,” she added.

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This extensive experience is what led the company to developing the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine within a year of the pandemic. When it comes to future vaccines for other diseases and viruses that impact the immune system, Tureci explained that there has been “high prioritization which was required for this global threat, but there were definitely lessons which could be learned and taken forward with future vaccines.” 

“There are a couple of things which, I think, if we transfer them into future drug developments can help us to be quicker. Also, for example, for non-pandemic infections, but also for cancer and autoimmune disease.”

Other vaccines currently circulating throughout the world, such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, are also being led by female scientists, which Tureci believes is “very important.” These high-profile examples of gender balance in science create an overall new standard for equality and representation in STEM fields that have been previously dominated by men. 

“I actually truly believe that one of the secrets why we have been successful as a team and as a company is that we are a gender-balanced team. Almost half of our workforce is female and also on the top management level, half of our teams are female,” she explained.

“However, what I also realize is that in our teams we don’t recruit women because we want to fulfil any gender quota, it comes naturally … And it simply turns out that half of them are women,” she said.

Dr. Fauci Claims It May Take ‘Many More Vaccine Mandates’ To End Covid-19 Pandemic

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently spoke about the current rate of vaccination in America, claiming that millions of Americans still need to get their vaccinations in order to slow or stop the spread of Covid-19.

‘The Acrobats Of The Skunk World,’ Scientists Discover Handstanding Spotted Skunks

Scientists have recently discovered that there are more spotted skunk species than initially thought. Initially, it was agreed that there were four different species of spotted skunk, but according to the Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution scientific journal, there are seven spotted skunk species. 

“North America is one of the most-studied continents in terms of mammals, and carnivores are one of the most-studied groups. Everyone thinks we know everything about mammalian carnivore systematics, so being able to redraw the skunk family tree is very exciting,” said study author Adam Ferguson.

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Spotted skunks are smaller than their striped relatives; about the size of a squirrel. They live all throughout North America and are carnivores. When it comes time to scare off a predator, these skunks perform a handstand and kick out their back legs as a form of intimidation.

“When they’re stressed, they bounce up onto their forelimbs and then kick out their hind limbs, puff their tail up, and they actually can walk towards the predator, basically making them look bigger and scarier. These ‘ecologically cryptic’ creatures live in dense environments and remote areas and seem less adaptable to urbanization than their larger, striped counterparts, Ferguson said.

Spotted skunks keep such a low profile that it makes them hard to study. The first spotted skunk was discovered in 1758, and since then there have been 6 potential other skunk species. Ferguson explained how they determined there were seven kinds of spotted skunks after analyzing data and observing them in their natural habitat. 

Ferguson and his team went to Mexico six times, and never caught a spotted skunk, but if they did they likely would’ve had a smelly surprise waiting for them. 

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“We call it the smell of success because it means we’ve actually encountered one, which is the ultimate goal. I was inspired to make ‘wanted’ posters and distribute them across central Texas in feed stores and areas where ranchers and trappers operate. The posters described the need for any spotted skunks that may have been trapped or found as roadkill and showed photos of the creatures,” he explained. 

The researchers also analyzed museum collection specimens to give them a greater understanding of their evolution and history. 

“I was able to extract DNA from century-old museum samples, and it was really exciting to see who those individuals were related to. It turns out that one of those was a currently unrecognized, endemic species in the Yucatan,” said study author Molly McDonough.

“The study wouldn’t have been possible without the museum specimens we had. The only reason we were able to get sequences from the more recent spotted skunk discoveries were museum specimens that were collected 60 or 70 years ago,” Ferguson said.

Skunks originally appeared in fossil records some 25 million years ago, and during that time they evolved and split into different species due to climate change and the ice age. 

“Knowing more about spotted skunks can also help conservation efforts to protect these animals. Skunks have their own role to play within the ecosystem, consuming fruit and defecating seeds that help with the dispersal of plants, as well as preying on crop pests and rodents,” Ferguson said.

White House Discussing Covid-19 Booster Shot Plan Amid New CDC Data

Top Biden administration health officials have decided that most Americans will need Covid-19 booster shots after reviewing a new set of data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The data showed a drop in vaccine efficacy over time after several months of observation and collection. 

Federal scientists who performed the research claim that a resurgence in Covid-19 cases has been caused by the spreading of the more contagious Delta variant, as well as a lack of individuals choosing to get vaccinated. 

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The Biden administration is now expected to formally announce a strategy plan for rolling out booster shots as well as new health and safety procedures to get America’s infection rate back down. 

The government is not expected to offer third shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines until mid-September at the very earliest. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must first authorize the booster shots, and it’s likely that the CDC will formally recommend that everyone gets one eight months after completing their initial vaccination round. 

As of right now the plan doesn’t call for boosters for recipients of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but federal officials are currently awaiting results of a study on that vaccine and the effectiveness of administering a second booster shot. 

Officials at the CDC have been skeptical within the past few months over whether or not booster shots would be necessary for vaccinated Americans. However, health officials all over the country working on the front lines in hospitals and ICU units have been calling for a more efficient vaccination plan or the implementation of another lockdown to slow the spread of Covid and its variants. 

Data from a study in Israel showed that Pfizer’s efficacy declined for older individuals who received their shots in January when they were first made available. The CDC had similar findings that provided them all they needed to make a recommendation for booster shots. 

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It’s expected that the administration’s emerging booster plan will rely on 100 million doses of both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines. The government has also contracted for an additional 400 million shots to be distributed once an official announcement is made, according to two senior officials working in the White House. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged developed countries to hold off on all booster shots until more lower-income countries get access to their initial supplies of the vaccines. 

“Administration of booster doses will exacerbate inequalities by driving up demand and consuming scarce supply while priority populations in some countries, or subnational settings, have not yet received a primary vaccination series.”

Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who also served on the Biden transition Covid-19 advisory board, is one of many health experts who also is against booster shots due to the fact that so many countries around the world are still vulnerable and unvaccinated.

“It’s really inequitable and it’s not in our interest because you’re leaving much of the world unprotected, where you’re going to have the emergence of other variants. I feel like this is very short-term thinking. It’s very individualistic, nationalist thinking.” 

A formal plan from the White House is likely to be released to the public this week regarding a booster shot plan and any new procedures America should implement to slow the spread of the virus.

Bottled Water

Bottled Water Impacts The Environment ‘3,500 Times Greater Than Tap Water,’ Research Shows 

Scientists have found that the impact of bottled water on natural resources is 3,500 times higher than for tap water. 

The research specifically examined the impact of bottled water in Barcelona, where the demand for single-use bottled water has increased in popularity in recent years despite the city’s improvements to their tap water quality. 

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The Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) found that if the city’s entire population drank bottled water, the city would be paying 3,500 times more on resource extraction than if they all drank tap water; it costs about $83.9 million a year. 

The impact of bottled water on ecosystems is also 1,400 greater than tap water. 

The lead author of the study, the ISGlobal researcher Cristina Villanueva, said: “Health reasons don’t justify the wide use of bottled water. Yes, strictly speaking, drinking tap water is worse for local health, but when you weigh both, what you gain from drinking bottled water is minimal. 

“It’s quite obvious that the environmental impacts of bottled water are higher compared to tap water.”

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In the US, about 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce the plastic needed to meet the annual bottled water demand. Bottled water in the UK is also 500 times more expensive than tap water. 

“I think this study can help to reduce bottled water consumption, but we need more active policies to change that.”

“For example, in Barcelona, we could have more education campaigns to make the public aware that the health gains from drinking bottled water are minor compared to the environmental impacts. We need to improve access to public water, to public fountains, to public buildings where you can bring your own bottle and don’t need to buy one,” Villanueva explained. 

“We need to facilitate access to public water in public streets. People trust bottled water because advertisers have done a good job of convincing people it’s a good option, so we need the effort on the other side.”