Why Europe’s Space Agency Is Spending $103 Million to Remove a Single Piece of Space Junk

Conceptual image of the ClearSpace-1 mission.

Conceptual image of the ClearSpace-1 mission.
Image: ESA

The European Space Agency has signed a historic deal with Swiss startup ClearSpace to remove a single item of space debris in 2025. The $103 million price tag is steep, but this mission—involving an orbiting, mouth-like net—could herald the beginning of an entirely new space industry.

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The new contract, announced late last week, is unique in that the mission will involve “the first removal of an item of space debris from orbit,” according to ESA. ClearSpace, a spin-off of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), is the commercial provider for this mission, and it will seek the help of partners in Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Poland, and several other European countries.

The target in question is the Vega Secondary Payload Adapter (or Vespa), which has been circling in low Earth orbit (LEO) since 2013. This 247-pound (112-kilogram) payload adapter successfully dispatched a Proba-V satellite to space, but, like so many other items in LEO, it currently serves no purpose, presenting a potential hazard to functioning satellites and possibly even the International Space Station.

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Archival image from 2013 showing the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) adapter in the background, with the Proba-V satellite in the foreground.

Archival image from 2013 showing the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) adapter in the background, with the Proba-V satellite in the foreground.
Image: ESA – Karim Mellab

€86 million (USD $103 million) seems like an awful lot of money to spend on the removal of a single item of space debris, but ESA is making an important investment. The technology required for the ClearSpace-1 mission, in which a spacecraft will “rendezvous, capture, and bring down” the Vespa payload adapter, will likely be leveraged in similar future missions (assuming this particular strategy will work). Ultimately, ESA is hoping to launch “a new commercial sector in space.”

The ClearSpace solution will involve a spacecraft and conical net that will “eat” the Vespa payload adapter. This will require unimaginable precision, as the objects will be traveling at speeds reaching 17,400 miles per hour (28,000 km/hr). Slight miscalculations could make the target object bounce out before the net can close or even cause a serious collision. With its cargo secured, the ClearSpace spacecraft will fall into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up on re-entry.

According to ESA, the number of debris objects currently being tracked is now at about 22,300. With each added item, the chance of a collision increases, making LEO a dangerous place for satellites and astronauts. Removing this debris “has become necessary and is our responsibility to ensure that tomorrow’s generations can continue benefiting from space infrastructures and exploration,” according to to ClearSpace, adding that ClearSpace-1 will “demonstrate the technical ability and commercial capacity to significantly enhance the long-term sustainability of spaceflight.”

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ClearSpace has its conical net, but several other companies are developing their own concepts. RemoveDEBRIS, for example, uses a harpoon to snatch wayward objects in orbit. Only time will tell which strategy works best, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that solutions are coming. The time has come for us to clean up our mess.

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Moderna to Ask FDA for Emergency Authorization of Covid-19 Vaccine on Monday

Nurse Jessica Franz walks past a mobile morgue at Olathe Medical Center on Nov. 26, 2020, in Olathe, Kansas.

Nurse Jessica Franz walks past a mobile morgue at Olathe Medical Center on Nov. 26, 2020, in Olathe, Kansas.
Photo: Charlie Riedel (AP)

Biotech company Moderna will ask for an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its covid-19 vaccine on Monday, according to a new press release posted to the firm’s website. Moderna also released new information indicating its messenger RNA-based vaccine has a 94.1% efficacy rate in a study of 30,000 people—encouraging news for Americans still struggling with an uncontrolled pandemic. Moderna said it will also seek approval with the European Medicines Agency.

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“This positive primary analysis confirms the ability of our vaccine to prevent Covid-19 disease with 94.1% efficacy and importantly, the ability to prevent severe Covid-19 disease,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement. “We believe that our vaccine will provide a new and powerful tool that may change the course of this pandemic and help prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death.”

Just 196 people in the latest Moderna trial contracted the coronavirus, with 185 of those cases occurring in the group who received a placebo rather than the actual experimental vaccine. None of the 11 people who received the vaccine but still contracted the virus showed signs of severe illness, whereas there were 30 cases of severe illness in the placebo group, including one person who died.

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Moderna’s vaccine requires two doses spaced about one month apart. Reported side effects included “injection site pain, fatigue, myalgia [muscle pain], arthralgia [joint pain], headache, and erythema/redness at the injection site,” according to the company.

There are two other high-profile vaccines being produced in the U.S. and Europe, including another mRNA vaccine from U.S.-based Pfizer developed with the German firm BioNTech. Pfizer, whose vaccine is reportedly 95% effective based on early data, is scheduled to give a presentation to the FDA on December 10, according to the Associated Press. Moderna will likely give its presentation the following week.

AstraZeneca has also developed a vaccine in the UK with Oxford University that’s not based on the newer mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and while AstraZeneca’s shot remains encouraging for its relative low cost and ease-of-storage, new concerns have been raised over transparency and the company’s clinical trials. It was only revealed late last week that some of the findings in AstraZeneca’s latest trial had been the result of errors in dosing rather than intentional scientific effort. Many experts were stunned when AstraZeneca found its vaccine worked better when study participants only received a half dose and then a full dose. This anomaly was encouraging but hard to explain, and it raised even more questions when it was later revealed on an investor phone call that the half dose had been given by mistake.

The U.S. recorded over 131,000 new cases of covid-19 and 790 new deaths on Sunday, numbers that are probably artificially low because of delays in data reporting due to the holiday weekend, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The number of Americans currently hospitalized with covid-19 reached a record high of 93,238 yesterday.

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If FDA quickly gives authorization to Moderna’s vaccine, there are still a lot of questions about who will get the vaccines first. Top priority will be medical professionals like doctors and nurses who are treating covid-19 patients, but the White House hasn’t publicly articulated a plan for which group will be second, an important question for everyday Americans.

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a regular on TV news shows, brought up this point of who may get the shot after health care workers on Sunday and said that it’s not clear whether priority will be given to the elderly or to so-called essential workers. If the goal is to limit the spread of the virus, it should go to essential workers, Gottlieb told CBS News host Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation.” But if the goal is to save lives immediately, elderly Americans should be the first to receive the vaccine.

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“There’s only going to be 40 million doses available throughout the whole month of December if both companies get authorized on time,” Gottlieb said about the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, noting that there won’t be enough vaccine for many people beyond health workers in that first batch.

“There’s about 85 million essential workers who might be eligible to be vaccinated if you— if you bifurcate it to that group. And there’s about 50 million people over the age of 65, 20 million over the age of 75,” Gottlieb continued. “And so that’s going to be some debate about which group gets prioritized first.”

It’s tough to decide who should get priority during a pandemic, but health care workers are already in the unenviable decision of doing precisely that as the number of cases and deaths continue to rise with each passing day. While hotspots of infection are slowing down, however modestly, in places like the Midwest, other parts of the country are seeing a disturbing rise in new cases and hospitalizations, including the West and the Northeast.

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In California, for example, the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 has doubled since November 12, going from roughly 4,000 to 8,000 patients, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The vaccine simply can’t get here fast enough.

Seemingly Ordinary Fossils May Be Hiding Some Major Clues to the Past

Detail of a partially decalcified Allosaurus bone fossil at Yale Peabody Museum.

Detail of a partially decalcified Allosaurus bone fossil at Yale Peabody Museum.
Photo: Jasmina Wiemann

Paleontologists are lucky to find complete sets of fossilized bones. Sometimes, they get even luckier, finding preserved impressions of delicate features like feathers. Beyond those clues, though, most of the biology of extinct species—their DNA, internal organs, and unique chemistry—has been totally destroyed by the many millions of years that separate us. Except, what if it hasn’t? Some scientists now claim they can tease much more complex biological information out of apparently mundane fossils, including things that most paleontologists don’t expect to survive over millions of years, such as skin and eggshell.

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Molecular paleobiologist Jasmina Wiemann has been on the forefront of this exciting research since 2018, co-authoring papers that reveal elements of fossils that cannot be immediately seen with our eyes but can be detected through a series of complex chemical and statistical analyses. Her recent paper, published this summer with Jason Crawford and Derek Briggs, builds upon other, similar research from the past two years. She and her co-authors claim they can determine the chemical signatures of skin, bone, teeth, and eggshell. Even better, they can train anyone else in the field within approximately 20 minutes to find these ancient traces using their techniques. It’s an opportunity they hope will be widely used within museum collections the world over.

Consider that most museums only display a small percentage of the fossils they have in their collection. Those fossils chosen for display are either partially complete skeletons or fossils that are readily recognizable to the general public. What remains in many collections’ storage rooms are shelves upon shelves of the rest: the less-flashy fossils that nonetheless offer insight into ancient life. What if they all could be tested for hidden biomarkers?

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Fossilized dinosaur cells, blood vessel, and bone matrix.

Fossilized dinosaur cells, blood vessel, and bone matrix.
Image: Jasmina Wiemann

It takes a specific set of circumstances for something to survive thousands of years, much less millions. And if it does become fossilized, think about the incredible pressure and heat it undergoes over eons. While it’s remarkable that bones and other hard tissues survive, it is currently assumed that less hardy structures, such as cells, blood vessels, skin, and their molecular building blocks, will not, especially after hundreds of millions of years.

Biomolecules—the chemical building blocks for which these scientists search—are the molecules that make up all animal tissues: proteins, lipids, and sugars. The specific fossilization products of biomolecules indicate to which kind of animal a fossil tissue once belonged, if it was biomineralized, and exactly what type of tissue it represents.

“Until now, it was assumed that biological signals preserved in modern biomolecules were lost during fossilization,” explained Wiemann in a phone interview. “Our study represents the very first exploration of original biosignatures in complex, fossil organic matter. Contrary to previous targeted analyses, we wanted to objectively explore if there are any signals preserved and what they can actually tell us about a fossil organism.”

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In other words, rather than search for a specific molecule on one particular fossil, they wanted to determine what molecules—if any—were on the sample set of fossils they explored. What they consistently discovered was that traces of certain ancient molecules survived, chemically altered but still distinct. The team could identify different types of molecular fossils, and they could interpret their biological meaning.

“When we published our first paper on molecular preservation in 2018, we found evidence not only of the fossilized products of lipids, as previously reported, but also of the fossilization products of proteins and sugars,” Wiemann said. “This was a surprise to the field, and a very bold claim back then, especially because many previous case studies on fossil organic matter were affected by sample contamination. Now, two years later, our results have been reproduced multiple times by different laboratories, adding independent support to the fossilization potential of biomolecules through chemical transformation.”

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Wiemann brings a different perspective to paleontology. At the age of 15, she won a scholarship in Germany to study chemistry, which enabled her to complete degrees in geosciences and evolutionary biology before attending Yale University, where she is currently a PhD candidate. In the past two years, she has discovered egg color in dinosaurs, contributed to research offering further evidence that the Tully Monster (Tullimonstrum) is a vertebrate, and helped reveal evidence that soft-shelled eggs evolved in dinosaurs before calcified eggshells. Translating the ancient chemical properties associated with those fossils was her role. As she explained, “I develop molecular proxies for all kinds of evolutionary topics to unlock information otherwise inaccessible to paleontologists.”

Wiemann was one of 16 students chosen to present research for the Romer Prize at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists. Her presentation, titled “Fossil Biomolecules Reveal the Physiology and Paleobiology of Extinct Amniotes,” described the method she has developed using Raman spectroscopy to ascertain fossil biomolecules and how this can be applied to greater understanding of extinct animals in deep time. While her talk didn’t win, “the committee was definitely impressed by the quality of her work,” wrote Kenneth Angielczyk, chair of the Romer Prize Committee, in an email to Gizmodo.

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“A background in chemistry provides you with a different approach to complex problems: Molecules are invisible to the naked eye, so it often takes a certain degree of creativity and transfer of knowledge from related sciences to fully understand how reactions operate,” Wiemann said.

The field of paleontology has been around for over 200 years, and, in that time, we’ve grown from simply finding bones and determining what they are to learning how those animals died, what they ate, what diseases they had, studying tissues within the bone, tracing genetics, and learning more about the subtle aspects of evolution. Each generation has built upon the work of those that came before it. And every now and then, there are substantial leaps in our understanding—technology and insights that take our breath away.

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Magnified image of the extracellular matrix from an Allosaurus fragilis vertebra. The originally collagenous matrix fibers are preserved, and osteocytes (bone cells) with filipodia are dark and infilled.

Magnified image of the extracellular matrix from an Allosaurus fragilis vertebra. The originally collagenous matrix fibers are preserved, and osteocytes (bone cells) with filipodia are dark and infilled.
Image: Wiemann et al/Nature Communications 2018

The assertion that proteins, lipids, and sugars may indeed survive beyond the estimated 3.8 million years currently accepted by science—and that this research can be applied to any fossil in any collection—is astounding. The implications of what we might learn could change the face of paleontology. This is particularly the case for fossils that are incomplete or that don’t preserve the telltale forms that tell us about the kind of species it might have been.

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Consider the controversial, 300-million-year-old Tully Monster fossil: a unique-looking organism that has prompted debate since it was formally described in 1966. Traces of soft tissues discovered through the chemical analysis of Victoria McCoy, Wiemann, and their co-authors match those of vertebrate tissues, adding further proof to the indication it was a jawless, soft-bodied vertebrate rather than an invertebrate. And while the collection of Protoceratops fossil embryos discovered in Mongolia contain no visible eggshells, the work of Mark Norell, Wiemann, and colleagues provides evidence that they were once encased in soft-shelled eggs. These structures, reduced now to microscopic traces, wouldn’t be known without such scientific and technological progress.

Paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor is delighted by the research that illuminated the soft-shelled fossil eggs. She refers to the most recent paper by Wiemann and colleagues as a “methods paper”—a description of how this research was accomplished and how others might be able to replicate it.

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“This is an example of the kind of exciting information that can be extracted with these methods,” O’Connor wrote in an email to Gizmodo, referencing the soft-shelled eggs unseen to our eyes. “This discovery is huge and makes so many oddities suddenly make sense (why eggshells are so different between different dinosaur lineages and why certain lineages have no known eggs in the fossil record). Here she [and her team are] expanding it to a great range of fossil tissues and showing that there is a detectable phylogenetic signal in the biomolecular residues.”

“There are many things in their papers that I find quite intriguing and that I think are really worth wrestling with,” Evan Saitta, research associate at the Field Museum in Chicago, said by phone. “I think it brings the debate up to a much higher level.”

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With bold new claims, however, comes skepticism.

The biggest controversies surrounding this work are that it challenges three long-standing scientific premises: one, that ancient tissues are largely not expected to survive fossilization; two, that the oxidative environments from which the fossils studied by Wiemann originated are not necessarily conducive to preservation; and three, that the chances of microbial contamination (or “biofilm”) on any fossil is high, therefore making contamination unavoidable.

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“What’s radical about this model is that they’re suggesting organic preservation in highly oxidized environments, because those are the environments that promote this sort of chemistry,” Saitta said. “This is quite a departure, not only from what we understand in geology, where we tend to associate high organic content with low oxygen, but also in terms of bioarchaeology and the chemistry of much more recent bones. What we know from that work is that there is a breakdown and depletion of the original organic material in the bone, and, simultaneously, an increase in contamination from the surrounding environment over time.”

In other words, we often look to environments with low oxygen content as ideal locations for fossil preservation. Oxygen-rich environments are generally associated with decay. But that is not what Wiemann and colleagues are suggesting in this paper, offering a window into new possible worlds of geological preservation.

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For other paleontologists, there are concerns that only one technology—Raman microspectroscopy—was used to determine the biomolecules. To be clear, Raman spectroscopy is incredibly complex on its own. The method was developed by physicist Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman in 1928, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1930. In the most basic terms, a laser excites the molecules on the surface of any type of sample such that they vibrate and produce scattered light. Chemical bonds alter that light in ways that enable scientists to interpret what they are.

Paleontologist and professor at North Carolina State University Mary Schweitzer has recently started using Raman technology in her studies. She, too, has made bold claims in paleontology, including being the first to discover evidence of blood vessels and soft tissues in dinosaur fossils.

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“Raman is a good method to detect functional groups or the presence of amide bonds, which are indeed consistent with proteins,” she wrote in an email. “But amide bonds may also be found in glues, consolidants (commonly applied in the field during recovery), biofilm, embedding medium if the fossil has been sectioned, and many other compounds, or as the result of normal lab contamination.”

Using Raman spectroscopy alone, she said, is not enough to determine whether complex organic chemical compounds from an extinct creature—original biomolecules including proteins—are indeed present.

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Professor of physics Hans Hallen, also at NC State University and Schweitzer’s collaborator, has been working with Raman spectroscopy since the 1990s. He said his biggest concern is that “it looks like they’re subtracting out some of the real Raman signal with their adaptive baseline technique,” he said in a phone interview. Put another way, “they’re going to be underestimating the Raman signal because they subtracted part of it as baseline.”

“If I was to summarize, I’d say that this is a new approach to doing very hard science,” Hallen said. “But no matter what technique you use, it’s going to be hard. Raman is a good technique, but it’s not without its issues.”

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One common concern was that other techniques, such as chromatography, mass spectrometry, and resonance Raman, were not also employed to confirm biosignals of ancient molecules. Chromatography and mass spectrometry, however, both require the destruction of the fossil to obtain information. And “there are only a few setups in the world that can use tunable deep-UV excitation for resonance Raman,” said Hallen, who added, “I happen to have one of them.”

Most universities, by contrast, do have access to standard Raman spectroscopy, and it is a non-destructive method. That accessibility and the preservation of the fossils themselves were important to Wiemann and her co-authors.

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Moreover, Wiemann countered, concern with relying solely on Raman spectroscopy had already been addressed in a paper she and her colleagues published a year ago. Were this technology a new process, questions about its efficacy might be warranted. But it’s a method that has been used extensively in multiple fields since the 1970s.

Other labs, she explained in an email, have successfully used Raman spectroscopy to find biomolecules and have confirmed them using other methods. She cites recent papers offering evidence of possible blood vessels found in a T. rex fossil, evidence of tail feathers in a theropod fossil discovered in China, and one that suggests these chemical traces may indeed survive the intense pressures fossils undergo over millions of years.

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Regarding concerns of contamination, Wiemann and her team specifically tested for the similarity of molecular signatures in fossil soft tissues and polyacrylamide glues in their most recent studies, demonstrating that fossil organic matter—at least in the analyzed specimens—is not the result of contamination.

“The problem is, very few people can truly understand her work,” O’Connor wrote. “I know from Jasmina’s perspective, this is simple chemistry, and us paleo people just don’t have a good enough understanding of chemistry to comment or to criticize (and it must be frustrating for her to deal with us!).”

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Paleontologists who would be more apt to understand this level of science are organic geochemists. One such organic geochemist, Gordon Love, a professor of Earth sciences at UC Riverside, has been studying ancient lipids that make up part of the structures in living cells. The study of these lipids, he explained, is not new. The search for ancient lipid biomarkers has been employed by the oil and gas industry for at least four decades—a way to find the rocks that produce the natural gas and oil used for fuel.

One aspect of this research that surprised Love was the preservation differences between the fossils examined and the rock in which they were found, specifically in the over 500-million-year-old examples from the Burgess Shale. He wonders how much phylogenetic information—clues that point to the evolutionary history of a species—can be determined by ancient molecules derived from proteins in fossils of that age but said he is eager to see what further research will bring.

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“I do not think the support for a phylogenetic signature in the data is particularly strong relative to the biomineral signature,” Saitta said, referring to the ability to use Wiemann’s technique to determine what species belong where on the family tree. “But if the phylogenetic signature is genuine, that would actually be, in my opinion, really, really strong evidence that a lot of these organics are from the original fossil.”

“I like their approach and think it has merits, because precious samples are not destroyed by the analyses undertaken,” wrote organic geochemist of paleontology Professor Kliti Grice of Curtin University. “However, this is only one approach—I think their data could be complimented and by using molecular geochemistry on some samples carried out in parallel, as there is an untapped archive of molecular information, especially in fossils that are exceptionally well preserved in concretions.”

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That Wiemann and her collaborators might be able to unlock secrets within fossils and be able to train others to do so offers incredible potential for our understanding of life on this planet.

“I hope that in the future,” Wiemann said, “scientists interested in animal relationships, the evolution of physiological innovations, and animal tissue types will explore molecular biosignatures to complement anatomical insights from fossils. Molecular data have the potential to provide completely new perspectives on the history of life, and might be the key to go beyond the current limitations of the fossil record.”

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An easily taught, cost-effective, non-destructive technique that could potentially offer new insight into species millions of years old? It’s like getting a key to the biggest library: a wealth of untapped information. It could, both literally and figuratively, flesh out ancient beings, and it has the potential to breathe fresh energy into museum collections the world over.


Jeanne Timmons (@mostlymammoths) is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire who blogs about paleontology and archaeology at mostlymammoths.wordpress.com.

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Neanderthals Didn’t Use Their Thumbs Like We Do, New Research Suggests

Reconstructions of a Neanderthal man and woman.

Reconstructions of a Neanderthal man and woman.
Photo: Martin Meissner (AP)

An analysis of Neanderthal hand bones suggests these extinct humans possessed thumbs better suited for power grips, as opposed to precision grips, which could mean they used their hands differently than we do.

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Researchers have found key physical differences in the thumbs of Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens), which suggests the two species used their hands in different ways. The finding, as described in Scientific Reports, potentially speaks to behavioral differences in the two species, though this could be tough to prove.

Technically speaking, Neanderthals were humans, but they exhibited some key characteristics that, if they were around today, would make them stand out in a crowd. Neanderthals were a bit shorter and thicker than early modern humans, and they had a wide nose with large nostrils. They also had weak chins and prominent brow ridges. Their hands were also bigger than ours, and as the new research points out, Neanderthal hands didn’t work in exactly the same ways as ours, either.

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“If you were to shake a Neanderthal hand you would notice this difference,” Ameline Bardo, a postdoctoral research associate from the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, explained in an email. “There would be confusion over where to place the thumb, and for a thumb fight I think you would win in terms of speed and movement.”

Good to know.

More practically, the thumbs of Neanderthals were better suited for squeeze grips—like the way we hold a hammer when we’re bringing it down. Specifically, we use these power grips, as they’re also called, to hold tools or other objects between our fingers and the palm, while the thumb is used to direct force. Neanderthals didn’t have hammers with handles, but these power grips were probably useful when hafting stone tools, or when gripping stones to use as hammers.

At the same time, this possibly means that precision grips—in which objects are held between the tip of the finger and thumb—may have been more challenging for Neanderthals. Challenging, but not impossible. As contradictory research from 2018 shows, Neanderthals did apply precision grips when doing manual work. What the new research suggests, however, is that precision gripping wasn’t very comfortable for Neanderthals, and that they may have been more inclined towards power gripping. Unfortunately, we can’t travel back in time and see for ourselves, so this will likely remain a healthy debate amongst archaeologists and anthropologists for the foreseeable future.

That said, and as Bardo explained in her email, their “hand anatomy and the archaeological record makes abundantly clear that Neanderthals were very intelligent, sophisticated tool users and used many of the same tools that contemporary modern humans did.”

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Previous research in this area showed how the shapes of Neanderthal thumb bones varied in relation to those of modern humans, but these bones were studied in isolation. Bardo and her colleagues sought to learn how Neanderthal hand bones actually moved through time and space, which they did by 3D mapping the joints between the bones responsible for making thumb movements.

Specifically, the researchers looked at the trapeziometacarpal complex. Even more specifically, they looked at the trapezium (the wrist bone at base of thumb) and the proximal end of the metacarpal (the first bone in the thumb that joins at the wrist). They analyzed how changes in the shape or position of one bone influenced the shape or position of another.

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For the analysis, the scientists studied the fossilized remains of five Neanderthal individuals (admittedly a small sample size), which were compared to bones from five early modern humans and 50 recent modern individuals. Results pointed to a “favored thumb position” in Neanderthals that was characteristically different from ours.

As the new paper points out, the joint at the base of the Neanderthal thumb is flatter than ours, and with a smaller contact surface. This “is better suited to an extended thumb positioned alongside the side of the hand,” according to Bardo, leading to grips that were advantageous for the use of some tools, such as spears and scrapers— tools used for hunting. A disadvantage of the Neanderthal anatomy is that it limited strong precision grips, such as using a small flake to cut meat, she explained.

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In modern humans, these joint surfaces tend to be more curved, which is better for gripping objects between the pads of the finger and thumb, i.e. the precision grip.

This variation among the two species is “likely the result of genetic and/or developmental differences, but may also reflect, in part, differing functional requirements imposed by the use of varied tool-kits,” explained Bardo. “Indeed, the variation we found among modern humans and Neanderthals may reflect different habitual activities with their hands across individuals within each species.”

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Again, we can’t know for sure, and this new paper will likely rekindle a debate on the matter.

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What we can say, however, is that Neanderthals were successful for an extended period of time, appearing some 400,000 years ago, and becoming extinct around 45,000 years ago (and for reasons we still don’t really understand). Neanderthals were also crafty, as they created their own jewelry, made cave paintings, decorated themselves with feathers, and used the lissoir—a specialized bone—for working through tough animal hides.

If precision grips were tough for Neanderthals, we certainly wouldn’t know it from the cultural archaeological record they left behind.

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Satellite Photos Show Gigantic Iceberg Possibly Drifting Away From Ecologically Sensitive Island

Will it or won’t it? New satellite photos show the iceberg’s latest movements.

Will it or won’t it? New satellite photos show the iceberg’s latest movements.
Image: Copernicus Sentinel-1/ESA

Iceberg A68a—currently the world’s largest iceberg—is rotating and possibly moving in a westerly direction away from South Georgia Island, according to new satellite photos. This is potentially good news, as the enormous chunk of ice appeared to be on a collision course with the wildlife-filled island.

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A series of photos captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission show iceberg A68a’s movements from November 15 to 25. The iceberg, which calved from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf in July 2017, is now 158 miles (255 km) from South Georgia Island, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

Iceberg A68a appears to be moving in a westerly direction, away from South Georgia island.
Gif: Copernicus Sentinel-1/ESA

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The iceberg, which is hilariously shaped like a pointing finger, appears to be “rotating and potentially drifting westwards” away from the island, according to the ESA. Importantly, this is no guarantee, however, that the fickle currents in the South Ocean won’t redirect A68a back towards South Georgia, but hey, we could all use some good news right now.

Several weeks ago, A68a was several hundred miles southwest of the island, prompting concerns of a potential collision.

Iceberg movement tracks from 1999 to 2010.

Iceberg movement tracks from 1999 to 2010.
Graphic: NASA/Scatterometer Climate Record Pathfinder

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Indeed, such a scenario would not be ideal for the many animals living on or near the island. Iceberg A68a is currently the world’s largest iceberg at 1,873 square miles (4,850 square km), but it’s actually quite shallow, measuring around 650 feet (200 meters) deep. Should A68a get close to South Georgia, the iceberg would likely clear the shallow seafloor around the island and come to rest along the shore.

Should a collision happen, the iceberg—which is larger than Rhode Island—would wreak havoc on the local wildlife. The gigantic block of ice would potentially block the foraging routes of penguins and seals and disrupt their breeding patterns. The iceberg would also smother the seafloor, crushing animals and plants on the bottom. A grounded iceberg of this size could linger for upwards of 10 years, according to officials with the British Antarctic Survey.

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Fingers are crossed that we’re seeing a trend here, as A68a starts to move west, and hopefully northwards, where it would eventually melt in the warmer waters. But as history shows (check out the graphic above, showing iceberg movements around Antarctica from 1999 to 2010) , icebergs in this part of the world tend to have a mind of their own.

South Georgia island isn’t in the clear just yet.

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‘Feedback Loop’ in Central East Asia Threatens Disturbing Changes to Mongolia’s Climate

Tree-rings from the Siberian larch (pictured) and other species show that heatwaves and soil drying are accelerating in the Mongolian Plateau, according to new research.

Tree-rings from the Siberian larch (pictured) and other species show that heatwaves and soil drying are accelerating in the Mongolian Plateau, according to new research.
Image: Ken Shono, Unsplash

A review of weather patterns in inner East Asia over the past 260 years suggests the region is currently caught in a dangerous cycle of heatwaves and droughts that could forever reshape the area, and possibly turn the Mongolian Plateau into an arid wasteland.

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New research published today in Science is painting an alarming picture of the current climate situation in inner East Asia. Contemporaneous heatwaves and droughts in the region are happening more often now than they did 20 years ago, but as the new study points out, the current climate situation in the region has no precedent over the past 260 years. The authors of the new paper reached this conclusion after analyzing tree-rings, which document droughts and heatwaves dating back to the mid-18th century.

This is bad because the region will be even more susceptible to hot and dry weather extremes. The Mongolian Plateau is currently a semi-arid region, but it may not stay that way. The kind of climate that’s being predicted, in which the region will suffer though even more heatwaves and droughts, could make the region as dry and barren as parts of the U.S. southwest, according to the study.

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By analyzing tree-rings sourced from the Mongolian Plateau, the researchers were able to tell when heatwaves and droughts happened in the past, and when the soil was moist. Results showed that current temperatures in inner East Asia are unprecedented across the 260-year record.

“The conifer trees respond strongly to anomalously high temperatures,” Linderholm said. “By examining their growth rings, we can see their response to the recent heatwaves, and we can see that they do not appear to have experienced anything like this in their very long lives,” Hans Linderholm, a study co-author and climatologist from the University of Gothenburg, explained in a statement prepared by Utah State University.

Like the words in a book: A cross-section of Scots pine, one of several tree species used in the study.

Like the words in a book: A cross-section of Scots pine, one of several tree species used in the study.
Image: Peng Zhang

The current problem has to do with excessive soil drying. Well, technically the problem has to do with anthropogenic climate change, but you know what I mean.

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Evaporation produced by wet soil cools the air immediately above the surface. Without moisture, however, heat transfers directly into the air about the ground. This creates a negative feedback loop: high temperatures are boosted by soil drying, but as the soil dries out this leads to even more heat. As to where this ends, “we cannot say,” said Deliang Chen, a co-author and researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Hyungjun Kim, a co-author and climate scientist at the University of Tokyo, said the process could lead to the triggering of “an irreversible feedback loop” that could accelerate the region “toward a hotter and drier future.”

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This could eventually lead past an irreversible tipping point that would move the region into a permanent state of aridness. And in fact, we may have already passed this tipping point, as the “semi-arid climate of this region has entered a new regime in which soil moisture no longer mitigates anomalously high air temperature,” as the authors wrote in the study.

There are other warning signs to be aware of. Research from China suggests lakes are dwindling in size across the Mongolian Plateau. Over the past six years, scientists have documented a 26% decrease in the number of lakes larger than 0.4 square miles (1 square kilometer). But as the new research shows, it’s not just the lakes that are losing water—so too is the soil. The changing landscape will wreak havoc on local ecosystems, including large herbivores like wild sheep, antelope, and camels.

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“It is one thing to recognize that the ‘normal’ climate conditions are changing,” said Daniel Griffin, a scientist from the University of Minnesota who’s not involved with the new study. “However, what concerns me the most is thinking about the extreme events of the future: how severe might those become? And if the ‘new normal’ is extremely hot and dry by historical standards, then future extremes may well be unlike anything previously witnessed.”

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Importantly, the climate situation in inner East Asia could influence the climate elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, as weather in this part of the world is connected to global atmospheric circulations, according to the press release. Indeed, climate change knows few borders, and its reach is long. Sadly, even the Tibetan Plateau, with its majestic snow capped mountains and sprawling grasslands, is not immune.

Dosing Mix-up Raises Questions About Promising Covid-19 Vaccine

Vials used by pharmacists to prepare syringes for an experimental vaccine.

Vials used by pharmacists to prepare syringes for an experimental vaccine.
Image: Associated Press (AP)

A manufacturing error is raising concerns about a promising covid-19 vaccine being developed by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.

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Less than a week after we learned about the promising new vaccine, the developers have admitted to a manufacturing error that resulted in two different doses being administered during the recently concluded phase III trial, as the Associated Press reports. This promising covid-19 vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, was described as being 70% effective at protecting against the coronavirus, but that number now seems a bit misleading—and not necessarily in a bad way.

The two separate doses used during the trial had a direct bearing on the results, in which participants who were given a lower dose of the vaccine appeared to be better protected (90% efficacy) than those who were given full doses (62% efficacy). That a lower dose group was included in the trial was the result of a manufacturing error, as the developers admitted yesterday. And because different age groups were included in the two versions of trial—one in the United Kingdom and one in Brazil—the results of this trial are clouded even further.

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According to Bloomberg, AstraZenica will now likely conduct an additional global trial to evaluate the efficacy of its covid-19 vaccine.

“Now that we’ve found what looks like a better efficacy we have to validate this, so we need to do an additional study,” said AstraZenica CEO Pascal Soriot, as quoted by Bloomberg. The pending trial will probably be another “international study, but this one could be faster because we know the efficacy is high so we need a smaller number of patients.”

This vaccine, known as AZD1222, uses a virus taken from a chimpanzee. The virus, technically an adenovirus, is harmless and incapable of self-replication, but it’s still capable of infecting a cell. And because it’s equipped with genetic instructions for churning out coronavirus surface proteins, it prompts the desired immune response to fight covid-19.

In the wake of the encouraging test results, AstraZeneca said it could produce 3.75 billion doses in 2021. Vaccine AZD1222 is particularly promising in that it’s relatively inexpensive to produce, and it can be stored in a regular refrigerator (unlike two other promising vaccine candidates, one from Moderna and one from Pfizer, that will require extreme cold storage).

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When the AZD1222 phase III trial first began, both the U.K. and Brazil groups were supposed to get a full initial dose, called the prime dose, followed by a booster dose around 30 days later. As the U.K. version of the study unfolded, however, the researchers noticed that the vials were only half full, the result of an unexplained manufacturing error.

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This meant that people participating in the U.K. trial had been receiving half of the required dose for the prime shot. Instead of calling it quits or excluding these half-dose people from the trial, the team decided to alter the study protocols, which they did after consulting with regulators. The updated protocol involved a half prime dose and full booster dose for participants in the U.K., and a full prime and full booster for participants in Brazil. In total, 2,741 participants were in the low dose group, and 8,895 were in the full dose group.

Unexpectedly, the vaccine worked better in the low dose group, at 90% efficacy, while the full dose group exhibited 62% efficacy. For some strange reason, however, the developers declared 70% efficacy, which doesn’t make any sense, as that figure now seems completely spurious.

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“You’ve taken two studies for which different doses were used and come up with a composite that doesn’t represent either of the doses,” David Salisbury, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, told the Associated Press.

To further complicate the matter, no one in the low dose group was over the age of 55, which wasn’t the case for the full dose group. This convolutes the results even more, as younger people tend to mount stronger immune responses to covid-19.

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There are a bunch of takeaways here, but that’s not to say this vaccine won’t be a major contributor in our fight against the pandemic. It probably will.

We’re all rooting for this vaccine to succeed, but this latest episode reminds us of the challenges involved when trying to develop medicines on accelerated timelines. Relatedly, and as this incident also shows, it’s really tough to get the dosages right. When it comes to facilitating an optimal immune response, more isn’t necessarily better, as this trial has so splendidly revealed, even if it wasn’t deliberate.

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Finally, this news, which comes several days after the initial announcement of the test results, comes to us via a press release. As it stands, the AstraZeneca and University of Oxford scientists have yet to publish their results in formal scientific paper for all to see. Until that finally happens, we’re all left guessing about their phase III trial and this apparently promising covid-19 vaccine.

Virus-Killing UV Lamps Are Burning People’s Eyes, Doctors Warn

An employee of the Chilean-Brazilian airline LATAM monitors the operation of an autonomous robot that uses type C ultraviolet light (UV-C) to clean the interior of the aircraft.

An employee of the Chilean-Brazilian airline LATAM monitors the operation of an autonomous robot that uses type C ultraviolet light (UV-C) to clean the interior of the aircraft.
Photo: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP (Getty Images)

Ultraviolet lamps meant to kill viruses and bacteria seem to be causing unfortunate eye damage in some people. In a new paper this month, doctors report several cases where people developed inflamed corneas due to UV radiation exposure from “germicidal lamps” put in place during the covid-19 pandemic. Some of the patients weren’t even aware the lamps had been installed.

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UV lighting has gotten plenty of attention as of late, since the radiation can degrade the stability of many unwanted germs. Specialized lamps have been used in the past to control outbreaks of other potentially airborne diseases, including tuberculosis. Now many businesses and hospitals are using UV light to disinfect rooms and equipment.

The trouble is that UV radiation can harm humans, too, as anyone who’s ever gotten a sunburn well knows. Exposure to UV rays can damage both our skin and our corneas, the transparent and protective outer layer of our eye. When this happens, it causes a painful inflammation called photokeratitis.

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In this new paper, published in the journal Ocular Immunology and Inflammation, the authors describe seven cases in which people developed photokeratitis several hours after exposure to UV lamps. All the cases were seen by doctors at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Slit-lamp photography of both eyes of one patient who developed inflamed corneas after exposure to a UV lamp.

Slit-lamp photography of both eyes of one patient who developed inflamed corneas after exposure to a UV lamp.
Image: Sengillo, et al/Ocular Immunology and Inflammation

In addition to irritation and redness, some patients experienced mild symptoms such as feeling like there was something stuck in their eyes. Others experienced severe, painful burning and a sensitivity to light. In three cases, the lamps had been installed at home, while three of the patients had been exposed at work. In all these cases, the patients reported making direct contact with the lighting without eye protection (a seventh case involved someone exposed to UV lighting at a dentist’s office).

Thankfully, people’s symptoms were short-lasting following treatment—usually a combination of lubricating eye drops, antibiotics, and steroids—and most recovered completely within two or three days. But these injuries aren’t the first of their kind to be seen during the pandemic. Earlier in April, the authors noted, doctors in Hong Kong reported three similar cases in a single household.

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It’s not clear whether UV lighting has really been all that helpful during this pandemic. Enough UV radiation should be able to kill coronavirus lingering in the air or on surfaces and objects, like the protective masks used by health care workers. But the exact type of UV radiation that’s most effective at killing viruses (UV-C) is also very dangerous to people, limiting how useful this disinfection strategy can be in the real world. The World Health Organization now explicitly warns people to not disinfect themselves using UV lamps for that very reason.

“Installation of UV-C air disinfection in medical facilities requires well-trained technicians to avoid direct exposure of occupants,” the doctors wrote. “The authors caution all persons to avoid direct exposure to UV-C germicidal lamps and follow manufacturer recommendations closely.”

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While this current study isn’t intended to weigh in on the effectiveness of UV lamps for covid-19 prevention, it does reinforce why people should be careful around them at all times.

The Surprising Way Keyhole Wasps Can Take Down an Airplane

Don’t you dare: A keyhole wasp at the opening of a pitot probe.

Don’t you dare: A keyhole wasp at the opening of a pitot probe.
Image: House et al., 2020/PLOS ONE

Keyhole wasps like to build their nests in tiny holes, including the openings of devices used to measure the speed of aircraft. A recent investigation shows the problem is worse than we realized.

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On November 21, 2013, an Airbus A330-200 prepared to take off from Brisbane Airport in Australia, but the pilot turned back after noticing some odd airspeed readings. The plane was eventually allowed to take off some two hours later, but the anomalous speed readings returned just as the A330 was about to become airborne. Unable to stop, the pilots had no choice but to continue takeoff. Once in the air, the airspeed discrepancies returned, so the pilots issued a mayday distress call, turned the plane around, and performed a flawless, but fully loaded, landing.

“On inspection, the remains of what looked like a wasp were found in one of the plane’s pitot probes,” Alan House, a biologist with Eco Logical Australia and the lead author of a new PLOS ONE study, explained in an email. “Pitot probes are the instruments that tell the pilots how fast they are going whilst in the air, so are critical for safe flight.”

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That an insect could take down an entire plane seems highly improbable, but such a thing may have happened before, in February 1996, when a Boeing 757 crashed shortly after takeoff from the Dominican Republic, killing all 189 people onboard. The pilots had misjudged the plane’s speed, the result of anomalous airspeed readings from the pitot probe. The malfunction was blamed on a wasp, but the probe was never recovered, so the theory was never officially proven.

As House’s new study points out, this problem, in which wasps build nests inside of pitot probes, is shockingly common. Of particular concern is the invasive keyhole wasp (Pachodynerus nasidens)—an insect native to South and Central America and the Caribbean. These wasps construct their nests in cavities, including window crevices, electrical sockets, and, you guessed it, keyholes.

Keyhole wasps have spread “presumably through shipping and/or air transport to the southern United States and all the way across the Pacific to eastern Australia,” said House. These solitary insects live in tropical and subtropical environments and measure about 10 to 12 millimeters long, he said.

The incident at Brisbane Airport in 2013 is hardly an isolated occurrence. From November 2013 to April 2019, officials at this airport reported 26 wasp-related incidents, some of them resulting in “emergency procedures,” as the new paper points out. But while airport officials have a reasonably good handle on the risks posed by larger wildlife, such as birds, they still don’t fully understand this invasive threat. The new paper seeks to fill this gap.

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To quantify the danger of the keyhole wasp, House and his colleagues 3D-printed several replica pitot probes, which were placed in four strategic locations around Brisbane Airport. Over the course of a 39-month monitoring period, the team chronicled 93 instances in which the bugs blocked the replica probes.

The lengthy monitoring period also allowed the team to study the conditions under which these insects preferred to build their nests.

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“We found that only the keyhole wasp used probes for nesting, and all replica pitot probes except the smallest aperture [3 mm] were used,” said House. “Nesting occurred in almost every month of the year, and most nesting was concentrated in one part of the airport,” namely an area filled with grass.

That said, the wasps did build more nests during the summer months, at temperatures between 75 and 88 degrees F (24 – 31 degrees C).

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In terms of how airport and airline officials should deal with the problem, House said simple aircraft management, such as covering probes when planes are idle at the gates, and wasp population reduction measures, like traps, could “reduce the risk of an incident.”

In addition, he’d like to see “all airlines adopt a pitot probe cover policy” at Brisbane Airport and other airports along the eastern seaboard of Australia start to monitor for this wasp, as it’s a “seasoned traveler, and there is every reason to expect it to disperse to other locations from Brisbane.”

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Eradicating keyhole wasps in Australia isn’t currently an option, and it’s no guarantee the insect won’t return in the future.

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Wow, what a serious pain in the ass. House’s prescriptions make sense, but it’s an added hassle for the industry, and yet another potential reason for increased fares. With climate change being what it is, the keyhole wasp aviation problem could spread to other areas, including the United States. Hate to say it, but this story won’t be ending any time soon.

What Ever Happened to the Vaping Lung Disease?

Illustration for article titled What Ever Happened to the Vaping Lung Disease?

Illustration: Illustration: Elena Scotti. Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock.

In the summer of 2019, months before the word “coronavirus” meant anything to most people, a mysterious respiratory illness began popping up around the U.S., ultimately sending over 2,800 primarily young and healthy people to the hospital and dozens to an early grave. The culprit wasn’t an infectious disease, but a poison: THC vaping devices sold on the black market that were filled with oily contaminants that suffocated and burned victims’ lungs once inhaled.

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More than a year later—and what a year it’s been—Gizmodo decided to take a look back at this crisis. Did it truly end, as you might assume from the shrinking media coverage dedicated to it? If so, why? How did it play into a still contentious debate over the health risks of vaping and the need for regulation? And what lessons, if any, have we learned?

The first reported cases of the illness came in late July from Wisconsin, when teens in the state began coming down with symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, and fatigue, along with severe lung damage visible on medical imaging. Reported cases steadily increased throughout the summer in states around the country, while further investigation found that some people had experienced the illness as early as March. By late fall 2019, new reported cases began significantly dropping, even as more doctors were now aware of the problem. In the last week of December, only 29 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a sharp drop off from the over 200 cases reported in a week during September. All told, as of February 2020, at least 2,807 people are known to have had this vaping-related lung illness, and 68 people died.

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As for why these poisonings slowed down, there’s no single answer. It was apparent early on that many victims had recently used vaping products with THC, a psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, that also contained vitamin E acetate, an oily form of the vitamin commonly found in household products like skin creams. This ingredient was often used as a filler to reduce the amount of THC needed per product or to fool customers into thinking the THC in the product was better quality by making the vaping fluid thicker. Importantly, vitamin E was readily found in illicit vaping products—usually disposable THC cartridges—and these products were clearly responsible for most cases of the illness.

By the fall, public health agencies were explicitly warning people to stay away from buying products off the street or from friends, as were vape users and influencers. At least one company that appeared to legally sell vitamin E as a cutting agent in Oregon pulled its product off the market. And there may have been pressure on the manufacturers of illicit devices and cartridges to remove or reduce the vitamin E they used. All of these factors probably contributed to the decline of cases.

“We had close to 40 cases altogether, between the months of June to December of 2019. And then, just like with the rest of the country, we then saw a pretty rapid decrease, even starting around September, October,” said Aleksandr Kalininskiy, a pulmonary and critical care fellow at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. Kalininskiy and his colleagues were some of the first doctors to publish case reports on the patients afflicted with the condition.

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But according to David Downs, the California bureau chief of cannabis-focused website and news outlet Leafly, the underlying factors that gave rise to these cases in the first place haven’t really gone away. Perhaps more than any outlet, Leafly has investigated these poisonings extensively.

“What we found was that the structure of the market and the incentives to adulterate products had not changed. The profit motive still exists, you still make more money, fooling consumers and being unfair to them, such that the promise of injury was still there,” Downs said.

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Though the CDC said it would stop tracking the reporting of vaping-related illness in February 2020, local public health agencies and doctors continue to report their own cases. In June, doctors from California described eight patients who became sick from vaping in April. In July, Minnesota health officials sent out a warning to health care providers, after 11 suspected victims had recently been identified. And Kalininskiy says that the University of Rochester Medical Center has seen at least six probable cases this year.

These newer cases have been harder to find in part due to the covid-19 pandemic, since the two conditions can present similar symptoms. The pandemic is also likely one reason why the CDC decided to stop tracking these cases, constrained by limited resources. The situation has even spawned its own fringe conspiracy theory, with some people arguing that the vaping cases last year were actually covid-19 in disguise (no expert or source I spoke to endorsed that idea).

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In addition to the illness caused by these tainted products, the resulting public health response has in many ways deepened the divide between vaping consumers, manufacturers, and some public health agencies and experts. This divide is evident even in attempts to name what exactly happened to victims.

Early on, doctors and others often used the term “vaping-associated pulmonary injury,” or VAPI, to describe the condition. But by October, the CDC adopted the term EVALI, short for “e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury.” The CDC also continued to recommend that people stay away from all vaping products to be safe as possible, though it did emphasize the added risk of using black market products. By then, it was obvious that electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes—a term used for nicotine-based vaping products sold legally—had no substantial role in the poisonings. Some people were understandably confused and upset at the CDC for the decision.

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“There have been broader issues with quality control of electronic cigarettes and their flavorings, but [the name] was distracting from this acute injury problem and where it was coming from in the market, such that it was doing a disservice to readers who need to be able to make a rational choice about their health and what they’re consuming,” said Downs. Leafly continues to only use the term VAPI in its articles.

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The name change was only the latest signal to vaping consumers, people in the industry, and public health experts who see vaping as a healthier alternative to cigarette smoking that the crisis was being used to crack down on the industry without justification. As more and more cases of VAPI/EVALI were emerging last year, states, cities and eventually the federal government began passing down more restrictive policies, including raising the age limit to buy to 21 and outright bans on legally sold vaping products such as flavored e-cigarettes. Sometimes, officials would even directly cite these illnesses as one reason for the bans, despite there clearly being no connection to the majority of cases.

The framing seems to have worked a bit too well. A Morning Consult poll in February 2020 found that two-thirds of Americans at least partly blamed e-cigarettes for the recent vaping-related deaths caused by lung damage, while only 28 percent correctly pointed the finger at tainted THC products. These results were actually worse than a poll taken in September 2019, when a smaller percentage blamed e-cigarettes and more blamed THC.

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This isn’t to say that legally sold e-cigarettes and cannabis-based products don’t carry their own risks. There have been reports of serious injuries predating or unrelated to VAPI/EVALI linked to e-cigarettes and legal products, and many experts are worried about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, even if it’s not the same level of harm caused by tobacco cigarettes. The rise in teen vaping has also alarmed the public health community, since we don’t know what will happen to them years from now if they become chronic users. Companies like Juul have since been federally investigated and sued for slyly marketing their products to teens, despite their insistence that they’re only meant for adult cigarette users hoping to wean off tobacco.

But even some researchers and public health experts have worried about the conflation of these other real concerns with VAPI/EVALI.

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“From the start, I was like, wait a minute. This isn’t the regulated, well-manufactured products that we’re talking about here,” said Terry Gordon, an air pollution researcher and professor at NYU’s Department of Environmental Medicine who studies e-cigarettes. “E-cigarettes aren’t safe, but they’re safer than cigarettes.”

If there is common ground to be found between vape enthusiasts and critics of the practice, it’s likely in regulation. Downs and his team at Leafly have found that VAPI/EVALI cases were substantially lower in states where cannabis was legally available and sold, a finding supported by other research. And though there are a minority of cases where victims have not reported a history of THC use, Leafly’s investigation so far hasn’t been able to conclusively trace any single case to legal products, nicotine-based or not.

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“We’ve seen aspects of the industry raise their hand and say, ‘We invite scrutiny, we invite regulation. We are tired of counterfeiters and poisoners running circles around our good-faith efforts,’” Downs said.

This November, five states became the latest to legalize cannabis in some form, while three—Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota—legalized recreational use. Sixteen states now have full legalization. Some local regulatory agencies have started to implement stricter rules on the quality control of legal cannabis products, not just in the ingredients that are included but in the chemicals that products are actually emitting when used. The cannabis industry has also begun to create its own best practices in the wake of these cases. But if cannabis remains illegal federally for the foreseeable future, it will be that much harder for agencies like the FDA to implement universal regulatory guidelines. Downs notes that other agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission, could likely do more to crack down on illicit products being shipped in the U.S. from overseas (often from China), but they simply lack the political will or resources.

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As long as the black market has a large consumer base in states where cannabis is illegal, cases of VAPI/EVALI will continue to appear, even if vitamin E acetate is removed entirely from the supply. Scientists have found other chemicals in (largely illicit) vaping products and flavorings that could plausibly cause the same sort of lung damage seen in victims, such as squalene, as has Leafly. The potential for other contaminants being introduced down the road is always there.

While it might be ideal to want young people who have never smoked to not start vaping, that genie has left the bottle for millions of people. So, at the very least, users should be steered to legally regulated products that can be made safer still, Downs said, instead of taking a gamble on the street. “I’ve landed on the note that this technology is too useful to ever go away,” he said. “The question is: how clean is it going to be—how regulated?”

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As for the survivors of VAPI/EVALI, the news is good and bad. Most of the patients that doctors like Kalininskiy have seen months after their initial symptoms seem to have recovered without lingering problems. Yet, he notes that other researchers have found reduced lung function in recovered patients—the sort of disrepair that could raise survivors’ risk of future health problems. According to Matthew McGraw, a doctor and pediatric pulmonologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, it’s almost certainly in the best interest of VAPI/EVALI patients to never pick up vaping again.

“I think that’s the biggest message to convey is, if you stop, there’s a good chance that you won’t have persistent lung function changes,” McGraw said. “One thing that we’ve been great about here is getting our patients to quit the use of e-cigarettes. But in other places, I’m skeptical as to whether they’ve had as good success in trying to get users off e-cigarettes.”

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