There’s a new way to rip apart harmful “forever chemicals,” scientists say.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are found in nonstick pans, water-repellent fabrics and food packaging and they are pervasive throughout the environment. They’re nicknamed forever chemicals for their ability to stick around and not break down. In part, that’s because PFAS have a super strong bond between their carbon and fluorine atoms (SN: 6/4/19). Now, using a bit of heat and two relatively common compounds, researchers have degraded one major type of forever chemical in the lab, the team reports in the Aug. 19 Science. The work could help pave the way for a process for breaking down certain forever chemicals commercially, for instance by treating wastewater. “The fundamental knowledge of how the materials degrade is the single most important thing coming out of this study,” organic chemist William Dichtel said in an August 16 news conference.
While some scientists have found relatively simple ways of breaking down select PFAS, most degradation methods require harsh, energy-intensive processes using intense pressure — in some cases over 22 megapascals — or extremely high temperatures — sometimes upwards of 1000⁰ Celsius — to break the chemical bonds (SN: 6/3/22).
Dichtel, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and his team experimented with two substances found in nearly every chemistry lab cabinet: sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, and a solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO. The team worked specifically with a group of forever chemicals called PFCAs, which contain carboxylic acid and constitute a large percentage of all PFAS. Some of these kinds of forever chemicals are found in water-resistant clothes.
When the team combined PFCAs with the lye and DMSO at 120⁰ C and with no extra pressure needed, the carboxylic acid fell off the chemical and became carbon dioxide in a process called decarboxylation. What happened next was unexpected, Dichtel said. Loss of the acid led to a process causing “the entire molecule to fall apart in a cascade of complex reactions.” This cascade involved steps that degraded the rest of the chemical into fluoride ions and smaller carbon-containing products, leaving behind virtually no harmful by-products. .
“It’s a neat method, it’s different from other ones that have been tried,” says Chris Sales, an environmental engineer at Drexel University in Philadelphia who was not involved in the study. “The biggest question is, how could this be adapted and scaled up?” Northwestern has filed a provisional patent on behalf of the researchers.
Understanding this mechanism is just one step in undoing forever chemicals, Dichtel’s team said. And more research is needed: There are other classes of PFAS that require their own solutions. This process wouldn’t work to tackle PFAS out in the environment, because it requires a concentrated amount of the chemicals. But it could one day be used in wastewater treatment plants, where the pollutants could be filtered out of the water, concentrated and then broken down.
Some mosquitoes have a near-foolproof thirst for human blood. Previous attempts to prevent the insects from tracking people down by blocking part of mosquitoes’ ability to smell have failed. A new study hints it’s because the bloodsuckers have built-in workarounds to ensure they can always smell us.
For most animals, individual nerve cells in the olfactory system can detect just one type of odor. But Aedes aegypti mosquitoes’ nerve cells can each detect many smells, researchers report August 18 in Cell. That means if a cell were to lose the ability to detect one human odor, it still can pick up on other scents. The study provides the most detailed map yet of a mosquito’s sense of smell and suggests that concealing human aromas from the insects could be more complicated than researchers thought.
Repellents that block mosquitoes from detecting human-associated scents could be especially tricky to make. “Maybe instead of trying to mask them from finding us, it would be better to find odorants that mosquitoes don’t like to smell,” says Anandasankar Ray, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the work. Such repellents may confuse or irritate the bloodsuckers and send them flying away (SN: 9/21/11; SN: 3/4/21).
Effective repellents are a key tool to prevent mosquitoes from transmitting disease-causing viruses such as dengue and Zika (SN: 7/11/22). “Mosquitoes are responsible for more human deaths than any other creature,” says Olivia Goldman, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York City. “The better we understand them, the better that we can have these interventions.”
Mosquitoes that feed on people home in on a variety of cues when hunting, including body heat and body odor. The insects smell using their antennae and small appendages close to the mouth. Using three types of sensors in olfactory nerve cells, they can detect chemicals such as carbon dioxide from exhaled breath or components of body odor (SN: 7/16/15).
In previous work, researchers thought that blocking some sensors might hide human scents from mosquitoes by disrupting the smell messages sent to the brain (SN: 12/5/13). But even those sensor-deprived mosquitoes can still smell and bite people, says neurobiologist Margo Herre also of Rockefeller University.
So Goldman, Herre and colleagues added fluorescent labels to A. aegypti nerve cells, or neurons, to learn new details about how the mosquito brain deciphers human odors. Surprisingly, rather than finding the typical single type of sensor per nerve cell, the team found that individual mosquito neurons appear more like sensory hubs.
Genetic analyses confirmed that some of the olfactory nerve cells had more than one type of sensor. Some cells produced electrical signals in response to several mosquito-attracting chemicals found in humans such as octenol and triethyl amine — a sign the neurons could detect more than one type of odor molecule. A separate study published in April in eLife found similar results in fruit flies, which suggests such a system may be common among insects.
It’s unclear why having redundant ways of detecting people’s odors might be useful to mosquitoes. “Different people can smell very different from one another,” says study coauthor Meg Younger, a neurobiologist at Boston University. “Maybe this is a setup to find a human regardless of what variety of human body odor that human is emitting.”
Comets from the solar system’s deep freezer often don’t survive their first encounter with the sun. Now one scientist thinks he knows why: Solar warmth makes some of the cosmic snowballs spin so fast, they fall apart.
This suggestion could help solve a decades-old mystery about what destroys many “long-period” comets, astronomer David Jewitt reports in a study submitted August 8 to arXiv.org. Long-period comets originate in the Oort cloud, a sphere of icy objects at the solar system’s fringe (SN: 8/18/08). Those that survive their first trip around the sun tend to swing by our star only once every 200 years. “These things are stable out there in the Oort cloud where nothing ever happens. When they come toward the sun, they heat up, all hell breaks loose, and they fall apart,” Jewitt says.
The Dutch astronomer Jan Oort first proposed the Oort cloud as a cometary reservoir in 1950. He realized that many of its comets that came near Earth were first-time visitors, not return travelers. Something was taking the comets out, but no one knew what.
One possibility was that the comets die by sublimating all of their water away as they near the heat of the sun until there’s nothing left. But that didn’t fit with observations of comets that seemed to physically break up into smaller pieces. The trouble was, those breakups are hard to watch in real time.
“The disintegrations are really hard to observe because they’re unpredictable, and they happen quickly,” Jewitt says.
He ran into that difficulty when he tried to observe Comet Leonard, a bright comet that put on a spectacular show in winter 2021–2022. Jewitt had applied for time to observe the comet with the Hubble Space Telescope in April and June 2022. But by February, the comet had already disintegrated. “That was a wake-up call,” Jewitt says.
So Jewitt turned to historical observations of long-period comets that came close to the sun since the year 2000. He selected those whose water vapor production had been indirectly measured via an instrument called SWAN on NASA’s SOHO spacecraft, to see how quickly the comets were losing mass. He also picked out comets whose movements deviating from their orbits around the sun had been measured. Those motions are a result of water vapor jets pushing the comet around, like a spraying hose flopping around a garden.
That left him with 27 comets, seven of which did not survive their closest approach to the sun.
Jewitt expected that the most active comets would disintegrate the fastest, by puffing away all their water. But he found the opposite: It turns out that the least active comets with the smallest dirty snowball cores were the most at risk of falling apart.
“Basically, being a small nucleus near the sun causes you to die,” Jewitt says. “The question is, why?”
It wasn’t that the comets were torn apart by the sun’s gravity — they didn’t get close enough for that. And simply sublimating until they went poof would have been too slow a death to match the observations. The comets are also unlikely to collide with anything else in the vastness of space and break apart that way. And a previous suggestion that pressure builds up inside the comets until they explode like a hand grenade doesn’t make sense to Jewitt. Comets’ upper few centimeters of material would absorb most of the sun’s heat, he says, so it would be difficult to heat the center of the comet enough for that to work.
The best remaining explanation, Jewitt says, is rotational breakup. As the comet nears the sun and its water heats up enough to sublimate, jets of water vapor form and make the core start to spin like a catherine wheel firework. Smaller cores are easier to push around than a larger one, so they spin more easily.
“It just spins faster and faster, until it doesn’t have enough tensile strength to hold together,” Jewitt says. “I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening.”
That deadly spin speed is actually quite slow. Spinning at about half a meter per second could spell curtains for a kilometer-sized comet, he calculates. “You can walk faster.”
But comets are fragile. If you held a fist-sized comet in front of your face, a sneeze would destroy it, says planetary astronomer Nalin Samarasinha of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, who was not involved in the study.
Samarasinha thinks Jewitt’s proposal is convincing. “Even though the sample size is small, I think it is something really happening.” But other things might be destroying these comets too, he says, and Jewitt agrees.
Samarasinha is holding out for more comet observations, which could come when the Vera Rubin Observatory begins surveying the sky in 2023. Jewitt’s idea “is something which can be observationally tested in a decade or two.”
Revamped COVID-19 vaccines are poised to do battle with the super-contagious omicron variant.
On September 1, U.S. health officials greenlit the first major update of the mRNA-based shots, reformulated to recognize both the original version of SARS-CoV-2 and the recently circulating versions of omicron. Those mRNA vaccine boosters could start going into arms within days.
“They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement after endorsing a vaccine advisory committee’s approval of the shots. Both Moderna and Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech created boosters that contain instructions for making the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants’ spike protein as well as the original virus’ spike protein (SN: 6/30/22). Those two variants now account for nearly all the new cases in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the shots August 31. The CDC action means the Pfizer booster is now OK’d for those 12 and older; Moderna’s shot is for those 18 and older.
The European Medicines Agency and Health Canada also authorized use of an updated booster vaccine on September 1. That one, made by Moderna, contains mRNA instructions for building the original coronavirus spike protein and the spike protein from the omicron BA.1 subvariant. The United Kingdom, Switzerland and Australia have already given the nod for use of that dual, or bivalent, booster.
Here’s what to know about the new shots:
Should I get a booster shot? Probably. The CDC now recommends that all fully vaccinated people 12 and older get the bivalent shot, provided it has been at least two months since their last vaccine dose. “If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your COVID-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it,” Walensky said.
That recommendation comes regardless of how many boosters people have already had.
“If you perceive this as big change … you’re right,” Evelyn Twentyman, who leads CDC’s vaccine policy unit, said September 1 during the vaccine advisory committee meeting. “We want to emphasize we’re no longer looking at total number of doses,” she said. From now on, the agency hopes to transition into a more regular schedule for COVID-19 vaccines, similar to getting annual flu shots.
The original vaccines will still be used for the first two doses, but bivalent vaccines will replace the old boosters for all but 5- to 11-year-olds. Pfizer’s original vaccine booster is still available for that age group but bivalent vaccines may come later this year for children as young as 6 months old.
There was another big difference this time around: The decision to move forward with the BA.4/5 boosters was made without data from human trials. Such trials are under way, but results won’t be known until the end of the year. In authorizing the new boosters without clinical trial data, the agencies are treating COVID-19 vaccines more like annual flu vaccines.
Data collected from people immunized with the BA.1 boosters and data from studies of mice inoculated with the BA.4/5 vaccine were used as evidence of the new boosters’ likely safety and effectiveness. The European Medicines Agency said in a Sept. 2 press briefing that it would also use the BA.1 booster to evaluate the new shots.
Why do the shots target the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants? “We very deliberately picked BA.4/5,” Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, which oversees vaccines, said in a news briefing August 31.
Both companies have tested vaccines based on the omicron BA.1 variant in humans. But BA.1, which caused the massive surge earlier in the year, is no longer circulating in the United States. As of the week of August 21 through 27, BA.5 was projected to cause about 89 percent of COVID-19 cases, with BA.4 variants responsible for about 11 percent of cases.
“This gives us a variant that is most up-to-date, and most likely looks closer to something that may evolve further in the fall,” Marks said. “The more up-to-date you are, the better chance we have of [the vaccine] working for what comes afterward.”
All omicron subvariants share common mutations. But the shape of BA.4/5’s spike protein looks much different to the immune system than other omicron subvariants do, the CDC’s Natalie Thornburg said at the advisory committee meeting. Those differences may train immune cells to build a wider variety of antibodies that can latch onto a broad array of variants.
Mice inoculated with a BA.4/5 containing booster had fewer viruses in their lungs than mice given a BA.1 boosters, Moderna’s Jacqueline Miller said at the CDC meeting. The mice make a human version of ACE2, the protein on the surface of cells that the coronavirus uses to gain entry. Mouse studies of earlier variant boosters corresponded well to levels of protection seen in human clinical trials, Miller said, so the company is hopeful that the BA.4/5 booster will provide good protection, too.
Bivalent vaccines perform better — raising antibody levels higher in people and animals — than ones that contain just the original spike protein or only a variant spike protein, Miller said. The spike protein that grabs onto human cells is a three-pronged claw. With the bivalent vaccine, each prong could be either an original or an omicron version. The mixed claw may expose parts of the spike to the immune system that are normally hidden, Miller suggested. Why now? Though the mouse data suggest the BA.4/5 booster will work, some of the CDC advisers said they’d be more comfortable having data from the ongoing human clinical trials before recommending the new shots. That data could be available in a couple of months, so why not wait?
The wait could cost lives and money, computer projections suggest. The COVID-19 scenario modeling hub, a consortium of pandemic forecasters who predict COVID-19 patterns over the next six months under varying conditions, considered what would happen in the United States if the boosters were given in September or not until November. Waiting would lead to 137,000 more hospitalizations and 9,700 more deaths, the researchers projected.
An early fall booster campaign could save more than $62 billion in direct medical costs, an analysis from the Commonwealth Fund projects.
Is it safe? Based on studies with the BA.1 bivalent booster, yes. That shot produced similar side effects to the original shots.
And it’s also safe to get flu shots and other vaccines, including ones used against monkeypox, at the same time as the COVID-19 booster. In fact, doctors should offer all vaccines for which a person is eligible at the same visit, Elisha Hall of the CDC said.
Some data indicate that the chance of serious side effects, like heart inflammation called myocarditis, happen at similar or lower rates with boosters than with the second doses of the mRNA vaccines. The side effect is rare; CDC has verified 131 myocarditis cases out of more than 126 million booster doses given, Tom Shimabukuro of the CDC COVID-19 Vaccine Safety Unit reported. The rate of myocarditis is 1.8 to 5.6 times higher after a COVID-19 infection than after vaccination for 12- to 17-year-old males — the group for which the condition has the highest risk, the CDC’s Sara Oliver said. Spacing the booster at least two months after the last dose of vaccine may help to head off any increase in myocarditis, Marks said in the FDA press briefing.
“We have a tremendous amount of experience with the monovalent, original vaccine,” the FDA’s Doran Fink said during the CDC advisory meeting. That experience made the FDA comfortable extrapolating data from the BA.1 booster trials to decide that the new shots are also safe.
“We don’t usually have too much clinical information … when we are thinking about changing influenza vaccines,” said Sarah Long, an infectious diseases pediatrician at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Much like the flu vaccine remodels last season’s version, the updated COVID-19 booster is built on the same scaffolding as the original version. “It’s part of the same roof. We’re just putting in some dormers and windows.”
Pablo Sanchez, a pediatric infectious diseases doctor at The Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, cast the sole dissenting vote against recommending the BA.4/5 boosters. Other committee members voted to recommend the boosters, but they voiced reservations about those votes.
“I really don’t want to establish a precedent of recommending a vaccine that we don’t have clinical data on,” Sanchez said. He added, “I’m comfortable that the vaccine will likely be safe like the others,” but having the human data may help counter vaccine hesitancy.
A laser blast produces miniature diamonds from plain-old plastic. That’s right, the same kind used in soda bottles.
When squeezed to about a million times Earth’s atmospheric pressure and heated to thousands of degrees Celsius, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, forms nanodiamonds, physicist Dominik Kraus and colleagues report September 2 in Science Advances.
Ice giant planets, such as Neptune and Uranus, have similar temperatures, pressures and combinations of chemical elements as the materials in the study, suggesting that diamonds may rain down in those planets’ interiors. What’s more, the researchers say, the new technique could be used to manufacture nanodiamonds for use in quantum devices and other applications. In the new study, researchers trained lasers on samples of plastic. Each laser blast sent a shock wave careening through the plastic, amping up the pressure and temperature within. Probing the material with bursts of X-rays revealed that nanodiamonds had formed.
Previous studies had created diamonds by compressing compounds of hydrogen and carbon. But PET, which is commonly used in food and drink packaging, contains not just hydrogen and carbon but also oxygen. That makes it a better match to the composition of ice giant planets like Neptune and Uranus. The oxygen seems to assist the diamond formation, says Kraus, of the University of Rostock in Germany. “The oxygen sucks out the hydrogen,” he says, leaving behind carbon which can then form diamond.
Nanodiamonds are commonly produced using explosives, Kraus says, a process not easy to control. The new technique could create nanodiamonds that are more easily tailored for particular uses, such as quantum devices made using diamond with defects where, for example, nitrogen atoms replace some of the carbon atoms (SN: 7/6/18).
“The idea is quite cool. You take water bottle plastic; you zap it with a laser to make diamond. How practical it is, I don’t know,” says physicist Marius Millot of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who was not involved with the new study. How easily the diamonds could be recovered is unclear, he says. But, “it’s pretty neat to think about the idea.”
In May 2021, Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, burst to life without warning. Lava erupted from fissures and flowed down the mountain toward cities below, leaving hundreds dead or missing and hundreds more injured.
Now, using data from monitoring stations installed near the volcano in 2015, researchers have pieced together how that eruption happened so suddenly. The data also suggest that the event could have been even deadlier — and highlight the urgent need to better understand this volcano’s particular hazards before the next eruption, volcanologist Delphine Smittarello and colleagues report in the Sept. 1 Nature. “Nyiragongo is unique in that 1 million people are living just at the foot of the volcano,” says Smittarello, of the European Center for Geodynamics and Seismology in Luxembourg. The mountain sits near the eastern border of Congo, looming over both the Congolese city of Goma, population of about 700,000, and the Rwandan city of Gisenyi, population about 83,000 (SN: 12/2/14). “There are so many people so close to a very dangerous place.”
Nyiragongo’s last two eruptions, in 1977 and 2002, were both presaged by days of distinct seismic rumblings strong enough to be felt by people living nearby. But before the eruption on May 22, 2021, even the sensitive monitoring stations near the volcano seemed to detect no clear warning signs of magma on the move underground.
There was the large lake of molten lava burbling in the volcano’s summit crater: By 2021, that lake had risen to near the top of the crater. But typically lake level alone isn’t enough to indicate an imminent eruption, Smittarello says. Levels had intermittently risen and fallen over the years since 2002 as magma moved around the volcano’s deep plumbing. And in 2021, the lake was still 85 meters below its 2002 level.
So Smittarello and her colleagues took another look at the monitoring stations’ seismic and acoustic data. This time, the analysis identified a rumbling of small quakes that commenced just 40 minutes before the actual eruption. Half an hour later, just 10 minutes before the lava burst through, detections of acoustic signals — low-frequency “infrasound” waves — began to increase, a hint that the volcano was about to erupt (SN: 6/25/18).
The trigger for the actual eruption was probably a tiny rupture that formed in the volcanic cone due to the buildup of stress over time from the pressure and heat of the magma within, the researchers say. That would have been enough to allow the magma to push through.
The short lag time between the signals and the eruption was probably because that magma was already extremely close to the surface, the researchers suggest. “What we monitor is the magma moving, not the presence or absence of magma,” Smittarello says. Because the magma had very little distance to travel, there was also very little warning.
The eruption itself lasted about six hours, but in its aftermath, there was plenty of seismic activity lasting another 10 days, suggesting the magma was now on the move. Those data, monitored in real time, indicated something troubling — the magma was moving underground, away from the summit, snaking beneath the city of Goma and nearby Lake Kivu.
As the magma migrated, scientists and local citizens worked together to trace the formation of cracks in the ground, which can indicate propagating dikes, lateral pathways through which magma is moving beneath the surface. Similar lateral pathways formed during the eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii, Smittarello says. In that case, the magma migrated to a neighborhood along the volcano’s lower east rift zone before erupting (SN: 7/6/18).
Based on the possible path of the magma, Goma city officials issued evacuation orders for tens of thousands of people who were potentially in the magma’s path. Meanwhile, scientists anxiously watched for signs of a potential “limnic eruption” at Lake Kivu — a rare type of disaster in which a noxious cloud of dissolved gases like carbon dioxide and methane suddenly erupts from deep lakes, suffocating living creatures nearby (SN: 4/2/94). Gas-rich magma seeping into the lake’s bottom could have triggered such an eruption. In either case, “if [the magma] finds a path to the surface, it’s a catastrophe,” Smittarello says.
Neither catastrophe occurred, thankfully, Smittarello says. “It was a lucky situation. But we don’t know why.”
It was especially lucky given the fact that the magma was closer to the surface than thought at the time, the team reports in the new study. That means the residents above were even closer to greater disaster than had been realized.
Reanalysis of posteruptive seismic data let the researchers determine the actual position of the underground dikes. The team found that one dike beneath Goma was as shallow as 450 meters deep. That’s particularly surprising because such a shallow magma channel would be expected to emit a telltale cocktail of volcanic gases from the ground cracks. It’s not unheard-of for volcanic dikes to give no gassy indicators of their presence, says geophysicist Michael Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey, who is based in Vancouver, Wash., and leads the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. The magma may have lost a lot of its gases as it circulated up into the summit lava lake; by the time it pushed into underground channels, it was potentially already degassed.
But that scenario is worrisome because there’s one fewer warning signal of possible danger to the communities above, says Poland, who was not involved in the new study. It also raises new questions — such as how such gas-poor magma might interact with Lake Kivu if it does flow into the lake.
What the 2021 eruption makes clear is that scientists need to investigate such questions to get a better understanding of the peculiarities of Nyiragongo — and to tailor monitoring and hazard warnings accordingly, Poland adds.
All volcanoes have their own personalities, and scientists need to develop a better appreciation for any warning signs that might exist. In this case, for example, that might include the lava lake level, he says. “The traditional approach is less reliable at Nyiragongo.”
At the start of another school year, I’ve been thinking about the differences between 2021 and 2022. Last year, many schools had mask mandates, testing programs and quarantine rules (SN: 3/15/22). This year, masking is optional and testing and quarantines are out (SN: 8/19/22).
We’ve shed measures that stop the spread of the coronavirus and help prevent excessive disruptions to in-person learning. Without them, and with the absence of nearly any controls in place elsewhere in society, we’re inviting the virus to keep spreading, to find new ways to thwart immunity and to continue to derail plans and routines. And it’s not just a risk to our day-to-day lives, but to our future health. As much as we want to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, evidence continues to emerge that the coronavirus’s impact will be a recurring, unwelcome feature of many tomorrows.
Scientists predict COVID-19 cases will rise this fall and winter in the United States, as more of life heads indoors during colder weather. The Biden Administration has said there could be 100 million new cases. We have a new aid in the face of a possible surge: a revamped COVID-19 shot targeting the omicron variant, from both Pfizer (for 12 years and up) and Moderna (for 18 years and up), is now available (SN: 9/2/22). Meant as a booster shot, the tweaked vaccine is the original version with added protection against the BA.4 and BA.5 variants. The BA.5 variant is dominant in the United States, accounting for 89 percent of cases at the beginning of September. Public health officials would like to get as many boosters in arms as possible this fall to temper a rise in cases. We know the original vaccine has done an outstanding job protecting people from severe illness and death. The vaccine has also helped reduced transmission, although this benefit can wane quickly. Overall, the COVID-19 vaccine is a crucial tool to protect public health. But it alone can’t shoulder the entire burden of keeping the virus at bay. Controlling the coronavirus takes a team approach, the vaccine together with masks, ventilation improvements and crowd control (SN: 4/4/22).
Without these additional measures, people will keep getting sick. Claire Taylor, a physician in the United Kingdom, tweeted about her experience having COVID-19 three times this year, in March, June and August, as the omicron family of variants moved through her country. “How can it be sustainable, sensible, bearable even, to get a virus that floors you in the same way multiple times a year?” she wrote.
It doesn’t seem sustainable, sensible or bearable. Not with what the virus can do in the midst of infection, and not with the harms that can linger after an infection subsides. Adults, for example, can face health issues throughout the body after a bout of COVID-19. A study of health records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that, compared with those who haven’t had COVID-19, those who have — whether hospitalized or not — face higher risks of a variety of cardiovascular diseases beyond the initial 30 days post-infection. Other research has found an increased risk of neurological and psychiatric illnesses for two years after a SARS-CoV-2 infection, compared with other respiratory infections. On top of the risks from COVID-19 itself is the expected health effects of the pandemic’s disruptions to medical care. A study of a large health care system in Massachusetts found a drop in expected hospitalizations for urgent heart issues during the first year of the pandemic. Breast and ovarian cancer screenings in the United States decreased in 2020 compared with 2018. These delayed and lost health care opportunities may reverberate for years.
And then there is long COVID. Each surge of infections adds to the pool of people suffering from a range of debilitating symptoms that they just can’t shake, from extreme fatigue to brain fog to shortness of breath (SN: 9/1/22). Because it takes time to identify people who develop long COVID, we don’t yet know the toll from the omicron surge earlier this year. But the spike in cases was so large, “I suspect there will be millions of people who acquire long COVID after omicron infection,” immunobiologist Akiko Iwasaki told Liz Szabo of Kaiser Health News on August 26.
Long COVID can leave people unable to work, which is a threat to their ability to support themselves and maintain health insurance, as well as a looming crisis for the economy. There are already an estimated 16.3 million working-age Americans, meaning those 18 to 65 years old, who have long COVID; 2 million to 4 million of them are out of work because of their illness, a new Brookings Metro report finds. The annual cost of the wages lost is around $170 billion and may be as high as $230 billion.
There are also health impacts from grieving the loss of so many lives during the pandemic (SN: 10/27/21). Already 1 million people have died worldwide this year from COVID-19; close to 6.5 million in total have lost their lives to the disease during the pandemic.
Those deaths have included a devastating number of children’s parents and caregivers. Approximately 7.5 million children have lost one or both parents to COVID-19 as of May 2022, researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics on September 6. An estimated 10.5 million children have become orphans or lost caregivers. These deaths put children’s education, health and well-being at risk, deficits that cannot be overcome without dedicated societal support (SN: 2/24/22).
Like adults, children who’ve had COVID-19 are at higher risk for various health issues compared with children who haven’t had the illness, including heart inflammation and blood clots, researchers reported in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on August 5. Children also develop long COVID. And kids and teens have suffered mental health harms from the pandemic, with many experiencing increased anxiety and depression. The subsequent demand for mental health services hasn’t been met.
We’re just beginning to learn about other health issues that could stem from the virus or the circumstances of the pandemic. A recent U.S. study found an alarming rise in youth-onset type 2 diabetes during the first year of the pandemic compared with the average of the prior two years. New cases jumped by 77 percent in 2020. It’s not clear if the increase is due to COVID-19 infection, shifts in diet or activity or stressors from the pandemic, but the rise has strained existing health services for children with diabetes, the researchers wrote. The pandemic has also disrupted vital health services for children around the world. A study of 18 low- and lower-middle–income countries found a decline in doctor visits and the delivery of maternal and child health care from March 2020 to June 2021. The lost care is estimated to have led to more than 110,000 excess deaths among children under 5 and more than 3,000 excess deaths among mothers, a threat to recent progress in reducing child and maternal mortality, researchers report August 30 in PLOS Medicine. The pandemic has also interfered with vaccination campaigns, leaving children worldwide vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases.
Even newborns may face worsened health as a result of the pandemic. Research on prenatal exposures to maternal infection during the 1918 influenza pandemic has found health issues much later in life for the babies born, including higher rates of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and diabetes.
In a piece on why studies across the life span of children born to mothers who’ve had COVID-19 are needed, the authors discuss the hypothesis that maternal infections during different trimesters may put the fetal organs developing at the time at risk. For example, the heart develops in the first trimester, the kidneys in the third, so infections in those periods could mean a higher risk later in life of cardiovascular disease or kidney disease, respectively.
This is just a preview of the pandemic’s reach; we’re going to continue to learn of ways COVID-19 will shape our health and our lives going forward. It’s enough to keep me in a mask, and though reasons for donning one undoubtedly vary, I’m far from alone: 31 percent of Americans are masking most or all of the time, while 26 percent are some of the time, according to a poll from late August by The Economist/YouGov.
Considering what we know so far, and with an expected rise in COVID-19 cases on the horizon, reinstating masking and implementing other control measures indoors in the coming months seems prudent. It’s a guard against infections now and may contribute to a healthier tomorrow.
In the wake of the dinosaurs’ demise, a bizarre beast that some researchers have nicknamed “ManBearPig” lived life in the fast lane. This sheep-sized mammal — which sported five-fingered hands, a bearlike face and the stocky build of a pig — gave birth to highly developed young. And those young grew up much faster than expected for an animal as massive as ManBearPig, new fossil analyses show.
That combination of long gestation and quick aging may have led to many rapid generations of bigger and bigger babies, researchers report online August 31 in Nature. Such an approach to life could help explain how some mammals took over the world after the dinosaur doomsday. During the age of the dinosaurs, mammals “only got as large as a domestic cat, maybe, or a badger,” says Gregory Funston, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. But after an asteroid wiped out all nonbird dinosaurs about 66 million years ago, “we see this huge explosion in mammal diversity, where mammals start to get really big,” Funston says.
In particular, placental mammals got really big. Those are mammals whose babies develop mainly in the womb while fed by a placenta — unlike egg-laying platypuses or marsupials, whose tiny newborns do much of their development in their mother’s pouch. Today, placentals are the most diverse group of mammals and include some of the world’s largest animals such as whales, elephants and giraffes.
Paleontologists have long wondered why placentals rose to dominance. Researchers suspected that the long gestation period of this mammal lineage was an important factor. But it was unclear how long ago such long gestation evolved.
For clues, Funston and colleagues turned to what they call ManBearPig, or Pantolambda bathmodon. This ancient herbivore, which lived about 62 million years ago, was one of the first large mammals to appear after the dinosaur apocalypse. The team examined fossils from the San Juan Basin in New Mexico, including two partial skeletons and scattered teeth from several other individuals.
Daily and annual growth lines in the teeth sketched out a timeline of each animal’s life. On that timeline, chemical signatures recorded when the creature underwent major life changes. The physical stress of being born left a deposit of zinc on the tooth enamel. Barium in the enamel spiked while an animal was nursing. Other details of the teeth and bones revealed how fast P. bathmodon grew throughout its life and each animal’s age at death. P. bathmodon stayed in the womb for about seven months, nursed for just a month or two, reached adulthood within a year and lived at most about 11 years, the team found. A female’s pregnancy was much longer than the weeks-long gestation seen in modern marsupials and platypuses, but similar to the months-long pregnancies typical of modern placentals.
“It was reproducing like the most extreme placentals do today,” Funston says, such as giraffes and wildebeests — which are on their feet within minutes of birth. P. bathmodon gave birth to “probably just one baby in each litter, and that baby had a full set of teeth already in the mouth when it was born, and that means it was probably born with fur in place and with open eyes.” The rest of P. bathmodon’s life trajectory, however, was markedly different from modern mammals. This species weaned and reached adulthood faster than expected for an animal of its size. Most died between two and five years old, with the oldest one studied dead at age 11 — only about half of the 20-year lifespan expected for an animal as big as ManBearPig.
That “live fast, die young” lifestyle may have helped placental mammals fill giant dinos’ empty shoes, says Graham Slater, a paleobiologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the study. “These things are going to be kicking out new generations every year and a half,” he says, “and because they’re having that rapid generation time … evolution can just act faster.”
Longer gestation could have led to bigger babies, which grew into bigger adults that had bigger babies themselves. With many such generations passing in quick succession, Slater says, “you’re going to get bigger and bigger animals very, very quickly.”
But no single species can tell the story of how mammals took over the world (SN: 6/7/22). Future studies should investigate whether other mammals that lived around this time had a similar life cycle, Slater says.
Human trash can be a cockatoo’s treasure. In Sydney, the birds have learned how to open garbage bins and toss trash around in the streets as they hunt for food scraps. People are now fighting back.
Bricks, pool noodles, spikes, shoes and sticks are just some of the tools Sydney residents use to keep sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) from opening trash bins, researchers report September 12 in Current Biology. The goal is to stop the birds from lifting the lid while the container is upright but still allowing the lid to flop open when a trash bin is tilted to empty its contents. This interspecies battle could be a case of what’s called an innovation arms race, says Barbara Klump, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Radolfzell, Germany. When cockatoos learn how to flip trash can lids, people change their behavior, using things like bricks to weigh down lids, to protect their trash from being flung about (SN Explores: 10/26/21). “That’s usually a low-level protection and then the cockatoos figure out how to defeat that,” Klump says. That’s when people beef up their efforts, and the cycle continues.
Researchers are closely watching this escalation to see what the birds — and humans — do next. With the right method, the cockatoos might fly by and keep hunting for a different target. Or they might learn how to get around it.
In the study, Klump and colleagues inspected more than 3,000 bins across four Sydney suburbs where cockatoos invade trash to note whether and how people were protecting their garbage. Observations coupled with an online survey showed that people living on the same street are more likely to use similar deterrents, and those efforts escalate over time. Tricks such as attempting to scare the parrots off with rubber snakes don’t work very well, Klump says. Nor does blocking access with heavy objects such as bricks; cockatoos use brute force to push them off. Hanging weights from the front of the lid or wedging items such as sneakers and sticks through a bin’s back handles work better. The team didn’t see any birds get inside bins with these higher levels of protection
The findings hint at an arms race, Klump says, but the missing piece is how the birds will respond as people try new ways of blocking bins. Some survey responses suggest that the parrots are learning.
“Bricks seemed to work for a while, but cockies got too clever,” one survey respondent wrote. “Neighbours on other side of highway suggested sticks. They work.” It would be interesting to explore the benefits and issues of different methods from the perspective of both humans and birds, says Anne Clark, a behavioral ecologist at Binghamton University in New York who wasn’t involved with the work. “I’m curious the degree of effort that people put into this and whether sometimes that effort limited their use of one solution versus another.” Some people, for instance, might not have the time to attach a small weight to the lid of the bin or might depend on their children, who can’t lift heavy bricks, to put out the trash.
In the same vein, cockatoos may stay away from tactics that take too long to beat. Bricks, for instance, are easy to quickly push off a bin; breaking sticks or pool noodles wedged through the bin’s back handle could take more time. Perhaps if enough people in a neighborhood adopt a highly effective method, Clark says, the cockatoos may not find it worth it to stop by.
Time hasn’t made much sense since spring 2020 for many people, myself included. In February 2020, during the Before Times, my family traveled to Barcelona, a relatively carefree trip that now feels like a lifetime ago. Other times, I feel like I blinked, and three years vanished. How can my son be starting fifth grade? He was a second grader just a minute ago.
Welcome to “blursday.” Back when the pandemic started, the term hit the zeitgeist. The word captured that sense of time disintegrating as our worlds and routines turned upside down (SN: 9/14/20). Days melted together, then weeks, then years.
As people began wondering about why time felt so out of whack, Simon Grondin, a psychologist at Laval University in Quebec City, and colleagues penned a theory paper seeking to explain the phenomenon. Our time is typically punctuated by events, such as dinner dates or daily commutes, Grondin and his team wrote in October 2020 in Frontiers in Psychology. Such events provide temporal landmarks. When those landmarks disappear, days lose their identities. Time loses its definition. Since the initial shutdowns, cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists have been scrambling to document people’s changing relationship with the clock. Early findings from those efforts now confirm that the pandemic did lead many people worldwide to experience distortions in their perception of time.
For instance, two surveys of more than 5,600 people taken during the first six months of the pandemic in the United States showed that roughly two-thirds of respondents reported feeling strangely out of sync. Days felt as if they were blurring together, the present loomed overly large and the future felt uncertain, researchers reported in August in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy.
“All of a sudden everything went on stop.… We could not be the people we were used to being in the world anymore,” says health psychologist Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine.
For some people, distortions in time may feel like a strange, somewhat unsettling phenomenon, but one they can shake off. For others, the trauma of the past few years combined with this weird perception of time is a worrisome mix: They could be at risk of lingering mental health problems, Holman says.
Those who reported greater feelings of time distortion, and thus may be at higher risk of developing mental health problems, included participants ages 18 to 29 and women. Previous life experience, including preexisting mental health challenges and high levels of lifetime stress or trauma, also heightened one’s likelihood of feeling out of sync. Holman first observed how a warped sense of time can hurt people’s well-being as a graduate student in the 1990s. For her dissertation, she interviewed survivors of the southern California fires of 1993 within days of the fires’ onset. She found that two years later, the individuals who had lost their sense of time during the fires still reported feeling greater distress than those who had largely kept their temporal bearings.
“People who experienced temporal disintegration … got stuck in that past experience. They couldn’t put together the flow from past to present to future,” she says.
Now Holman hopes that measuring how much people feel like time is falling apart during the pandemic might provide an early indicator of who might need help with recovery.
Other recent research during the pandemic suggests that those experiencing time as moving more slowly seem to struggle with greater mental distress than those who experience time as moving fast. For instance, respondents who reported that time felt like it was going very slowly also reported higher levels of loneliness, researchers reported in August in Nature Human Behaviour.
In a similar line of work, experimental psychologist Ruth Ogden of Liverpool John Moores University in England and colleagues are seeking to understand how people might eventually remember the pandemic, and what that could mean for recovery. Ogden and her team asked almost 800 respondents in the United Kingdom to reflect on the start of the pandemic a year after it started.
Only 9 percent said the preceding 12 months felt precisely like a year, while 34 percent said that time felt shorter, the researchers wrote in July in PLOS One. Most respondents, 57 percent, said that the preceding 12 months felt longer than a year. When a traumatic event feels long in hindsight, people may feel that the trauma is much closer in the rearview mirror than it is in reality. Such negative emotions could lengthen people’s recovery from the pandemic, Ogden and her team suspect. Remembering “a longer pandemic may feel more recent and thus more present,” the team writes.
Mindfulness training that brings people back to the present is one promising way to overcome distortions in time perception, says Olivier Bourdon, a psychologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal (SN: 9/26/22).
But unlike more finite traumas, such as wildfires and mass shootings, the pandemic is not yet in the rearview mirror. Many people are stuck not in the past but a sort of liminal present. While the answers for how to treat people in this instance are far from clear, Bourdon says the key is helping people knit together their past, present and future selves. “If you’re stuck in a specific time perspective, it’s bad for health,” he says.
Helping people rebuild a new vision for the future is especially crucial for well-being, research suggests. People must, Holman says, “have some sense of tomorrow.”