MAPPING AFRICA’S GENOME.
An industry-academic collaboration, “Together for Changing Healthcare for People of African Ancestry through an InterNational Genomics & Equity (Together for CHANGE)”, was recently announced, aiming to build the largest genomic database of individuals of African descent. This initiative, supported by a $80 million investment from four biopharma firms (Regeneron, AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk, and Roche), collaborates with Meharry Medical College, a historically Black college, with plans to recruit 500,000 participants. Despite being among the most genetically diverse, people of African ancestry account for less than 0.5% of genetic study participants. This underrepresentation results in missed disease-causing mutations specific to Africans and inaccuracies in tools and treatments developed mainly from European data. The new project seeks to rectify these disparities, ensuring a holistic understanding of human genomes. Regeneron initiated the partnership during the height of the COVID-19 impact on Black U.S. communities. The initiative also allocates $30 million to augment the number of Black scientists in the U.S. and Africa, supporting research grants and academic programs in genomics. The Diaspora Human Genomics Institute, a new entity at Meharry, will spearhead the project, granting exclusive access to the data to partner organizations. To address past exploitations of Black patients, local communities will be consulted on research paths, ensuring ethical and culturally sensitive research directions. (Science)
CANDIDATE FOR NIH TOP SPOT.
Monica Bertagnolli, nominated by US President Joe Biden to lead the National Institutes of Health (NIH), revealed her primary objectives for the NIH during a Senate committee hearing. These include increasing diversity in clinical-trial participants, fostering collaboration among the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers, and re-establishing public confidence in scientists and the agency. Previously enjoying bipartisan support, the NIH has recently faced political scrutiny concerning its research, especially amid unsubstantiated claims linking NIH-funded coronavirus research in China to the pandemic’s origin. Bertagnolli, if confirmed, would be the NIH’s second permanent female director. Despite broad endorsement for Bertagnolli’s expertise, the hearing spotlighted several divisive issues, contrasting the unanimous support Francis Collins received in 2009 when he became the NIH director. Senator Bernie Sanders sought commitments on reducing US prescription medicine prices, while some Republican senators raised concerns about funding research on fetal tissue and transgender healthcare. The committee plans to reconvene on 25 October to determine the next steps for Bertagnolli’s nomination. (Nature)
LIVES DESTROYED BY RFK JR.’S ANTI-VAX STANCE.
12-year-old Braden Fahey’s photo was used without permission on the cover of an anti-vaccine book falsely claiming COVID-19 vaccines caused a spike in young people’s deaths. Braden died from a malformed blood vessel, never receiving the vaccine. His parents were shocked and tried unsuccessfully to contact the publisher to remove Braden’s photo. The book was co-published by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has used his famous name to spread vaccine misinformation, earn money, and gain political clout. Experts say Kennedy has become an influential spreader of falsehoods about vaccines causing autism and other harms, despite a lack of scientific evidence. His anti-vaccine advocacy has convinced some parents to refuse vaccines, putting their children’s lives at risk. Kennedy’s decision to run for president as an independent now gives further spotlight to his views. Public health advocates warn Kennedy’s rhetoric demonizes scientists and doctors, causing real-world harassment and harm. (Associated Press)
HAIR PRODUCT CAUSES CANCER.
Dabur India announced that its subsidiaries, including Namaste Laboratories, Dermoviva Skin Essentials, and Dabur International, are among several companies being sued in the U.S. and Canada. The plaintiffs claim that hair relaxer products have led to ovarian and uterine cancer, among other health complications. The company’s shares saw a decline, dropping 1.7% to 525 rupees, marking a 6.5% decrease year-to-date. Dabur India stated that these allegations arise from an “unsubstantiated and incomplete” study. Approximately 5,400 cases have been merged into a multi-district litigation in a U.S. District Court in Illinois. Although the subsidiaries have denied all accusations and secured legal representation, the company acknowledges that defense costs are anticipated to surpass the materiality threshold soon. As of now, Dabur India is uncertain about potential financial implications from settlements or verdicts and hasn’t provided further details outside standard business hours. (Reuters)
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INCREASED BIRD FLU VIRULENCE.
Researchers have discovered that the H5N1 bird flu virus strain circulating globally has become increasingly infectious to wild birds over the past 18 years. This strain first appeared in Europe in 2020 and has since expanded to numerous countries at an alarming rate. The study, recently published in Nature, analyzed the virus’s genome changes and its spread patterns. In 2020, the virus spread among wild birds at a rate three times faster than in poultry due to mutations allowing it to adapt to diverse species. Andy Ramey, a wildlife geneticist, remarked that the virus, which was primarily a poultry pathogen, now presents a broader animal health issue. Continuous outbreaks since November 2021 have resulted in the death of millions of birds worldwide. The recent H5N1 strain emerged from H5N8 and mutated through interactions with less harmful bird flu strains. This adaptability in wild birds poses significant management challenges, emphasizing the global impact and the importance of monitoring and controlling even less harmful strains. (Nature)
BIRD FLU ON THE MOVE.
A new study reveals that the primary location for bird flu outbreaks has transitioned from Asia to Europe and Africa. Historically, bird flu viruses predominantly originated from Asia over the past 25 years. However, changes in the virus and its spread patterns have shifted this epicenter. While the 2016 and 2017 outbreaks began in China, new H5 viruses appeared in African poultry in 2020 and in European wild birds in 2022. The H5N1 variant recently caused a major outbreak in Europe, which later became global, reaching all continents except Oceania and Antarctica. The variant has caused significant mortality in birds, occasionally transmitted to mammals and humans. From 2003, H5N1 infected 873 people, causing 458 deaths, mostly linked to handling diseased poultry. A team from the University of Hong Kong analyzed data from 2005-2022, emphasizing the need for better surveillance, especially in Africa. Traditional control measures like mass culling are becoming less effective due to the disease’s prevalence in wild birds. The disease’s spread correlates with human activity and migratory patterns, making containment challenging. (The Guardian)
Bolivia is grappling with a severe drought, impacting seven of its nine departments and jeopardizing water and food supply for over 200,000 families, particularly in the Andean region. Climate change exacerbates this crisis, damaging crops and causing livestock deaths. The El Niño phenomenon is anticipated to further dry conditions in 2024. Communities like Lorocota face water rationing, restricting their ability to farm and access clean water. Bolivia’s rainfall has decreased by 28% over five years. Cities like Potosí are rationing water as reservoirs near depletion. Of Bolivia’s 336 municipalities, 144 are affected, prompting the government to allocate $17 million for interventions, including sanitation and irrigation projects. Agricultural production has declined, with more than half of Bolivia’s population now facing food insecurity. This food production decrease leads to higher market prices, endangering nutrition for the impoverished. As the drought persists, farmers and religious groups seek divine intervention for rain. Meteorological predictions suggest worsened conditions due to the forthcoming El Niño and recent record temperatures. Experts argue that collaborative long-term strategies are vital to address Bolivia’s escalating water crisis. (El Pais)
REINTRODUCING NATIVE TREE TO HAWAII.
After Maui’s devastating wildfire, which claimed at least 98 lives, attention turned to the scorched 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina, a symbol of hope and a cherished community landmark. However, another tree with deep Hawaiian cultural significance, the breadfruit (ulu), also faced near-extinction from the fire. Historically, thousands of ulu trees thrived in Lahaina before colonization and commercialization reduced their numbers. Only two survived the recent fire. As Maui rebuilds post-disaster, a group of arborists, farmers, and landscapers aim to revive Lahaina’s significant trees, especially ulu and kukui nut. Efforts include excavating the roots of charred trees to locate living tissue and propagate new growth. The restoration aligns with broader community concerns about preserving Lahaina’s cultural identity against commercial interests. The banyan tree, although iconic, represents colonization, while the ulu and kukui nut trees, introduced by Polynesian voyagers, symbolize authentic Hawaiian heritage. Plans to reintroduce these trees face challenges, such as ensuring safety from falling ulu, which can be weighty and potentially hazardous. Replanting efforts are coupled with initiatives to educate locals about the care and utilization of these trees, emphasizing their cultural and practical importance. (Associated Press)
Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.
WORDS: The Biology Guy.
IMAGE CREDIT: Gage Skidmore.