In January 2020, just weeks after the first Covid-19 cases emerged in China, the full genome of the new coronavirus was published online. Using this genomic sequence, scientists scrambled to design a large assortment of diagnostic tests for the virus.
But the virus has mutated since then. And as the coronavirus has evolved, so has the landscape of testing. The emergence of new variants has sparked a flurry of interest in developing tests for specific viral mutations and prompted concerns about the accuracy of some existing tests.
“With these Covid diagnostics, we were on a time crunch, we had to get something out there,” said Lorraine Lillis, the scientific program officer at PATH, a global health nonprofit that has been tracking coronavirus tests. “Normally, diagnostics take a long, long time, and we’d normally challenge them with multiple variants.” She added: “And we’re doing that, but we’re doing it in real time.”
The Food and Drug Administration has warned that new mutations in the coronavirus could render some tests less effective. And last week, PATH launched two online dashboards to monitor how certain variants might affect the performance of existing diagnostic tests.
has listed four different molecular tests “whose performance could be impacted” by the variants, but notes that the tests should still work. Three of the tests have multiple targets; a fourth may be slightly less sensitive when the virus has one particular mutation and is present at very low levels. (The four tests are the TaqPath Covid-19 Combo Kit, the Linea Covid-19 Assay Kit, the Xpert Xpress and Xpert Omni SARS-CoV-2, and the Accula SARS-CoV-2 Test.)
“We don’t think that those four assays are significantly impacted,” said Dr. Tim Stenzel, who directs the F.D.A.’s office of in vitro diagnostics and radiological health. “It was more out of an abundance of caution and transparency that we made that information public.”
Antigen tests are less sensitive than molecular tests, but they are typically cheaper and faster, and they are being deployed widely in coronavirus screening programs. These tests detect specific proteins on the outside of the virus. Some genetic mutations could change the structure of these proteins, allowing them to escape detection.
in a recent paper, Dr. Izpisua Belmonte and his colleague, Mo Li, a stem cell biologist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, described a new testing method that can identifymutations in up to five different regions of the coronavirus genome.
And Dr. Grubaugh and his colleagues have developed a P.C.R. test that can detect specific combinations of mutations that characterize three variants of concern:B.1.1.7; B.1.351, which was first detected in South Africa; and P.1, first found in Brazil. (The work has not yet been published in a scientific journal.)
Dr. Grubaugh said that researchers in Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere are already using the tests to sift through a mountain of coronavirus samples, identifying those that should be prioritized for full genomic sequencing. “Our group’s primary interest is enhancing genomic surveillance through sequencing, especially in resource-limited areas,” Dr. Grubaugh said. “If you want to know if there’s variants that are circulating, you need a way to triage.”
A number of companies are also beginning to release coronavirus tests that they say can differentiate between certain variants, although these are intended for research purposes only. Creating a test that can definitively diagnose someone with a particular variant is “infinitely harder,” Dr. Grubaugh said.
Similar mutations are springing up in different variants, which makes distinguishing among them more difficult. The mutations of interest will change as the virus does, and sequencing remains the best way to get a complete picture of the virus.
But tests that can screen for certain mutations could be an important public health tool, Ms. Agarwal said: “These newer diagnostics that are looking across the variants, I think will be really key in understanding the epidemiology of the virus and planning our next generation of efforts against it.”
Like many women during the pandemic, Alisa Stephens found working from home to be a series of wearying challenges.
Dr. Stephens is a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania, and the technical and detail-oriented nature of her work requires long uninterrupted stretches of thought. Finding the time and mental space for that work with two young children at home proved to be an impossibility.
“That first month was really hard,” she recalled of the lockdown. Her infant daughter’s day care was closed, and her 5-year-old was at home instead of at school. With their nanny unable to come to the house, Dr. Stephens tended to her children all day and worked late into the evening. In the fall, when her daughter was set to begin kindergarten, the schools did not reopen.
Things eased once the family could safely bring in a nanny, but there was still little time for the deep thought Dr. Stephens had relied on each morning for her work. Over time, she has adjusted her expectations of herself.
studies have found that women have published fewer papers, led fewer clinical trials and received less recognition for their expertise during the pandemic.
Add to that the emotional upheaval and stress of the pandemic, the protests over structural racism, worry about children’s mental health and education, and the lack of time to think or work, and an already unsustainable situation becomes unbearable.
“The confluence of all of these factors creates this perfect storm. People are at their breaking point,” said Michelle Cardel, an obesity researcher at the University of Florida. “My big fear is that we are going to have a secondary epidemic of loss, particularly of early career women in STEM.”
Female scientists were struggling even before the pandemic. It was not unusual for them to hear that women were not as smart as men, or that a woman who was successful must have received a handout along the way, said Daniela Witten, a biostatistician at the University of Washington in Seattle. Some things are changing, she said, but only with great effort, and at a glacial pace.
steep for mothers. Even during maternity leave, they are expected to keep up with lab work, teaching requirements, publications and mentoring of graduate students. When they return to work, most do not have affordable child care.
Women in academia often have little recourse when confronted with discrimination. Their institutions sometimes lack the human resources structures common in the business world.
it will be far from enough.
“It’s sort of like if you’re drowning, and the university tells you, ‘Don’t worry if it takes you an extra year to get back to shore,’” Dr. Witten said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, that’s not helpful. I need a flotation device.’”
study on female scientists was published in the influential journal Nature Communications, suggesting that having female mentors would hinder the career of young scientists and recommending that the young women instead seek out men to help them.
The response was intense and unforgiving.
Hundreds of scientists, male and female, renounced the paper’s flawed methods and conclusions, saying it reinforced outdated stereotypes and neglected to take structural biases in academia into account.
“The advice from the paper was basically similar to advice your grandmother may have given you 50 years ago: Get yourself a man who will take care of you, and all will be fine,” Dr. Cardel said.
Nearly 7,600 scientists signed a petition calling on the journal to retract the paper — which it did on Dec. 21.
Updated March 29, 2021
The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.
The study arrived at a time when many female scientists were already worried about the pandemic’s effect on their careers, and already on edge and angry with a system that offered them little support.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult time to be a woman in science,” said Leslie Vosshall, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. “We’re already on the ground, we’re already on our knees — and then the paper just comes and kicks us to say: ‘We have the solution, let’s move the graduate students to a senior man.’”
reconsidered their dude walls, Dr. Vosshall said. “There are some traditions that should not be perpetuated.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is extremely effective in adolescents 12 to 15 years old, perhaps even more so than in adults, the companies reported on Wednesday. No infections were found among children who received the vaccine in a recent clinical trial, the drug makers said; the children produced strong antibody responses and experienced no serious side effects.
The findings, if they hold up, may speed a return to normalcy for millions of American families. Depending on regulatory approval, vaccinations could begin before the start of the next academic year for middle school and high school students, and for elementary school children not long after.
The companies announced the results in a news release that did not include detailed data from the trial, which has not yet been peer-reviewed nor published in a scientific journal. Still, the news drew praise and excitement from experts.
“Oh my god, I’m so happy to see this — this is amazing,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. If the vaccines’s performance in adults was A-plus, the results in children were “A-plus-plus.”
had left her with sense of “impending doom,” while President Biden called on state and local officials to reinstate mask mandates.
Vaccination efforts are accelerating throughout the nation. As of Tuesday, 29 percent of adults had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 16 percent had been fully inoculated, according to the C.D.C.
But the country cannot hope to reach herd immunity — the point at which immunity becomes so widespread that the coronavirus slows its crawl through the population — without also inoculating the youngest Americans, some experts say. Children under 18 account for about 23 percent of the population in the United States.
“The sooner that we can get vaccines into as many people as possible, regardless of their age, the sooner we will be able to really feel like we’re ending this pandemic for good,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University in Washington.
Data from Israel suggest that vaccinating adults alone can significantly decrease the number of cases, but “long term, to hit the herd immunity threshold, we will have to vaccinate children,” she said.
children ages 5 to 11 just last week. Company scientists plan to start testing the vaccine next week in even younger children, ages 2 to 5, followed by trials in children ages 6 months to 2 years.
testing its vaccine in children. Results from a trial in adolescents ages 12 to 17 are expected in the next few weeks and in children 6 months to 12 years old in the second half of this year.
AstraZeneca started testing its vaccine in children 6 months and older last month, and Johnson & Johnson has said it will wait for results from trials in older children before testing its vaccine in children under 12.
Some parents have said they are reluctant to immunize their children because the risk posed by the virus is low. Children make up fewer than 1 percent of deaths from Covid-19, but about 2 percent of children who get the illness require hospital care.
The new results may not sway all of those parents, but they may reassure parents who have been wary of the vaccines, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“While I don’t think we have to wait until children are vaccinated to fully reopen schools, being able to vaccinate children may help some families feel safer about returning to school,” she said.
Pfizer and BioNTech plan to request from the Food and Drug Administration an amendment to the emergency use authorization for their vaccine, in hopes of beginning immunizations of older children before the start of the next school year. The companies also are planning to submit their data for peer review and publication in a scientific journal.
They will monitor the participants for two years after the second dose to assess the vaccine’s long-term safety and efficacy. Side effects of vaccines are usually apparent within the first six weeks, said Dr. Kristin Oliver, a pediatrician and vaccine expert at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “Still, it’s good to know that safety monitoring is going to continue,” she said.
The C.D.C. recommends that people avoid getting other vaccines for two weeks before and after receiving the two doses of the coronavirus vaccine.
But children receive more vaccines in the few weeks before the school year than at any other time, Dr. Oliver noted, so pediatricians and parents should aim to get those other immunizations done earlier than usual.
The coronavirus vaccines should ideally be given by pediatricians who have deep experience in immunizing children, Dr. Oliver added. “Now is the time to start planning how that rollout is going to take place in this age group,” she said.
Yale plans to hold a version of in-person graduation for the class of 2021 in May — with no guests allowed. Harvard is not even calling its commencement a “commencement.” It plans to hold virtual degree-granting ceremonies and, for the second year in a row, will postpone traditional festivities.
The universities of South Florida, Southern California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt, Rochester and Kentucky, among others, are holding in-person commencements, but with differing rules about guests.
So it goes in this second graduation season of the pandemic. Day by day, another university announces commencement plans, and given the uncertainty created by the coronavirus, the decisions are breaking in opposite ways.
Prairie View A&M in Texas plans to hold live commencements, even as, somewhat surreally, the president of the college, Ruth Simmons, will be delivering the principal address at Harvard’s virtual commencement.
New York Times database. Vaccinations have also picked up, averaging about 2.5 million shots a day, as eligibility expands in several states.
Experts warn, however, that dangerous variants could lead to a spike in cases and states that lift restrictions could be acting prematurely.
Many universities are stipulating that in order to participate in graduation, students must have tested negative for the coronavirus before the ceremony and have a good record of adhering to campus policies created to guard against infection.
Peter Salovey, the president of Yale, said in a statement last week that the university would be recognizing graduation by holding in-person gatherings “on or around May 24, if public health conditions permit.” Students studying both on campus and remotely are invited, but not their guests. Mr. Salovey said Yale was excluding families because it seemed unlikely that everybody would be vaccinated by graduation day.
Harvard was one of the first universities to evacuate its campus in mid-March last year, and it is still in caution mode. In an email to students on Feb. 26, its president, Lawrence Bacow, said that postponing live commencement for two years running was “deeply disappointing, but public health and safety must continue to take precedence.”
80,000 people. The university will hold two ceremonies on May 8, but graduates cannot bring guests.
Princeton plans to hold an outdoor commencement at its stadium for students who have taken part in the testing program and who live on or near campus. It is also considering extending the invitation to students learning virtually.
New York University and Stanford University have also announced plans to hold virtual celebrations.