Could the Pandemic Prompt an ‘Epidemic of Loss’ of Women in the Sciences?

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.

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.”

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At Last, Aid for Senior Nutrition That Offers More Than Crumbs

Long before the coronavirus hit, nutrition programs that served the nation’s older adults struggled to keep up with a growing demand. Often, they could not.

In Charlotte, N.C., and nine surrounding counties, for example, the waiting list for Meals on Wheels averaged about 1,200 people. But Linda Miller, director of the Centralina Area Agency on Aging, which coordinates the program, always assumed the actual need was higher.

She knew some clients skipped meals because they couldn’t travel to a senior center for a hot lunch every weekday; some divided a single home-delivered meal to serve as both lunch and dinner.

Some never applied for help. “Just like with food stamps, which are underused,” Ms. Miller said, “people are embarrassed: ‘I worked hard all my life; I don’t want charity.’”

5.4 million older recipients.

For years, advocates for older adults have lobbied Congress for more significant federal help. Although the Older Americans Act has enjoyed bipartisan support, small annual upticks in appropriations left 5,000 local organizations constantly lagging in their ability to feed seniors.

From 2001 to 2019, funding for the Older Americans Act rose an average of 1.1 percent annually — a 22 percent increase over almost two decades, according to an analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute. But adjusted for inflation, the funding for nutrition services actually fell 8 percent. State and local matching funds, foundation grants and private donations helped keep kitchens open and drivers delivering, but many programs still could not bridge their budget gaps.

food insecure,” meaning they had limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

And that shortfall was before the pandemic. Once programs hastily closed congregant settings last spring, a Meals on Wheels America survey found that nearly 80 percent of the programs reported that new requests for home-delivered meals had at least doubled; waiting lists grew by 26 percent.

Along with money, the Covid relief legislation gave these local programs needed flexibility. Normally, to qualify for Meals on Wheels, homebound clients must require assistance with activities of daily living. The emergency appropriations allowed administrators to serve less frail seniors who were following stay-at-home orders, and to transfer money freely from congregant centers to home delivery.

Even so, the increased caseloads, with people who had never applied before seeking meals, left some administrators facing dire decisions.

In Northern Arizona, about 800 clients were receiving home-delivered meals in February 2020. By June, that number had ballooned to 1,265, including new applicants as well as those who had previously eaten at the program’s 18 now-shuttered senior centers. Clients were receiving 14 meals each week.

By summer, despite federal relief funds, “I was out of money,” Ms. Beals-Luedtka said. She faced the grim task of telling 342 seniors, who had been added to the rolls for three emergency months, that she had to remove them. “People were crying on the phone,” she recalled. “I literally had a man say he was going to commit suicide.” (She reinstated him.) Even those who remained started receiving five meals a week instead of 14.

diminish loneliness and help keep seniors out of expensive nursing homes. They also may help reduce falls, although those findings were based on a small sample and did not achieve statistical significance.

Interestingly, Dr. Thomas’s research found daily meal deliveries had greater effects than weekly or twice-monthly drop-offs of frozen meals, a practice many local organizations have adopted to save money.

Frail or forgetful clients may have trouble storing, preparing and remembering to eat frozen meals. But the primary reason daily deliveries pay off, her study shows, is the regular chats with drivers.

“They build relationships with their clients,” Dr. Thomas said. “They might come back later to fix a rickety handrail. If they’re worried about a client’s health, they let the program know. The drivers are often the only people they see all day, so these relationships are very important.”

a prepandemic evaluation found.

So while program administrators relish a rare opportunity to expand their reach, they worry that if Congress doesn’t sustain this higher level of appropriations, the relief money will be spent and waiting lists will reappear.

“There’s going to be a cliff,” Ms. Beals-Luedtka said. “What’s going to happen next time? I don’t want to have to call people and say, ‘We’re done with you now.’ These are our grandparents.”

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Has the Era of Overzealous Cleaning Finally Come to an End?

When the coronavirus began to spread in the United States last spring, many experts warned of the danger posed by surfaces. Researchers reported that the virus could survive for days on plastic or stainless steel, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that if someone touched one of these contaminated surfaces — and then touched their eyes, nose or mouth — they could become infected.

Americans responded in kind, wiping down groceries, quarantining mail and clearing drugstore shelves of Clorox wipes. Facebook closed two of its offices for a “deep cleaning.” New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority began disinfecting subway cars every night.

But the era of “hygiene theater” may have come to an unofficial end this week, when the C.D.C. updated its surface cleaning guidelines and noted that the risk of contracting the virus from touching a contaminated surface was less than 1 in 10,000.

“People can be affected with the virus that causes Covid-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said at a White House briefing on Monday. “However, evidence has demonstrated that the risk by this route of infection of transmission is actually low.”

primarily through the air — in both large and small droplets, which can remain aloft longer — and that scouring door handles and subway seats does little to keep people safe.

who wrote last summer that the risk of surface transmission had been overblown. “This is a virus you get by breathing. It’s not a virus you get by touching.”

The C.D.C. has previously acknowledged that surfaces are not the primary way that the virus spreads. But the agency’s statements this week went further.

“The most important part of this update is that they’re clearly communicating to the public the correct, low risk from surfaces, which is not a message that has been clearly communicated for the past year,” said Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Catching the virus from surfaces remains theoretically possible, he noted. But it requires many things to go wrong: a lot of fresh, infectious viral particles to be deposited on a surface, and then for a relatively large quantity of them to be quickly transferred to someone’s hand and then to their face. “Presence on a surface does not equal risk,” Dr. Allen said.

In most cases, cleaning with simple soap and water — in addition to hand-washing and mask-wearing — is enough to keep the odds of surface transmission low, the C.D.C.’s updated cleaning guidelines say. In most everyday scenarios and environments, people do not need to use chemical disinfectants, the agency notes.

“What this does very usefully, I think, is tell us what we don’t need to do,” said Donald Milton, an aerosol scientist at the University of Maryland. “Doing a lot of spraying and misting of chemicals isn’t helpful.”

Still, the guidelines do suggest that if someone who has Covid-19 has been in a particular space within the last day, the area should be both cleaned and disinfected.

“Disinfection is only recommended in indoor settings — schools and homes — where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19 within the last 24 hours,” Dr. Walensky said during the White House briefing. “Also, in most cases, fogging, fumigation and wide-area or electrostatic spraying is not recommended as a primary method of disinfection and has several safety risks to consider.”

And the new cleaning guidelines do not apply to health care facilities, which may require more intensive cleaning and disinfection.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, said that she was happy to see the new guidance, which “reflects our evolving data on transmission throughout the pandemic.”

But she noted that it remained important to continue doing some regular cleaning — and maintaining good hand-washing practices — to reduce the risk of contracting not just the coronavirus but any other pathogens that might be lingering on a particular surface.

Dr. Allen said that the school and business officials he has spoken with this week expressed relief over the updated guidelines, which will allow them to pull back on some of their intensive cleaning regimens. “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better,” he said.

Schools, businesses and other institutions that want to keep people safe should shift their attention from surfaces to air quality, he said, and invest in improved ventilation and filtration.

“This should be the end of deep cleaning,” Dr. Allen said, noting that the misplaced focus on surfaces has had real costs. “It has led to closed playgrounds, it has led to taking nets off basketball courts, it has led to quarantining books in the library. It has led to entire missed school days for deep cleaning. It has led to not being able to share a pencil. So that’s all that hygiene theater, and it’s a direct result of not properly classifying surface transmission as low risk.”

Roni Caryn Rabin contributed reporting

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Finding From Particle Research Could Break Known Laws of Physics

Meanwhile, in 2020 a group of 170 experts known as the Muon g-2 Theory Initiative published a new consensus value of the theoretical value of muon’s magnetic moment, based on three years of workshops and calculations using the Standard Model. That answer reinforced the original discrepancy reported by Brookhaven.

Reached by phone on Monday, Aida X. El-Khardra, a physicist at the University of Illinois and a co-chair of the Muon g-2 Theory Initiative, said she did not know the result that Fermilab would be announcing two days later — and she didn’t want to, lest she be tempted to fudge in a lecture scheduled just before the official unveiling on Wednesday.

“I have not had the feeling of sitting on hot coals before,” Dr. El-Khadra said. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

On the day of the Fermilab announcement another group, using a different technique known as a lattice calculation to compute the muon’s magnetic moment, concluded that there was no discrepancy between the Brookhaven measurement and the Standard Model.

“Yes, we claim that there is no discrepancy between the Standard Model and the Brookhaven result, no new physics,” said Zoltan Fodor of Pennsylvania State University, one of the authors of a report published in Nature on Wednesday.

Dr. El-Khadra, who was familiar with that work, called it an “amazing calculation, but not conclusive.” She noted that the computations involved were horrendously complicated, having to account for all possible ways that a muon could interact with the universe, and requiring thousands of individual sub-calculations and hundreds of hours of supercomputer time.

These lattice calculations, she said, needed to be checked against independent results from other groups to eliminate the possibility of systematic errors. For now, the Theory Initiative’s calculation remains the standard by which the measurements will be compared.

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Researchers Are Hatching a Low-Cost Covid-19 Vaccine

A new vaccine for Covid-19 that is entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic. The vaccine, called NVD-HXP-S, is the first in clinical trials to use a new molecular design that is widely expected to create more potent antibodies than the current generation of vaccines. And the new vaccine could be far easier to make.

Existing vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson must be produced in specialized factories using hard-to-acquire ingredients. In contrast, the new vaccine can be mass-produced in chicken eggs — the same eggs that produce billions of influenza vaccines every year in factories around the world.

If NVD-HXP-S proves safe and effective, flu vaccine manufacturers could potentially produce well over a billion doses of it a year. Low- and middle-income countries currently struggling to obtain vaccines from wealthier countries may be able to make NVD-HXP-S for themselves or acquire it at low cost from neighbors.

“That’s staggering — it would be a game-changer,” said Andrea Taylor, assistant director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Vaccines work by acquainting the immune system with a virus well enough to prompt a defense against it. Some vaccines contain entire viruses that have been killed; others contain just a single protein from the virus. Still others contain genetic instructions that our cells can use to make the viral protein.

Once exposed to a virus, or part of it, the immune system can learn to make antibodies that attack it. Immune cells can also learn to recognize infected cells and destroy them.

spike, latches onto cells and then allows the virus to fuse to them.

But simply injecting coronavirus spike proteins into people is not the best way to vaccinate them. That’s because spike proteins sometimes assume the wrong shape, and prompt the immune system to make the wrong antibodies.

The researchers injected the 2P spikes into mice and found that the animals could easily fight off infections of the MERS coronavirus.

The team filed a patent for its modified spike, but the world took little notice of the invention. MERS, although deadly, is not very contagious and proved to be a relatively minor threat; fewer than 1,000 people have died of MERS since it first emerged in humans.

But in late 2019 a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged and began ravaging the world. Dr. McLellan and his colleagues swung into action, designing a 2P spike unique to SARS-CoV-2. In a matter of days, Moderna used that information to design a vaccine for Covid-19; it contained a genetic molecule called RNA with the instructions for making the 2P spike.

Other companies soon followed suit, adopting 2P spikes for their own vaccine designs and starting clinical trials. All three of the vaccines that have been authorized so far in the United States — from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — use the 2P spike.

Other vaccine makers are using it as well. Novavax has had strong results with the 2P spike in clinical trials and is expected to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in the next few weeks. Sanofi is also testing a 2P spike vaccine and expects to finish clinical trials later this year.

Dr. McLellan’s ability to find lifesaving clues in the structure of proteins has earned him deep admiration in the vaccine world. “This guy is a genius,” said Harry Kleanthous, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “He should be proud of this huge thing he’s done for humanity.”

But once Dr. McLellan and his colleagues handed off the 2P spike to vaccine makers, he turned back to the protein for a closer look. If swapping just two prolines improved a vaccine, surely additional tweaks could improve it even more.

HexaPro, in honor of its total of six prolines.

The structure of HexaPro was even more stable than 2P, the team found. It was also resilient, better able to withstand heat and damaging chemicals. Dr. McLellan hoped that its rugged design would make it potent in a vaccine.

Dr. McLellan also hoped that HexaPro-based vaccines would reach more of the world — especially low- and middle-income countries, which so far have received only a fraction of the total distribution of first-wave vaccines.

“The share of the vaccines they’ve received so far is terrible,” Dr. McLellan said.

To that end, the University of Texas set up a licensing arrangement for HexaPro that allows companies and labs in 80 low- and middle-income countries to use the protein in their vaccines without paying royalties.

Meanwhile, Dr. Innes and his colleagues at PATH were looking for a way to increase the production of Covid-19 vaccines. They wanted a vaccine that less wealthy nations could make on their own.

experimenting with Newcastle disease virus to create vaccines for a range of diseases. To develop an Ebola vaccine, for example, researchers added an Ebola gene to the Newcastle disease virus’s own set of genes.

The scientists then inserted the engineered virus into chicken eggs. Because it is a bird virus, it multiplied quickly in the eggs. The researchers ended up with Newcastle disease viruses coated with Ebola proteins.

At Mount Sinai, the researchers set out to do the same thing, using coronavirus spike proteins instead of Ebola proteins. When they learned about Dr. McLellan’s new HexaPro version, they added that to the Newcastle disease viruses. The viruses bristled with spike proteins, many of which had the desired prefusion shape. In a nod to both the Newcastle disease virus and the HexaPro spike, they called it NDV-HXP-S.

announced the start of a clinical trial of NDV-HXP-S. A week later, Thailand’s Government Pharmaceutical Organization followed suit. On March 26, Brazil’s Butantan Institute said it would ask for authorization to begin its own clinical trials of NDV-HXP-S.

Meanwhile, the Mount Sinai team has also licensed the vaccine to the Mexican vaccine maker Avi-Mex as an intranasal spray. The company will start clinical trials to see if the vaccine is even more potent in that form.

To the nations involved, the prospect of making the vaccines entirely on their own was appealing. “This vaccine production is produced by Thai people for Thai people,” Thailand’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said at the announcement in Bangkok.

In Brazil, the Butantan Institute trumpeted its version of NDV-HXP-S as “the Brazilian vaccine,” one that would be “produced entirely in Brazil, without depending on imports.”

Ms. Taylor, of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, was sympathetic. “I could understand why that would really be such an attractive prospect,” she said. “They’ve been at the mercy of global supply chains.”

Madhavi Sunder, an expert on intellectual property at Georgetown Law School, cautioned that NDV-HXP-S would not immediately help countries like Brazil as they grappled with the current wave of Covid-19 infections. “We’re not talking 16 billion doses in 2020,” she said.

Instead, the strategy will be important for long-term vaccine production — not just for Covid-19 but for other pandemics that may come in the future. “It sounds super promising,” she said.

In the meantime, Dr. McLellan has returned to the molecular drawing board to try to make a third version of their spike that is even better than HexaPro.

“There’s really no end to this process,” he said. “The number of permutations is almost infinite. At some point, you’d have to say, ‘This is the next generation.’”

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Let Us Now Praise Tiny Ants

All these differences help us see ants as they really are: rich in diversity, earned over millions of years of evolution as they adapted to a world’s worth of habitats, ecosystems and survival strategies. Dr. Rice calls ants “the Bauhaus creations of the natural world.” Like the architectural principle that form follows function, each strange-looking adaptation represents a major commitment in creatures with “little space for extravagance” and so illustrates yet another of the multitudinous ways that there are to be an ant. “To answer the question posed by an ant’s form,” Dr. Rice writes, “is to begin to untangle the intricate relationships that scaffold our world.”

The naturalist and author Edward O. Wilson discovered this early in his scientific career, when a mentor sent him a note about a group of ants with strange, long mandibles that could spring shut like traps. (“Wilson, find out what dacetines eat,” he wrote. “What do they hunt and catch creeping around with those weird mandibles?”) A question about morphology became a clue about a food web. The ants, it turned out, were eating springtails, a kind of hexapod that can fling itself rapidly through the air to avoid predators, but not quickly enough to outrun the incredible speed of the ants’ jaws. It was a race, Dr. Wilson wrote in “Tales From the Ant World”: “each using its own explosive devices, one to capture, the other to avoid capture.” Mr. Niga’s photographs show trap-jaw ants with mandibles like scimitars or lobster claws; some can close their jaws in barely one-tenth of a millisecond, slamming shut at speeds reaching 145 miles per hour.

We also meet Cataglyphis bicolor, with its long, spidery legs — an invaluable adaptation if you live, as this ant does, in the Sahara and need speed and height to keep you cool above the blazing sand. (For Oecophylla smaragdina, or weaver ants, long legs serve a different purpose: spanning gaps in the tree canopy as they construct nests of leaves and silk.) Leaf-cutter ants look fierce, their bodies covered in spines and spikes, but all that armor is meant not for fighting but, in effect, as a gardening tool. The ants are agriculturalists, ferrying food to the fungus that they cultivate in elaborate underground chambers, and the spikes allow them to better balance their leafy loads. In the tropics, they work in such diligent numbers that you can see the ant highways that their tiny ant feet wear into forest floors.

Learning the ways of ants teaches us that their lives are very different from our own. The ants we encounter in our own lives are almost exclusively female; the males are, in Dr. Wilson’s words, “little more than flying sperm missiles” that don’t live long and are often unrecognizable as ants at all. Queens are made, not born; fertilized eggs have the potential to be queens or workers, and will develop differently based on what the youngster is fed as she grows, a diet and a future that will be dictated by the needs of the colony. Ants also have an unusually high number of odor receptors, which allow them to decode chemical trails and messages. Some species also have three simple light-detecting eyes, called ocelli, to help them fly and navigate, in addition to the standard two compound eyes.

There are many reasons to understand ants better. Whole ecosystems are built around them, and large numbers of species, from plants to beetles to birds, are “ant obligates,” meaning that they depend entirely on their relationships with ant colonies to survive. Winnow ants disperse so many herbaceous seeds in North America, Dr. Rice notes, that “removing them causes wildflower abundance to drop by 50 percent.”

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Researchers Are Hatching a Low-Cost Coronavirus Vaccine

A new vaccine for Covid-19 that is entering clinical trials in Brazil, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam could change how the world fights the pandemic. The vaccine, called NVD-HXP-S, is the first in clinical trials to use a new molecular design that is widely expected to create more potent antibodies than the current generation of vaccines. And the new vaccine could be far easier to make.

Existing vaccines from companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson must be produced in specialized factories using hard-to-acquire ingredients. In contrast, the new vaccine can be mass-produced in chicken eggs — the same eggs that produce billions of influenza vaccines every year in factories around the world.

If NVD-HXP-S proves safe and effective, flu vaccine manufacturers could potentially produce well over a billion doses of it a year. Low- and middle-income countries currently struggling to obtain vaccines from wealthier countries may be able to make NVD-HXP-S for themselves or acquire it at low cost from neighbors.

“That’s staggering — it would be a game-changer,” said Andrea Taylor, assistant director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Vaccines work by acquainting the immune system with a virus well enough to prompt a defense against it. Some vaccines contain entire viruses that have been killed; others contain just a single protein from the virus. Still others contain genetic instructions that our cells can use to make the viral protein.

Once exposed to a virus, or part of it, the immune system can learn to make antibodies that attack it. Immune cells can also learn to recognize infected cells and destroy them.

spike, latches onto cells and then allows the virus to fuse to them.

But simply injecting coronavirus spike proteins into people is not the best way to vaccinate them. That’s because spike proteins sometimes assume the wrong shape, and prompt the immune system to make the wrong antibodies.

The researchers injected the 2P spikes into mice and found that the animals could easily fight off infections of the MERS coronavirus.

The team filed a patent for its modified spike, but the world took little notice of the invention. MERS, although deadly, is not very contagious and proved to be a relatively minor threat; fewer than 1,000 people have died of MERS since it first emerged in humans.

But in late 2019 a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged and began ravaging the world. Dr. McLellan and his colleagues swung into action, designing a 2P spike unique to SARS-CoV-2. In a matter of days, Moderna used that information to design a vaccine for Covid-19; it contained a genetic molecule called RNA with the instructions for making the 2P spike.

Other companies soon followed suit, adopting 2P spikes for their own vaccine designs and starting clinical trials. All three of the vaccines that have been authorized so far in the United States — from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — use the 2P spike.

Other vaccine makers are using it as well. Novavax has had strong results with the 2P spike in clinical trials and is expected to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in the next few weeks. Sanofi is also testing a 2P spike vaccine and expects to finish clinical trials later this year.

Dr. McLellan’s ability to find lifesaving clues in the structure of proteins has earned him deep admiration in the vaccine world. “This guy is a genius,” said Harry Kleanthous, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “He should be proud of this huge thing he’s done for humanity.”

But once Dr. McLellan and his colleagues handed off the 2P spike to vaccine makers, he turned back to the protein for a closer look. If swapping just two prolines improved a vaccine, surely additional tweaks could improve it even more.

HexaPro, in honor of its total of six prolines.

The structure of HexaPro was even more stable than 2P, the team found. It was also resilient, better able to withstand heat and damaging chemicals. Dr. McLellan hoped that its rugged design would make it potent in a vaccine.

Dr. McLellan also hoped that HexaPro-based vaccines would reach more of the world — especially low- and middle-income countries, which so far have received only a fraction of the total distribution of first-wave vaccines.

“The share of the vaccines they’ve received so far is terrible,” Dr. McLellan said.

To that end, the University of Texas set up a licensing arrangement for HexaPro that allows companies and labs in 80 low- and middle-income countries to use the protein in their vaccines without paying royalties.

Meanwhile, Dr. Innes and his colleagues at PATH were looking for a way to increase the production of Covid-19 vaccines. They wanted a vaccine that less wealthy nations could make on their own.

experimenting with Newcastle disease virus to create vaccines for a range of diseases. To develop an Ebola vaccine, for example, researchers added an Ebola gene to the Newcastle disease virus’s own set of genes.

The scientists then inserted the engineered virus into chicken eggs. Because it is a bird virus, it multiplied quickly in the eggs. The researchers ended up with Newcastle disease viruses coated with Ebola proteins.

At Mount Sinai, the researchers set out to do the same thing, using coronavirus spike proteins instead of Ebola proteins. When they learned about Dr. McLellan’s new HexaPro version, they added that to the Newcastle disease viruses. The viruses bristled with spike proteins, many of which had the desired prefusion shape. In a nod to both the Newcastle disease virus and the HexaPro spike, they called it NDV-HXP-S.

announced the start of a clinical trial of NDV-HXP-S. A week later, Thailand’s Government Pharmaceutical Organization followed suit. On March 26, Brazil’s Butantan Institute said it would ask for authorization to begin its own clinical trials of NDV-HXP-S.

Meanwhile, the Mount Sinai team has also licensed the vaccine to the Mexican vaccine maker Avi-Mex as an intranasal spray. The company will start clinical trials to see if the vaccine is even more potent in that form.

To the nations involved, the prospect of making the vaccines entirely on their own was appealing. “This vaccine production is produced by Thai people for Thai people,” Thailand’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said at the announcement in Bangkok.

In Brazil, the Butantan Institute trumpeted its version of NDV-HXP-S as “the Brazilian vaccine,” one that would be “produced entirely in Brazil, without depending on imports.”

Ms. Taylor, of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, was sympathetic. “I could understand why that would really be such an attractive prospect,” she said. “They’ve been at the mercy of global supply chains.”

Madhavi Sunder, an expert on intellectual property at Georgetown Law School, cautioned that NDV-HXP-S would not immediately help countries like Brazil as they grappled with the current wave of Covid-19 infections. “We’re not talking 16 billion doses in 2020,” she said.

Instead, the strategy will be important for long-term vaccine production — not just for Covid-19 but for other pandemics that may come in the future. “It sounds super promising,” she said.

In the meantime, Dr. McLellan has returned to the molecular drawing board to try to make a third version of their spike that is even better than HexaPro.

“There’s really no end to this process,” he said. “The number of permutations is almost infinite. At some point, you’d have to say, ‘This is the next generation.’”

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Virus Variants Threaten to Draw Out the Pandemic, Scientists Say

For weeks, the mood in much of the United States has been buoyant. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus have fallen steeply from their highs, and millions of people are being newly vaccinated every day. Restaurants, shops and schools have reopened. Some states, like Texas and Florida, have abandoned precautions altogether.

In measurable ways, Americans are winning the war against the coronavirus. Powerful vaccines and an accelerating rollout all but guarantee an eventual return to normalcy — to backyard barbecues, summer camps and sleepovers.

But it is increasingly clear that the next few months will be painful. So-called variants are spreading, carrying mutations that make the coronavirus both more contagious and in some cases more deadly.

Even as vaccines were authorized late last year, illuminating a path to the pandemic’s end, variants were trouncing Britain, South Africa and Brazil. New variants have continued to pop up — in California one week, in New York and Oregon the next. As they take root, these new versions of the coronavirus threaten to postpone an end to the pandemic.

rising exponentially in the United States.

Limited genetic testing has turned up more than 12,500 cases, many in Florida and Michigan. As of March 13, the variant accounted for about 27 percent of new cases nationwide, up from just 1 percent in early February.

pledged a “down payment” of $200 million to ramp up surveillance, an infusion intended to make it possible to analyze 25,000 patient samples each week for virus variants. It’s an ambitious goal: The country was sequencing just a few hundred samples each week in December, then scaling up to about 9,000 per week as of March 27.

Until recently, B.1.1.7’s rise was camouflaged by falling rates of infection over all, lulling Americans into a false sense of security and leading to prematurely relaxed restrictions, researchers say.

“The best way to think about B.1.1.7 and other variants is to treat them as separate epidemics,” said Sebastian Funk, a professor of infectious disease dynamics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We’re really kind of obscuring the view by adding them all up to give an overall number of cases.”

Other variants identified in South Africa and Brazil, as well as some virus versions first seen in the United States, have been slower to spread. But they, too, are worrisome, because they contain a mutation that diminishes the vaccines’ effectiveness. Just this week, an outbreak of P.1, the variant that crushed Brazil, forced a shutdown of the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia.

as fast as possible.

Infections are rising again, driven to an uncertain degree by B.1.1.7 and other variants. Earlier this week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pleaded with Americans to continue to practice masking and social distancing, saying she felt a sense of “impending doom.”

60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the virus, according to the most recent estimates.

The variant is no different from the original in how it spreads, but infected people seem to carry more of the virus and for longer, said Katrina Lythgoe, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. “You’re more infectious for more days,” she said.

So contagious is B.1.1.7 that Britain succeeded in driving down infections only after nearly three months of strict stay-at-home orders, plus an aggressive vaccination program. Even so, cases fell much more slowly than they did during a similar lockdown in March and April.

three-quarters of new infections, some hospitals have had to move coronavirus patients to Belgium to free up beds. Roughly as many people are dying each day from Covid-19 in Europe as were this time a year ago.

For too long, government officials disregarded the threat. “Case plateaus can hide the emergence of new variants,” said Carl Pearson, a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “And the higher those plateaus are, the worse the problem is.”

In the United States, coronavirus infections began a rapid decline in January, soon prompting many state leaders to reopen businesses and ease restrictions. But scientists repeatedly warned that the drop would not last. After the rate bottomed out at about 55,000 cases and 1,500 deaths per day in mid-March, some states — notably Michigan — began seeing an uptick.

Since then, the national numbers have steadily risen. As of Saturday, the daily count was up to nearly 69,000, and the weekly average was 19 percent higher than the figure two weeks earlier.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines seem to be slightly less effective against B.1.351, the variant identified in South Africa. That variant contains the Eek mutation, which seems to enable the virus to partly sidestep the body’s immune response. The vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Novavax were even less potent against B.1.351.

“I think for the next year or two, E484K will be the most concerning” mutation, said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The mutation slightly alters the so-called spike protein sitting on the surface of the coronavirus, making it just a bit harder for antibodies to latch on and destroy the invader.

The good news is that the virus seems to have just a few survival tricks in its bag, and that makes it easier for scientists to find and block those defenses. “I’m feeling pretty good about the fact that there aren’t that many choices,” said Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University in New York.

The Eek mutation seems to be the virus’s primary defense against the immune system. Researchers in South Africa recently reported that a new vaccine directed against B.1.351 ought to fend off all other variants, as well.

Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna already are testing newly designed booster shots against B.1.351 that should work against any variants known to blunt the immune response.

Instead of a new vaccine against variants, however, it may be just as effective for Americans to receive a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna vaccines in six months to a year, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

That would keep antibody levels high in each recipient, overwhelming any variant — a more practical strategy than making a specialized vaccine for each new variant that emerges, he said.

“My only concern about chasing all the variants is that you’d almost be playing Whac-A-Mole, you know, because they’ll keep coming up and keep coming up,” Dr. Fauci said.

In one form or another, the new coronavirus is here to stay, many scientists believe. Multiple variants may be circulating in the country at the same time, as is the case for common cold coronaviruses and influenza. Keeping them at bay may require an annual shot, like the flu vaccine.

The best way to deter the emergence of dangerous variants is to keep cases down now and to immunize the vast majority of the world — not just the United States — as quickly as possible. If significant pockets of the globe remain unprotected, the virus will continue to evolve in dangerous new ways.

“This might be something that we have to deal with for a long time,” said Rosalind Eggo, an epidemiologist at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Still, she added, “Even if it changes again, which it is very likely to do, we are in a better, much stronger position than a year ago to deal with it.”

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Fully Vaccinated Americans Can Travel With Low Risk, C.D.C. Says

Americans who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 can safely travel at home and abroad, as long as they take basic precautions like wearing masks, federal health officials announced on Friday, a long-awaited change from the dire government warnings that have kept many millions home for the past year.

In announcing the change at a White House news conference, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressed that they preferred that people avoid travel. But they said growing evidence of the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines — which have been given to more than 100 million Americans — suggested that inoculated people could do so “at low risk to themselves.”

The shift in the C.D.C.’s official stance comes at a moment of both hope and peril in the pandemic. The pace of vaccinations has been rapidly accelerating across the country, and the number of deaths has been declining.

Yet cases are increasing significantly in many states as new variants of the coronavirus spread through the country. Just last Monday, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, warned of a potential fourth wave if states and cities continued to loosen public health restrictions, telling reporters that she had feelings of “impending doom.”

suggested such cases might be rare, but until that question is resolved, many public health officials feel it is unwise to tell vaccinated Americans simply to do as they please. They say it is important for all vaccinated people to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and take other precautions.

Under the new C.D.C. guidance, fully vaccinated Americans who are traveling domestically do not need to be tested for the coronavirus or follow quarantine procedures at the destination or after returning home. When they travel abroad, they only need to get a coronavirus test or quarantine if the country they are going to requires it.

coronavirus test before boarding a flight back to the United States, and they should get tested again three to five days after their return.

The recommendation is predicated on the idea that vaccinated people may still become infected with the virus. The C.D.C. also cited a lack of vaccine coverage in other countries, and concern about the potential introduction and spread of new variants of the virus that are more prevalent overseas.

Most states have accelerated their timelines for opening vaccinations to all adults, as the pace of vaccinations across the country has been increasing. As of Friday, an average of nearly three million shots a day were being administered, according to data reported by the C.D.C.

The new advice adds to C.D.C. recommendations issued in early March saying that fully vaccinated people may gather in small groups in private settings without masks or social distancing, and may visit with unvaccinated individuals from a single household as long as they are at low risk for developing severe disease if infected with the virus.

Travel has already been increasing nationwide, as the weather warms and Americans grow fatigued with pandemic restrictions. Last Sunday was the busiest day at domestic airports since the pandemic began. According to the Transportation Security Administration, nearly 1.6 million people passed through the security checkpoints at American airports.

But the industry’s concerns are far from over. The pandemic has also shown businesses large and small that their employees can often be just as productive working remotely as in face-to-face meetings. As a result, the airline and hotel industries expect it will be years before lucrative corporate travel recovers to prepandemic levels, leaving a gaping hole in revenues.

And while leisure travel within the United States may be recovering steadily, airlines expect it will still take until 2023 or 2024 for passenger volumes to reach 2019 levels, according to Airlines for America, an industry group. The industry lost more than $35 billion last year and continues to lose tens of millions of dollars each day, the group said.

the country’s government said

The C.D.C. on Thursday also issued more detailed technical instructions for cruise lines, requiring them to take steps to develop vaccination strategies and make plans for routine testing of crew members and daily reporting of Covid-19 cases before they can run simulated trial runs of voyages with volunteers, before taking on real passengers. The C.D.C.’s directives acknowledge that taking cruises “will always pose some risk of Covid-19 transmission.”

Some destinations and cruise lines have already started requiring that travelers be fully vaccinated. The cruise line Royal Caribbean is requiring passengers and crew members 18 or older to be vaccinated in order to board its ships, as are Virgin Voyages, Crystal Cruises and others.

For the moment, airlines are not requiring vaccinations for travel. But the idea has been much talked about in the industry.

Niraj Chokshi contributed reporting.

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