Top scientists across the world — including experts at the FDA and the World Health Organization — pushed back against the need for widespread coronavirus vaccine booster shots on Monday.
In a review published in the top medical journal The Lancet, the scientists argued that booster shots are not needed in the general population since vaccines still remain highly effective at preventing severe illness and death. They also mentioned the urgent need to administer doses to unvaccinated people worldwide to save lives and prevent the emergence of more dangerous variants.
The review comes as the US nears the Biden administration’s controversial proposed start date for a booster rollout, recommended eight months after an individual’s second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. The report also comes one week after the White House announced a massive push to mandate vaccination among nearly two-thirds of the US workforce, as pockets of unvaccinated individuals continue to drive high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths nationwide.
The FDA’s external panel of experts is holding a highly anticipated meeting this Friday to discuss Pfizer’s application for a booster dose.
The 18 coauthors of the Lancet review include Marion Gruber, the director of the FDA’s vaccines office, and Philip Krause, her deputy at the agency, both of whom announced they would be resigning in the fall, reportedly in part due to their opposition to the Biden administration’s booster plan. The review was also coauthored by several experts at the World Health Organization, which has called for a global booster shot moratorium in order to maximize vaccinations worldwide — especially in developing countries, where vaccination rates remain very low.
The Lancet paper reviews the current evidence on the protection offered by existing vaccines. While the vaccines all offer less protection against infection with the Delta variant compared with the previously dominant Alpha, they still offer very good protection against severe disease. And while the ability to prevent infection or even symptomatic illness may decrease over time, protection against severe disease appears so far to hold strong.
Three CDC reports published last week confirmed these findings across most age groups, declining more significantly in people 75 or older. One of the studies reviewed nearly 570,000 US COVID-19 cases from April to July, showing that unvaccinated people were nearly 5 times more likely to get infected, and more than 10 times as likely to be hospitalized or die compared to people who received a vaccine.
“Current evidence does not, therefore, appear to show a need for boosting in the general population, in which efficacy against severe disease remains high,” the authors of the Lancet paper wrote.
Data out of Israel, which has already begun a rollout of booster shots, showed an increase in protection against infection and severe disease after a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine, which was originally given in two doses. But the Lancet authors noted that the data was only collected for a week after the booster dose was administered, and it’s unclear how long that protection will last.
The Lancet authors argued that boosters may ultimately be needed if immunity wanes over time, but more research was needed to determine when that will be necessary. For now, they argued, there is a more urgent need to administer existing doses among the unvaccinated. They also suggested that booster doses designed specifically against the main circulating variants of the coronavirus might be more powerful and longer lasting.
“Even if some gain can ultimately be obtained from boosting, it will not outweigh the benefits of providing initial protection to the unvaccinated,” the authors wrote. “If vaccines are deployed where they would do the most good, they could hasten the end of the pandemic by inhibiting further evolution of variants.”
Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, condemned booster shot rollouts in stark terms last month. “We’re planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we’re leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket,” Ryan said. “That’s the reality.”
Revellers described the reopening as “like New Year” and said they “missed the buzz” of being out. Footage on social media showed nightclub queues erupt with excitement as the clock struck 12.
From today, there are no limits on how many people can meet up or attend events – and table service will no longer be required in pubs and restaurants.
You are no longer required to wear a face mask by law, though the Government “expects and recommends” using a covering in enclosed spaces.
Outside Egg nightclub in north London clubbers queued for more than an hour and counted down from 10 as midnight neared.
Fundraiser Chloe Waite, 37, who was first in the queue, said the occasion was “something we’re going to remember for a long time.”
“It’s going to be a special night,” she told the PA news agency.
“For me this is a New Year’s-type event and something we’re going to remember for a long, long time and we might not get the opportunity for a while.”
Gabriel Wildsmith, 26, a video producer from London, who joined Ms Waite added: “I’ve been here for an hour, I’m really keen.”
Actor Alex Clarke, 40, told PA: “There’s a bit of apprehension and uncertainty about the protocols.
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“It’s thoroughly dangerous and I think no one, at least who is a specialist in public health, would be wanting to encourage an attitude by those in authority that suggests somehow the problem is solved.”
The UK is currently experiencing around 50,000 Covid infections a day, but scientists foresee this number reaching 200,000 over the next two months.
Serious illness and death is likely to be much lower than at other peaks in the pandemic due to the successful immunisation campaign, as 68 percent of the population has been vaccinated.
“If we don’t do it now we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?” Boris Johnson said in a video message filmed on Sunday.
“This is the right moment but we’ve got to do it cautiously. We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there.”
Human water consumption and diversion have long depleted the Utah lake. Its level today is inches away from a 58-year low, state officials say, and Western drought conditions fueled by the climate crisis have exacerbated conditions.
The worst part? It’s only July, and the lake historically doesn’t reach its annual low until October.
“I have never seen it this bad — not in my lifetime,” said Andy Wallace, soaring over the body of water in a prop plane, as he’s done for years as a commercial pilot.
Simply put, the largest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere is shrinking rapidly. Left alone, the lake’s footprint would span 2,100 square miles — more than three times the area of Houston. An analysis published last year showed that water siphoned off the rivers that feed the natural wonder had reduced its level by 11 feet, depleting the lake area by more than half.
“Twenty years ago, this was under about 10 feet of water,” said Kevin Perry, chairman of the department of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, as he rode a bike in July across the desiccated lake bed.
Dying organisms and arsenic
Perry and other scientists worry they’re watching a slow-motion calamity unfold. Ten million birds flock to the Great Salt Lake each year to feed off of its now-struggling sea life. More pelicans breed here than most anywhere else in the country.
The trouble trickles up the food chain. The Utah Geological Survey openly expressed its fear Thursday that the shrinking lake levels threaten to kill microbialites — underwater reef-like mounds that help feed brine flies, brine shrimp and, thus, the 338 species of birds that visit each year.
“We think of these structures as living rocks,” said Michael Vanden Berg, manager of the survey’s energy and mineral program. “The population in Great Salt Lake is one of the largest accumulations of modern microbialites in the world.”
If the lake continues to recede to historic levels, a heretofore unseen proportion of the lake’s microbialites will be exposed, a news release said. It can take only weeks for the microbial mat to erode off the “living rocks,” it said, and it could take years to recover, even if lake levels return to normal.
Brine shrimp, also known as sea monkeys, are also battling the rising salinity that comes with less water. They’re not just bird food, either. They’re exported as fish food, and commercial harvesting contributes to an estimated $ 1.5 billion economy — which, along with recreation and mineral extraction, helps feed fishers and others living around Great Salt Lake.
Economic downturn isn’t the only threat to humans in the area. Utah’s soil is naturally high in arsenic, a toxic compound that causes a frightening range of health problems. When it washes downstream, it lands in the lake, Perry said. When the wind blows, as it regularly does quite fiercely, it kicks up the dusty lake bed.
“One of the concerns we have is the particles that are coming off the lake getting into people’s lungs,” he said. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, when the lake was higher, most of these dust spots were covered up, and if you cover them up with water, they don’t produce dust. And so as the lake has receded, it’s exposed more and more of that lake bed. … As we get the larger area, we have more frequent dust storms.”
Owens Lake, a mostly dry lake east of the California’s Sequoia National Forest, was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct almost a century ago, Perry noted. Though some water is returning to the lake, its dry bed is the largest source of PM-10 pollution — large, inhalable dust particles — in the nation. Great Salt Lake is much larger than Owens Lake, and whereas the population around Owens Lake is about 40,000, there are more than 2 million people living around Great Salt Lake, Perry points out.
“This lake could become one of the larger dust emission sources in North America as well,” he said. “Right now, the lake bed is protected by a fragile crust, and if that crust is disturbed or erodes over time, then this lake could start to emit a lot more (dust).”
‘We’re on the doorstep of a catastrophe’
Huge swaths of the Utah lake look more like Death Valley than any waterway, the ground barren and fractured from dry heat. Other areas look like sprawling street puddles. Birds wade through shoreline muck along empty marinas, their slips sagging to the ground.
“The saltiest sailors on the planet have had their sailboats hoisted out of the Great Salt Lake’s marinas by crane in recent days, due to dropping Lake levels,” the Utah Rivers Council wrote in the introduction of a report warning that a dam, pipeline and reservoir proposal to the east will only compound problems.
While human behavior remains scientists’ primary concern, the lack of rain out West isn’t helping. Great Salt Lake now is like water sitting in a plate, whereas most lakes resemble a cup, said Jaimi Butler, co-editor of the 2020 analysis showing the lake area had shrunk by 51%.
The shallow waters are more prone to evaporation in drought conditions, and while the lake’s level ebbs and flows over any given year, the lake tends to reach its low point in the fall, around October. The lake will continue to drop and shrink over the next three months, and the water level could sink as much as 2 more feet by Halloween, Butler suspects.
“Keeping water in Great Salt Lake is the biggest thing that keeps me up at night,” said Butler, a wildlife biologist who grew up around the lake and serves as coordinator for the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. “We’re on the doorstep of a catastrophe.”
Mother Nature and residents must join forces
Butler wept contemplating the ramifications of not taking strong action to save the waterway.
“Great Salt Lake will be an environmental, economic and, really, cultural catastrophe all in one,” she said. “I grew up here. A place becomes you. … We are all Great Salt Lake. All of us are, and we shouldn’t let it go away.”
Humans created the problem, and humans will have to take part in the solution, she said. Curbing water usage and raising water utility rates to deter waste would be a start, she added.
Despite the warning bells, water meant for Great Salt Lake continues to be diverted to farms, ranches and cities — the latter of which enjoy some of the cheapest water in the nation, Butler said.
Salt Lake City residents paid one of the lowest water rates of major US cities, according to an analysis by Circle of Blue, a nonprofit advocating for responsible stewardship of water resources. A family of four using a 100 gallons a day paid $ 32 a month in 2018 — about half of what New Yorkers paid, a third of what Atlantans paid and a quarter of what San Franciscans shelled out that year. Among the major cities, only Memphis residents paid less.
But it seems residents around Great Salt Lake have been acting more conscientiously, said Marcie McCartney, the water conservation and education manager for the Utah Division of Water Resources.
“Everybody around and in that basin is doing all they can to use water as wisely as possible,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of (water) saving this year, which is awesome, but the Great Salt Lake is definitely suffering, and the only way we’re going to get those lake levels up higher is a better water year for our snow pack.”
Officials charged with monitoring the snow runoff into streams and reservoirs must calculate how much is needed for water supply — drinking, agriculture, etc. — and the rest can be released downstream into Great Salt Lake, McCartney explained. This year’s “poor snow pack” melted too quickly, she said, “and the soil is really thirsty.”
“Mother Nature is going to take her share first, and we’ll get the rest,” she said.
In November, Butler co-wrote an obituary for Great Salt Lake in Catalyst Magazine, based in the Utah capital.
“Great Salt Lake experienced her final glimmering sunset today, succumbing to a long struggle with chronic diversions exacerbated by climate change,” it began. “Her dusty remains will be scattered across the Salt Lake Valley for millennia — we will be constantly reminded of her passing by our air quality monitors.”
The piece laid out the history of the reservoir, how it found itself in dire straits and what concerned Utahans can do to change the narrative and amplify their voices to save the beloved body of water.
“There was action to prevent the death of Great Salt Lake, but it was too little, too late,” the obit read. “She supported Utah’s economy for many years, but we did not adequately fund her healthcare in time. Had we done so, we may not be mourning her death today.”
Speaking to CNN, Butler reiterated many of those points, imploring, “We’ve changed our world, and we need to change our behaviors to keep incredible ecosystems that include humans like here at Great Salt Lake.”
‘I believe that the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous,’ US scientist William Haseltine said, as the UK prepares to lift most restrictions on public gatherings, businesses and nightclubs.
The UK government’s plan to scrap day-to-day pandemic restrictions in England next week is reckless and has no basis in science, international experts have warned, with one arguing it amounts to premeditated murder.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week it was “highly probable” the worst of the coronavirus pandemic was over as he pressed ahead with Monday’s reopening, despite the Delta variant spreading out of control.
He has said the UK can reopen because two-thirds of adults are now fully vaccinated, but England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that infection rates were on track to reach “quite scary” levels.
International scientists including advisers to other governments had brutal words for Johnson.
“I’ve written that I believe that the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous,” US scientist William Haseltine said after an emergency discussion among experts about the UK plan.
Aiming for herd immunity would mean pursuing a policy in the knowledge that it would lead to many thousands of deaths, he said. “It is a disaster as a policy,” he added.
The UK reported its highest number of new COVID cases in more than six months on Friday.
Government data showed there were 51,870 new cases of coronavirus, up from 48,553 on Thursday and the highest daily total since January 15.
The number of new deaths reported as having occurred within 28 days of a positive COVID test was 49, down from 63 on Thursday, taking the total on this measure to 128,642.
Data showed 67.5 percent of British adults had received two vaccine doses, while 87.6 percent had received at least one dose. Most of those who are unvaccinated are younger people who only gained access to vaccines recently.
The government says it is not pursuing a policy of “herd immunity” by letting the Delta variant rip, but concedes that daily infection rates could surge to 100,000 in the weeks ahead, which would put further pressure on hospitals.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast,” Whitty said on Thursday, urging the public “to take things incredibly slowly” as restrictions ease.
From Monday – dubbed “Freedom Day” by some media – the government will lift most restrictions on public gatherings in England and allow businesses such as nightclubs to reopen.
Mandates covering face masks and work from home will be lifted as Johnson promotes a new approach of personal responsibility, although he has also urged people not to “throw caution to the wind”.
But that is just what Johnson is doing with a policy of allowing the virus to spread, “infect people, make them ill, and have them die,” according to professor Gabriel Scally at the University of Bristol.
The government’s stated approach of lifting controls now before any winter surge of respiratory disease is marked by “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”, he said.
The governments of Scotland and Wales set their own health policy and will keep in place a legal requirement to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces such as shops and on public transport. Northern Ireland looks set to follow suit.
Enjoy this sneak-preview from the Heat issue of Popular Science, live on July 13. Current subscribers can access digital editions here, and new subscribers can click here to join in.
Jörn Helbert was standing outside a stranger’s apartment in the north end of Berlin with a bouquet of yellow roses. It was June 2020, and the woman behind the door was in mandatory quarantine. She had just moved to Germany from the United States, and as a favor to Helbert, a fellow planetary scientist, she was acting as a courier, bringing rocks far too precious to be put in the care of international postal systems hopelessly backlogged because of the pandemic. Already one shipping snafu had sent the package to a nail salon in Tucson and nearly lost it. Helbert was familiar with the kind of questioning you might run into when carrying geologic samples through German customs, so the flowers were a gift for her trouble.
The handoff had involved so much effort and intrigue that he felt as if the parcel should be in a suitcase that got handcuffed to his wrist. Instead, Helbert was amused to see a rumpled plastic Walgreens bag left outside for contactless pickup. It held 30 disks made of various rocks analogous to those that might be found on Venus. They had been painstakingly collected and analyzed by Darby Dyar, an astronomy professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Helbert, Dyar, and a team of colleagues were in the last stages of pitching NASA on a mission called VERITAS, which would send a satellite to map Venus at higher resolution than ever before. Despite the pandemic, their deadlines hadn’t budged. NASA selects low-cost (around $ 500 million) projects through a program called Discovery only every few years. The team was desperate to get the rock disks into Helbert’s lab at the German Aerospace Center, where he was calibrating an instrument for the VERITAS spacecraft that could determine what sorts of rocks make up Venus’ geological formations; getting a better sense of these would help write the planet’s history. Granite could show us where there were oceans. Basalt could lead us to active volcanoes. Stitching the features together could show us the steps that turned the planet into an uninhabitable inferno.
If you imagine that our solar system is a cul-de-sac where Earth is our cozy home and Mars is the empty lot down the street where developers pitch a shiny future, then Venus is the haunted house a few doors down, camouflaged by an overgrown yard and drawn curtains. It’s similar to Earth in size, density, mass, composition, and gravitational pull, but at its surface, it has lead-melting temperatures of more than 850°F and air pressure equivalent to standing under half a mile of ocean water. Its magnetic field is too weak to protect it from the solar wind, it spins backward, and it has a permanent layer of heat-trapping clouds that veil its face from view.
The best topographic radar maps we have were produced in the 1990s, and they’re quite coarse compared to our charts of Earth and Mars. We know Venus’ surface has mountains, valleys, volcanoes, lava fields, and bizarre geological goodies, but among its many mysteries, scientists still don’t even really know what kind of rocks might reside there.
Venusophiles say it’s embarrassing that we haven’t gotten to know our neighbor better. Magellan, NASA’s last expedition there, left Earth in 1989. Since then, the space agency has launched 14 missions to Mars while researchers submitted about 30 Venus proposals to no avail. VERITAS was already in that ignominious club of the unchosen; earlier iterations had been put forward for more than a decade. During the last round, in 2017, VERITAS and DAVINCI, a very different Venus project aimed at sampling the planet’s noxious atmosphere, had been part of a five-team Discovery shortlist, but hadn’t made the final cut.
After that disappointment, David Grinspoon, one of the DAVINCI scientists, wrote an essay titled “Not Venus Again,” lamenting that he and his colleagues were like long-suffering Cubs fans but if the Cubs had made it to the World Series and lost.
In the spring of 2021, both teams were back at the plate, anxiously awaiting NASA headquarters to call with their Discovery decisions. “I’ve really put my heart and soul into this particular mission, so for me, it is now or never,” says VERITAS principal investigator Sue Smrekar, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “I can’t imagine investing this intense effort again into getting a mission selected.”
Other countries are planning Venus missions, because there are good reasons to go. As scientists have studied solar systems beyond our own with instruments like the recently retired Kepler Space Telescope, they’ve found dozens of exoplanets with Earth-like properties. That prospect has reawakened the question that has confounded astronomers and philosophers alike for millennia. Are we alone? Except here’s the thing: We have a rocky twin world next door that looks nothing like ours. “I want to understand why Earth is the place where life can exist, and that’s what Venus can tell us,” says Martha Gilmore, a planetary geologist who is on both teams. “I think it’s of the highest priority for understanding how we got to be here.”
Venus sometimes appears as a twilight star that chases down the sun, other times as a morning star that rises at dawn. Early revelations about the planet gave just enough license for wild speculation about what—and who—might be living there. In 1761, Russian physicist Mikhail Lomonosov observed Venus transiting in front of the sun like a roving freckle, a rare phenomenon that allowed astronomers to estimate its diameter. Lomonosov noticed a strange fuzziness around its edges. That haze, he concluded, was a thick atmosphere. Because clouds on Earth were made of water, it stood to reason that Venus should be a very steamy and swampy place.
In the late 18th century, astronomers also developed a theory that the orbs in our solar system got progressively older the farther from the sun they were. By the late 19th, some imagined Mars, the fourth planet, to be covered in ruins of abandoned canals dug by long-dead thirsty beings. Meanwhile, Venus, the second, enjoyed a reputation as our more primordial twin, full of landscapes that resembled our world in the Carboniferous Period 350 million years ago, when fern forests grew, freakish sharks dominated the seas, and four-limbed creatures were just beginning to stretch out across the land. Perhaps old myths that associated Venus with fertility goddesses contributed to this Edenic image. The Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson gave it “never fading flowers.” Ray Bradbury, in one short story, pictured the planet more grimly as covered in a sickly white jungle with “cheesecolored leaves,” soil like “wet Camembert” and ceaseless rainfall that feels like a thousand hands touching you when you don’t want to be touched.
Lush visions of Venus dried up as new evidence trickled in. One especially damning sign came in 1956, when a team at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., pointed the 50-foot dish of its radio telescope at the planet. They found it emitted the amount of radiation they would expect from an object hotter than 600°F. NASA’s Mariner 2 spacecraft—the first-ever successful planetary probe to leave Earth—confirmed the hot atmosphere during a flyby in 1962.
It was during this decade that astronomer Carl Sagan made a name for himself proposing that a greenhouse effect was at work on Venus, with poison gases in the clouds locking heat in. In October 1967, the Soviets sent their Venera 4 probe there, this being the first time a spacecraft entered another planet’s atmosphere. It beamed back disconcerting data: The air was much denser than expected and was made up of 95 percent carbon dioxide with negligible amounts of oxygen and water vapor. So crushing was this result that in 1968, science fiction authors Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison put together a mournful anthology called Farewell, Fantastic Venus,gathering suddenly unscientific essays and stories from researchers and sci-fi writers that had been set on the “no-longer magical” world.
Although astronauts lost any hope of planting their boots on Venus, exploration continued. In 1975, Venera 9’s descent vehicle delivered the first photograph of the surface, a 180-degree panorama showing a desolate field strewn with shattered rocks and boulders. NASA’s 1978 Pioneer Venus mission produced the first crude radar maps. But in the decade that followed, NASA launched no planetary science missions. President Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981, helmed this dark age, focusing the agency’s efforts on near-Earth orbits reachable by the space shuttle.
One casualty was the planned Venus-mapping VOIR (Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar) spacecraft. When the news came in 1982, Dyar, now deputy principal investigator of VERITAS, was a graduate student in planetary science at MIT. She arrived that day to find classmates openly crying. Eventually the research community was able to patch together a simpler, cheaper version, which launched in 1989 as Magellan, an orbiting spacecraft that mapped what was beneath Venus’ impenetrable cloud layer by bouncing radar waves off the planet’s surface.
In the early 1990s, then–NASA administrator Dan Goldin established the Discovery program to fulfill his “faster, cheaper, and better” mandate, emphasizing the use of ready-made commercial hardware and software to get small missions off the ground. The second project to launch, in 1996, was Pathfinder, which included a Mars lander and the first-ever rover, a wagonsize vehicle named Sojourner. It was a huge success and drummed up public support for exploration of the red planet. NASA approved projects with increasingly big budgets: the Mars Odyssey orbiter (2001), the rovers Spirit and Opportunity (2003), the still-operating Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2005). Those undertakings paved the way for Curiosity, InSight, and now Perseverance. Since the 1990s, the guiding principle for these efforts has been to “follow the water,” looking for conditions that could once have supported life—but undoubtedly driven by the tantalizing prospect of future human exploration.
With so much money going into Mars, that’s where planetary scientists go. Curiosity alone has had nearly 500 working on its 10 instruments, and untold numbers of grad students have cut their teeth on its data. Success begets success in the eyes of the public too. New Mars rovers aren’t presented like $ 2.5 billion pieces of hardware but lovable extraterrestrial road-trippers who narrate their journeys on social media and share photos along the way. NASA knows how to sell Mars to taxpayers. It’s less clear how to market Venus, hostile to human eyes and rovers alike.
Throughout the past couple of decades, interest in places beyond Mars hasn’t entirely disappeared. NASA’s next flagship mission, the $ 4.25 billion Europa Clipper, will launch in 2024 to spend about six years traveling to Jupiter to study the ice shell and ocean of the planet’s sixth-farthest moon. But Venus has been a glaring blind spot, especially considering it’s so close to Earth. (A spacecraft takes only about four months to get there.) Although NASA hasn’t dedicated a line of funding to studying Venus since the 1990s, a passionate research effort has persisted. Scientists are still reanalyzing data from Magellan and even the Pioneer and Venera missions. They’re also looking at info from the European Space Agency’s Venus Express and the Japanese Akatsuki climate orbiter—the only two such undertakings since Magellan.
Sue Smrekar, the VERITAS leader, was a postdoc at MIT when Magellan sent the first results of its radar mapping to JPL. The whole team was assembled, along with many guest investigators from around the world, to look at what she recalls as the “familiar yet alien images.” She thought it was the closest she would come to “setting foot on another world.” Here were topographic surveys of geologic features found nowhere else, such as tesserae, strange upland regions with such chaotic-looking ripples that researchers named them with the Greek word for mosaic tiles. Some scientists think the formations could be the equivalent of Earth’s continents; others believe they might be more like the scum on top of a pond of hardened magma.
Magellan also documented a small number of meteorite craters, most of which were quite pristine, suggesting that Venus’ current surface is relatively fresh, around 500 million years old. Many think this overhaul happened in a planetwide volcanic event, perhaps on par with the end-Permian extinction that wiped out most species on our Pale Blue Dot. Volcanism on Earth is linked to plate tectonics; however, scientists have yet to find evidence of Venus’ crust shifting, so what drives its eruptive properties remains opaque.
The data left gaps Venusophiles were determined to fill in. Magellan’s image resolution was around 100–250 meters across each pixel. VERITAS (short for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography & Spectroscopy) would improve that by an order of magnitude. Perhaps more impressively, it would boost the topographic resolution by two orders of magnitude. In its pitch to NASA, the VERITAS team showed how Hawaii’s Big Island would look in Magellan’s view: like an unintelligible collection of pixels. The VERITAS view brought the volcanic island’s ridges and valleys and the peak of Mauna Kea into sharp relief.
“I often compare where we are with Venus to where we were with Mars in the ’80s,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary geologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who’s due to take up a new post soon at Washington University. He’s not part of either mission but has advocated for more research on the planet in general. He leads the Venus panel of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which helps set the field’s priorities for the next 10 years. “We had global image coverage of Mars, but it was relatively coarse. And it was when we started to fly more capable instruments there we started seeing stuff that we could never have dreamed we’d see in terms of the detail. We don’t have that for Venus yet.”
VERITAS, which would launch around 2028, would also glean new data about the composition of Venus’ geologic formations using spectroscopy, an imaging technique to identify matter based on how it absorbs and reflects light. Because Venus’ thick clouds block most light, Dyar, Helbert, and their colleagues had to invent a whole new way to interpret the data that can squeeze through the narrow wavelength range that can penetrate the cover.
Helbert created a Venus-simulating chamber in his lab that would heat Dyar’s rocks to ungodly temperatures to test a prototype of the Venus Emissivity Mapper, or VEM, one of the instruments proposed for VERITAS. COVID-19, of course, was the wrench in their international collaboration, especially considering the teams found out only in February 2020 that they were moving to the next level of Discovery program selections. They needed more data from various igneous rocks to expand their calibration of the instrument. During those early confusing months of the pandemic, Dyar sent frantic emails to colleagues across the country asking for samples and soon had a large collection from locations like Pikes Peak in Colorado, Mount St. Helens in Washington, and the Leucite Hills in Wyoming. Some of the samples were the size of softballs and needed to be cut into small disks to fit in the Venus chamber. With her college closed, Dyar appealed to a retired mineral collector who had special saws and grinders in his basement to do the job. In a rendezvous in a Friendly’s parking lot, she received the 30 rock disks that would eventually make their way to Berlin.
While VERITAS would have its eyes on the ground, DAVINCI+—for Deep Atmosphere of Venus Investigations of Noble Gases, Chemistry and Imaging (the plus sign added for this round of proposals)—is primarily designed to search for clues about the planet’s history in its opaque atmosphere. The concept was born out of a Venus summit in late 2007 and early 2008, but the current principal investigator, Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, has been dreaming of a new expedition since he finished his Ph.D. in the 1980s. The spacecraft would launch around 2029 and drop a parachute-equipped, aeroshell-protected spherical probe that would sail through the cloud cover. Using spectrometers similar to the ones developed for the chemistry lab aboard Curiosity, it would measure inert gases like krypton and xenon (think of them like fossils of the early processes that formed Venus’ atmosphere) as well as hydrogen isotopes, which could determine when and at what rates the planet lost the oceans it is suspected to have had in its early history.
That water-loss data would be hugely important. Michael Way, a physical scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and his colleagues produced models in 2016 suggesting Venus not only had water before Earth did but also was covered in a shallow ocean for some 3 billion years. Those findings have energized researchers and revived the image of a wet world, at least in its past. “You put that 3 billion years of water on Venus next to the 300 million years that Mars had water and you realize that if we’ve been looking for signs of life somewhere else in our own solar system, maybe we’ve been barking up the wrong tree,” says Dyar.
The DAVINCI+ team also proposes to put a camera on its descent vehicle to capture views of the surface far better than the Venera 9 images that hooked Garvin when he was a student. He’s convinced his spherical probe can see mountains at scales not possible from orbit. To prove it, he hired a UH-1 (Huey) helicopter test crew in August 2016 to take him for a series of daredevil rides over a quarry in Maryland. As the aircraft plunged toward the ground, trying to mimic the path of the descent vehicle, he hung out the window taking pictures of the rocks below. This past winter the team heated a full-scale prototype in the lab to make sure it could operate in the atmosphere long enough to send readings home.
Coloring in our image of Venus’ long-gone seas could help answer the Big Question. In the 260 years since Lomonosov watched the planet’s transit, scientists have developed telescopes so sophisticated they can observe the transit of faint planets in systems thousands of light-years away. Based on their size, their motion, and the wavelengths of light they emit, astronomers can estimate the conditions of the orbs. Some 60 are considered potentially habitable, meaning they appear to have the right parameters to sustain liquid oceans. But by those same parameters, if we were observing our own solar system from afar, we might think Venus should be Earth-like too. “If you can’t understand Venus, which is our closest Earth-like neighbor, what chance do you have of believing anything some astrophysicist tells us about exoplanets?” says planetary scientist Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Limaye is part of a contingent of Venus researchers interested in finding out whether its cloud layer could still host microbial life. In 2020, investigators reported in the journal Nature Astronomy seeing signatures of phosphine—a chemical known thus far only to come from biological sources—in the atmosphere. Though claims about the possible discovery didn’t pan out, the news helped to spotlight the planet as an overlooked astrobiology target.
The Indian Space Research Organization plans to fly its own radar-mapping orbiter at the end of 2024—and it’s not the only foreign space agency actively pursuing a Venus trip. The ESA intends to launch a satellite called EnVision in the early 2030s to look at recent geological activity. And Russia is considering a mission called Venera D that would sniff for signals of life. In 2016 NASA launched its HOTTech program to fund research into hardware that could survive at hellish temperatures for at least a couple of months; with such tech, a Venus lander or rover could be a possibility.
What the Venus research community needs most is more data. Lauren Jozwiak, a VERITAS volcanologist at Johns Hopkins University who got her Ph.D. in 2016, says she was told to look elsewhere in her studies since there were few prospects for Venus. An influx of new data, though, will feed the next generation. “There is so much that we don’t know about Venus,” she says.
In the early hours of June 2, 2021, Smrekar and Dyar were sitting in their respective kitchens on opposite sides of the country, texting back and forth. Neither had slept much. This was the morning they knew they’d find out which Discovery missions NASA had greenlit. Around 5:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, Smrekar got the call: VERITAS had been approved.
“It is an indescribable feeling to work toward something for 10 long years with heart and soul and finally have it come to fruition,” Dyar says. She spent the day wandering around in shock until she could pop corks with her colleagues in a virtual fete. Smrekar was ecstatic. “I don’t plan to stop celebrating for a while,” she says.
When the agency phoned Garvin that same morning, he nearly fell off his chair. DAVINCI+ would be going to space too. The next few days were a blur—his team buzzing. Both missions had beaten out their competitors, spacecraft proposed to explore Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton. After a 30-year drought of new NASA missions to Venus, two will rocket there within the decade, the product of countless hours of research and testing, rock fetching, helicopter riding—and relentless optimism.
“We’ve got this brilliant planet sitting next door with a giant atmosphere and a fascinating crust and a history that somehow didn’t end up like our own planet’s,” says Garvin. “To look back in time at what that world was like—probably Earth-like and maybe even better—is an opportunity for the people of planet Earth at this point. Maybe 30 years ago we weren’t ready. But now we are.”
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Scientists have long studied the historical anthropology of human beings. Through bones, we can determine what early humans looked like. In scrutinising teeth, researchers can tell us what our ancestors dined on.
Items like tools and pots and weapons reveal ancient cultures and how they may have gone about their day-to-day business.
It opened a Pandora’s box of possibilities, offering unprecedented ways to understand our species.
In 2010 at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany, biologists led by Svante Pääbo determined that early humans not only coexisted on Earth with other more primitive hominids but also mated with them.
Even more “astonishing” was the finding that another, as yet unidentified species, may also be represented in human DNA.
The discovery and subsequent claims of a “mystery species” were explored in the History channel’s documentary, ‘Ancient Aliens: ‘DNA reveals human/alien hybrids’.
Speaking during the programme, David Wilcock, author of, ‘The Synchronicity Key’, noted how most people had been familiar with the typical DNA model that showed a slow but clear progression from previous types of hominid life up to anatomically modern humans.
He continued: “If you look at the DNA in someone from 3,000 BC and you compare that to the DNA of someone alive today, it has changed by seven percent.”
Mapping the human genome, Dr Hawks found that in the past 5,000 years, our DNA has evolved at a rate of 100 times greater than any previous 5,000 year period in our history.
Like many, Mr Wilcock is of the opinion that it is possible that aliens interbred with humans at some point in the last 5,000 years, accounting for the “monumental” changes in the structure of human DNA.
Ancient theorists claim that evidence of this can be found in stories throughout history that depict humans mating with gods.
Sabina Magliocco, an anthropologist from California State University, said: “Throughout world cultures and mythologies, this idea of otherworldly beings, gods, supernatural beings, demons having sex with humans is very common.
“The way we interpret the experience depends on the cultural and religious factors around us.”
Yet, there remain many unanswered questions likely never to be solved surrounding archaic humans who are hidden within our DNA.
These “ghosts” largely remain untraceable via material things like bones and teeth which have become lost to time.
But their genetics live on, with more discoveries of distant and lost humans through genetic sequencing and advanced processes likely to surface in the future.
The coronavirusvaccine rollout in the UK has been vaunted and for good reason – it appears to be ushering in the end of the pandemic in Britain. However, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson have been back into the fray this week after reports emerged of two fatalities linked to a rare blood clot disorder following vaccination. Why some vaccines cause rare blood events and others don’t has puzzled the scientific community.
Some of the instructions for making coronavirus proteins can be misread, potentially triggering blood clot disorders in a small number of recipients, they suggested.
According to Dr Rolf Marschalek, a professor at Goethe University who led the study, after entering the nucleus, parts of the spike protein splice or split apart and create mutant versions which are unable to bind to the cell membrane.
The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. It facilitates the coronavirus’ entry into host cells.
These mutant versions then enter the body and trigger the rare blood clots, Dr Marschalek suggested.
Marschalek told the Financial Times that the process is different with mRNA vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer and Moderna, because the genetic material of the spike protein is sent directly to the cell fluid and does not enter the nucleus.
The yet to be peer-reviewed study also suggests that those making vaccines using adenovirus vectors could alter the sequence of the spike protein “to avoid unintended splice reactions and to increase the safety of these pharmaceutical products.”
Johnson & Johnson, in an emailed statement to Reuters, said: “We are supporting continued research and analysis of this rare event as we work with medical experts and global health authorities. We look forward to reviewing and sharing data as it becomes available.”
AstraZeneca declined to comment.
What are my chances of developing a blood clot?
It must be stressed that the blood clotting disorder is an extremely rare occurrence in people receiving a coronavirus vaccine.
According to the latest data, out of the 30.8 million doses of the University of Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine administered in the UK between 9 December 2020 and 5 May 2021, there have been over 260 cases of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia.
This is the equivalent of 10.9 cases per million doses.
The vast majority of events have been reported following the first dose and only eight after the second dose.
The latest MHRA guidance on COVID-19 vaccines and blood clots states that the risk is currently estimated to be around one in 100,000 for people over 50 and one in 50,000 for people aged between 18 and 49 years.
Nonetheless, for people aged between 18 and 49 the guidance states that “if you are offered the [University of Oxford/AstraZeneca] vaccination you may wish to go ahead after you have considered all the risks and benefits for you.”
Am I eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine?
The NHS is currently offering the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine to people most at risk.
The number of cases of B.1.617.2 continue to surge across England, as the Government scrambles to contain the outbreak. Health secretary Matt Hancock told MPs on Monday that 86 out of 343 local authorities had now confirmed five or more incidents of the Indian variant. He added that a total of 2,323 people had been infected with the strain, which equates to a 77 percent increase in confirmed cases of B.1.617.2 over the last five days.
This significant increase has led some experts to predict that the Indian variant is about to become the dominant Covid strain within the UK.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told The Guardian: “There is no evidence that the recent rapid rise in cases of the B.1.617.2 variant shows any signs in slowing.
“This variant will overtake [the Kent variant] and become the dominant variant in the UK in the next few days, if it hasn’t already done so.”
Mr Hancock confirmed that the Indian variant was already the dominant strain in Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen.
The Health Secretary said that Bedford was also fast becoming a new epicentre for the spread of the Indian variant.
Experts are still unsure the extent to which B.1.617.2 is more transmissible than previous strains of the Covid virus.
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, told reporters: “That’s a really critical question to which we do not yet have the answer.”
However, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) believes that it could spread 50 percent faster.
Information on the breakdown of where each case has been discovered is not available, but most are in England.
But cases are thought to be several times higher, due to the fact not all positive Covid test samples are screened to check what variant they were caused by.
Officials say the genetic changes on the Indian variant might make it more contagious than the original strain from Wuhan.
It comes after scientists today warned that the Brazilian variant could spread at more than double the rate of previous circulating strains, explaining why the virus has ripped through Brazil.
Scientists led by the University of Copenhagen warned the UK needs to stay on guard to stop the variant, named P1, causing chaos.
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Because it has also shown to reinfect people who have previously had Covid, it could also infect people who are vaccinated.
Prof Samir Bhatt, a researcher at University of Copenhagen and corresponding author on the paper, told The Sun: “Moving forwards the bigger concern is immune escape given substantial vaccination rates.
“This is the most important thing to keep an eye on in the UK right now where continued surveillance and caution is critical.”
In the UK, a very small number of cases of P1 have been confirmed – 60 since February 2021.
The Sun has contacted Public Health England.
Matt Hancock warns India Covid crisis is ‘stark reminder this isn’t over yet’ – and Britain MUST be vigilant