Where polio remains, harmful satellites and a research crackdown

A health worker immunizes a child during a polio vaccination campaign in northwest Nigeria in 2017.Credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty

Africa declared free from wild polio — but vaccine-derived strains remain

Africa is free from wild poliovirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 25 August — leaving just two countries where the virus remains endemic, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Africa Regional Certification Commission, an independent body responsible for overseeing the eradication of polio, has certified that all 47 countries in the WHO’s Africa Region have eradicated the virus after a long programme of vaccination and surveillance. There is no cure for the disease, which can cause irreversible paralysis and can be fatal if breathing muscles are affected, but vaccination can protect people for life.

A region is certified as free of wild polio after three years have passed without the virus being detected in any of its countries. Africa’s last case of wild polio was recorded four years ago in northeast Nigeria.

Infographic: Polio today: Map showing worldwide polio cases recorded between August 2010 and 2020.

Source: WHO

Despite the eradication of wild poliovirus, Africa’s fight against polio isn’t over. In many countries, vaccination is done with oral drops containing a weakened form of the poliovirus, which sometimes mutates into a strain that can spread in under-immunized communities and cause paralysis. Since August 2019, more than 20 countries worldwide have reported cases of vaccine-derived polio (see ‘Polio today’).

Wild polio cases have decreased globally by more than 99% since 1988, but the virus is still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which report dozens of cases every year. To eradicate the disease, the two countries should focus on peace-building, reducing vaccine hesitancy, and boosting basic medical services and routine immunizations, says Zulfiqar Bhutta, a public-health researcher at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan.

Until wild polio is wiped out worldwide, all countries are at risk of a resurgence, says Chima Ohuabunwo, an epidemiologist at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. He hopes that the experience drawn from Africa will help to support eradication efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Polio anywhere is polio everywhere,” Ohuabunwo says.

A view of Starlink satellites stacked together from space

SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites (shown here in stacks, waiting to deploy) in May of last year.Credit: SpaceX

Satellite constellations will harm data

‘Megaconstellations’ of satellites increasingly launching into orbit around Earth will definitely contaminate the data astronomers collect. That’s the conclusion of the most detailed assessment yet of how these satellite networks, launched by companies including SpaceX, will affect astronomical observations from Earth.

Satellites can reflect sunlight and appear as bright streaks in the sky, interfering with studies of planets beyond the Solar System and near-Earth asteroids. “Some phenomena will surely go undiscovered as a result of significant interference,” says the 25 August report from the American Astronomical Society and the US National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab.

Tens of thousands of satellites, which will provide broadband Internet to the globe, are expected to soar into space in the coming years. Scientists realized the potential problem in June 2019, only after SpaceX launched its first set of satellites. Astronomers have been working since to determine how bad the problem will be and what they can do about it.

The only way to avoid any impact on ground-based telescopes would be to launch zero satellites, says Connie Walker, an astronomer at NOIRLab and co-chair of the team that wrote the report.

China’s research-misconduct rules target ‘paper mills’

China’s science ministry is set to introduce its most comprehensive rules so far for dealing with research misconduct. The measures, which come into effect this month, outline what constitute violations and appropriate punishments. They will apply to anyone engaged in science-and-technology activities, including researchers, reviewers and heads of institutions.

The policy also includes, for the first time, violations by independent contractors, such as those who sell academic papers, fabricate data and write or submit articles on behalf of researchers. The rule is designed to tackle researchers’ widespread use of companies known as paper mills, which produce manuscripts that are often based on falsified data.

Some scientists say the regulations will help to curb bad behaviour and improve research integrity in Chinese institutions. They are a “big step forward”, says Li Tang, who studies science policy at Fudan University in Shanghai. Penalties for misconduct include revoking bonuses, awards and honorary titles, and banning researchers from applying for government funding.

But other scientists doubt the changes will make a difference, because misconduct regulations already exist, but are not enforced.

“They don’t need to make new rules. There are plenty of old regulations ready,” says Shi-Min Fang, a writer based in San Diego, California.

China has had a long-standing issue with research misconduct. Cases have involved plagiarism, falsified data and forged peer review, and have led to a large number of article retractions.

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