Nobel in medicine goes to 2 scientists whose work enabled creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19

Nobel in medicine goes to 2 scientists whose work enabled creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19
The Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded to Katalin Karika and Drew Weissman for discoveries that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.(AP)
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Updated 02 October 2023
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Nobel in medicine goes to 2 scientists whose work enabled creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19

Nobel in medicine goes to 2 scientists whose work enabled creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19
  • The secretary of the Nobel Assembly announced the award Monday in Stockholm
  • The Nobel Prizes carry a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor

STOCKHOLM: Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.
The award was given to Katalin Karikó, a professor at Sagan’s University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Drew Weissman, who performed his prizewinning research together with Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Through their groundbreaking findings, which have fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system, the laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the panel that awarded the prize said.
Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly, announced the award and said both scientists were “overwhelmed” by news of the prize when he contacted them shortly before the announcement.
The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was won last year by Swedish scientist Svante Paabo for discoveries in human evolution that unlocked secrets of Neanderthal DNA which provided key insights into our immune system, including our vulnerability to severe COVID-19.
The award was the second in the family. Paabo’s father, Sune Bergstrom, won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1982.
Nobel announcements continue with the physics prize on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday and the economics award on Oct. 9.
The prizes carry a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million). The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896.
The prize money was raised by 1 million kronor this year because of the plunging value of the Swedish currency.
The laureates are invited to receive their awards at ceremonies on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The prestigious peace prize is handed out in Oslo, according to his wishes, while the other award ceremony is held in Stockholm.


US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft

US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft
Updated 5 sec ago
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US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft

US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft
  • Spacecraft built and flown by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines landed near the moon’s south pole
  • To date, spacecraft from just four other countries, Russia, China, India and Japan, have ever landed on the moon

A spacecraft built and flown by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines landed near the moon’s south pole on Thursday, the first US touchdown on the lunar surface in more than half a century and the first ever achieved by the private sector.

NASA, with several research instruments aboard the vehicle, hailed the landing as a major achievement in its goal of sending a squad of commercially flown spacecraft on scientific scouting missions to the moon ahead of a planned return of astronauts there later this decade.

But initial communications problems following Thursday’s landing raised questions about whether the vehicle may have been left impaired or obstructed in some way.

The uncrewed six-legged robot lander, dubbed Odysseus, touched down at about 6:23 p.m. EST (2323 GMT), the company and NASA commentators said in a joint webcast of the landing from Intuitive Machines’ mission operations center in Houston.

The landing capped a nail-biting final approach and descent in which a problem surfaced with the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation system that required engineers on the ground to employ an untested work-around at the 11th hour.

It also took some time after an anticipated radio blackout to re-establish communications with the spacecraft and determine its fate some 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth.

When contact was finally renewed, the signal was faint, confirming that the lander had touched down but leaving mission control immediately uncertain as to the precise condition and orientation of the vehicle, according to the webcast.

“Our equipment is on the surface of the moon, and we are transmitting, so congratulations IM team,” Intuitive Machines mission director Tim Crain was heard telling the operations center. “We’ll see what more we can get from that.”

Later in the evening, the company posted a message on the social media platform X saying flight controllers “have confirmed Odysseus is upright and starting to send data.”

QUESTION OF OBSTRUCTION

Still, the weak signal suggested the spacecraft may have landed next to a crater wall or something else that blocked or impinged its antenna, said Thomas Zurbuchen, a former NASA science chief who oversaw creation of the agency’s commercial moon lander program.

“Sometimes it could just be one rock, one big boulder, that’s in the way,” he said in a phone interview with Reuters.

Such an issue could complicate the lander’s primary mission of deploying its payloads and meeting science objectives, Zurbuchen said.

Accomplishing the landing is “a major intermediate goal, but the goal of the mission is to do science, and get the pictures back and so forth,” he added.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson immediately cheered Thursday’s feat as a “triumph,” saying, “Odysseus has taken the moon.”

As planned, the spacecraft was believed to have come to rest at a crater named Malapert A near the moon’s south pole, according to the webcast. The spacecraft was not designed to provide live video of the landing, which came one day after it reached lunar orbit and a week after its launch from Florida.

Thursday’s landing represented the first controlled descent to the lunar surface by a US spacecraft since Apollo 17 in 1972, when NASA’s last crewed moon mission landed there with astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

To date, spacecraft from just four other countries have ever landed on the moon — the former Soviet Union, China, India and, mostly recently, just last month, Japan. The United States is the only one ever to have sent humans to the lunar surface.

Odysseus is carrying a suite of scientific instruments and technology demonstrations for NASA and several commercial customers designed to operate for seven days on solar energy before the sun sets over the polar landing site.

The NASA payload focuses on space weather interactions with the moon’s surface, radio astronomy and other aspects of the lunar environment for future landing missions.

Odysseus was sent on its way to the moon last Thursday atop a Falcon 9 rocket launched by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

DAWN OF ARTEMIS

Its arrival marked the first “soft landing” on the moon ever by a commercially manufactured and operated vehicle and the first under NASA’s Artemis lunar program, as the US races to return astronauts to Earth’s natural satellite before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there.

NASA aims to land its first crewed Artemis in late 2026 as part of long-term, sustained lunar exploration and a stepping stone toward eventual human flights to Mars. The initiative focuses on the moon’s south pole in part because a presumed bounty of frozen water exists there that can be used for life support and production of rocket fuel.

A host of small landers like Odysseus are expected to pave the way under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, designed to deliver instruments and hardware to the moon at lower costs than the US space agency’s traditional method of building and launching those vehicles itself.

Leaning more heavily on smaller, less experienced private ventures comes with its own risks.

Just last month the lunar lander of another firm, Astrobotic Technology, suffered a propulsion system leak on its way to the moon shortly after being placed in orbit on Jan. 8 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket.

The malfunction of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander marked the third failure of a private company to achieve a lunar touchdown, following ill-fated efforts by companies from Israel and Japan.


Armenia freezes participation in Russia-led security bloc

Armenia freezes participation in Russia-led security bloc
Updated 30 min 8 sec ago
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Armenia freezes participation in Russia-led security bloc

Armenia freezes participation in Russia-led security bloc
  • Prime Minister Pashinyan says the Collective Security Treaty Organization has failed his country
  • Other ex-Soviet members of the CSTO include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Armenia has frozen its participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) because the pact had failed the country, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview broadcast on Thursday.
Pashinyan also said Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has fought two wars over the past three decades, was not adhering to the principles needed to clinch a long-term peace treaty, and suggested Azerbaijan was preparing to launch another attack.
Pashinyan told France 24 television that the CSTO pact, dominated by Russia, had failed Armenia.
“The Collective Security Treaty has not fulfilled its objectives as far as Armenia is concerned, particularly in 2021 and 2022. And we could not let that happen without taking notice,” Pashinyan said through an interpreter.
“We have now in practical terms frozen our participation in this treaty. As for what comes next, we shall have to see.”
He said there was no discussion for the moment of closing a Russian base in Armenia. That was subject to different treaties.
Pashinyan has in recent months expressed discontent with Armenia’s longstanding ties with Russia and said Armenia could no longer rely on Russia to ensure its defense needs. He had suggested its membership of the CSTO was under review.
Other ex-Soviet members of the CSTO include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Azerbaijan recovered swathes of territory in 2020 in the second war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Last year, Azerbaijan’s military took control of the territory, prompting most of its residents to leave for Armenia.
In his remarks, Pashinyan said prospects for clinching a long-term peace treaty were hurt by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s statements which Armenia interpreted as laying claim to large parts of Armenian territory.
“If the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders are not recognized by Azerbaijan, it is simply not possible,” he told France 24.
“Azerbaijan is using the situation to feed its rhetoric. That leads one to think that Azerbaijan is getting ready for a new attack on Armenia.”
Key elements in securing a treaty are demarcation of borders and the establishment of regional transport corridors often through the territory of each others’ territory.
Aliyev has also raised the issue of determining control of ethnic enclaves on both sides of the border.
Pashinyan and Aliyev have discussed moves toward a peace treaty at several meetings, including discussions last week at the Munich Security Conference. 


Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace
Updated 23 February 2024
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Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace
  • Detection rates are low, diagnosis is slow
  • State asks private sector to improve workers’ health

MANILA: Saddled with high cancer rates and late diagnoses, the Philippines is trying a whole new tack: asking businesses to step into state shoes and screen millions of workers for early signs of the disease.

Be it cervical, breast or colon cancer, the Southeast Asian nation wants to lower its cancer deaths by increasing screening.
Medics say early detection is key to improving survival rates, so last year the government changed course and opted to partner with the private sector to boost testing levels.
In September, the government ordered all employers to set up cancer prevention and control programs to ease pressures on time- and cash-poor staff, who must otherwise contribute to the cost of diagnosis and treatment themselves.
Employers are now required to give employees access to cancer screening, by referrals to reputable health facilities or conducting free screenings themselves.
The order stemmed from the landmark National Integrated Cancer Control Act, which pledged better screening, diagnosis and treatment and to make health services “more equitable and affordable for all, especially for the underprivileged, poor and marginalized.”
Cervical screening
Since the start of the year, 500 Filipinos have tested under the new setup — officer worker Gemma Remojo was among the first.
“I’ve been suffering from reproductive issues and hormonal imbalance so I really needed this test,” said Remojo, a 35-year-old employed by finance company Home Credit.
Under the Philippine health system, Remojo would have to pay for tests in a private clinic or ask the national health insurance to cover her screening, which takes time to process.
Home Credit’s cervical screening service began in January, with kits distributed to workers for free after a short lecture.
The workers collect their own specimens in a designated space inside the workplace and their results are posted out by medical providers some weeks later. Employers cannot access the results, circumventing any data privacy concerns.
A positive test detects the presence of HPV, the virus linked to cervical cancer — the fourth most common cancer among women globally.
Roughly 91 percent of cervical cancer cases are thought to be caused by HPV, and every year more than half of cervical cancer cases in the Philippines lead to death.
The kit was provided for free by the Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Gynecology and Obstetrics (Jhpiego), a nonprofit health organization helping hundreds of workers get free HPV screenings in the Philippines.
According to Jhpiego, the cancer awareness lecture and do-it-yourself kits help simplify the screening process for women.
The government said the aim was to screen more citizens and do it more quickly — then to speed up diagnoses.
“With cancer ranking third among the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in the country, the advisory serves as our proactive contribution to combating the disease,” Alvin Curada, director of the government’s Bureau of Working Conditions, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Engaging the private sector underscores the country’s commitment ... It signifies a shared responsibility between the government and the private sector,” he said.
Bridging health gaps
A key incentive for users to get tested is the lower cost, along with a better health outlook.
The cost of treatment is high; Filipino cancer patients lose a combined 35 billion Philippine pesos ($625 million) a year in medical costs, out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages, according to a study by health economist Valerie Ulep of state think-tank the Philippine Institute for Development Studies.
Ulep said early screening could save lives, as only 1 percent of Filipino women are ever screened for breast or cervical cancer, among the lowest rates in the world.
The poor take-up comes despite that fact that breast and cervical are among the leading cancers affecting Filipino women.
The cost of screening is also prohibitive, said Jhpiego’s Marco Ugoy, who works to raise awareness on reproductive health.
The price in hospitals can range from 3,000 to 30,000 Philippine pesos, when a minimum-wage earner in the Philippines earns an average 17,000 pesos each month.
All employers must enroll staff in the Philippines’ national health insurance company, PhilHealth, but that universal policy only partly covers a patient’s costs.
The new scheme aims to bridge some of the gap.
Hard to roll out
The government’s Curada said work was an ideal place to run a cancer program because of its structure and facilities.
To ensure company compliance, employers must submit an annual report to government detailing the extent of cancer-related activities or else risk an unspecified fine.
But health advocates worry that guidelines may be too scant and that policy awareness remains low.
“It’s a big step that a directive like this was signed. But do all companies implement it? Do the workers know about the policy?” said Ugoy of Jhpiego.
Ugoy said some business owners were already big advocates of workplace screenings, but he cited challenges in getting factories, especially those in autonomous ecozones, to comply.
The Philippines has more than 400 special economic zones that run with little or no government interference, and have historically been linked to a range of human rights concerns.
Nadia De Leon of the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development, a nonprofit for worker health and safety, said the new government tack represents a big step forward.
But the guidelines “may remain largely symbolic” if not strictly enforced and monitored, she said.

Screenings for women
Home Credit’s Arianne Eucogo said the company prioritized HPV screenings over other cancer programs since about 65 percent of their employees are women.
“We’re primarily doing it for health promotion of our employees, knowing that the rate of cervical cancer deaths in the Philippines is high,” she said.
Ugoy said one of the biggest barriers to health checkups was simply time, as health centers only open during office hours.
Ugoy said the private sector must also partner with community-based groups and local government to boost take-up and get around the time constraints.
For example, in Taguig City, the fifth most populous in the country, dozens of companies partnered with the city’s own team to run their HPV screenings and cancer treatment, be it through office clinics, ride-hailing services or call centers.
Ugoy said this approach — with free test kits from Jhpiego and labs paid by the city government — had sped up diagnosis.
“It shouldn’t stop at diagnostics. Screening and treatment must go hand in hand when it comes to cancer,” said Marites Diaz, who has worked for 32 years at the Taguig Health Office.


Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid

Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid
Updated 23 February 2024
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Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid

Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid
  • He said a failure to do so will cost Ukrainian lives

WASHINGTON: President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the US Congress to approve additional aid for Kyiv, saying in an interview broadcast Thursday that a failure to do so will cost Ukrainian lives.

Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives have stalled the approval of $60 billion in new aid for Ukraine, and Zelensky made his appeal for action during an interview with Fox News — a favored channel for US conservatives.

“Will Ukraine survive without Congress’ support? Of course. But not all of us,” Zelensky told Fox’s Bret Baier in an interview near a front line in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian leader also warned that the price of helping Kyiv now is much lower than the potential cost of confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin later if he succeeds in Ukraine.

The United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine and is by far Kyiv’s biggest donor. But existing funding has dried up, and former president Donald Trump’s allies in the House have been stalling new assistance.

Trump, the likely Republican nominee in the November presidential election, opposes helping Kyiv and recently used his sway to kill a US border reform bill that would have also authorized additional aid to Ukraine.

Zelensky told the Munich Security Conference on Saturday that he was ready to take Trump to the frontlines in Ukraine, saying policy makers should see what real war entails.


Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks

Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks
Updated 23 February 2024
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Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks

Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks
  • Conflict Armament Research examined the remnants of a North Korean ballistic missile used by Russia against Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv on Jan. 2
  • In its report, CAR found date codes on the components indicated more than three quarters were produced between 2021 and 2023

WASHINGTON: Revelations that a North Korean missile fired by Russia in Ukraine contained a large number of components linked to US-based companies underline the difficulty of enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang, but could help uncover illicit procurement networks, experts say.

Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a UK-based organization that tracks the origins of weapons used in conflicts, examined the remnants of a North Korean ballistic missile used by Russia against Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv on Jan. 2.
In a report released this week, it said it examined electronic components, including for the missile’s navigation system, and found many were recently manufactured and bore the marks of companies based in the United States.
It said 75 percent of the components documented were “linked to companies incorporated in the United States,” 16 percent to companies in Europe, and 11 percent to companies in Asia.
Date codes on the components indicated more than three quarters were produced between 2021 and 2023 and that the missile could not have been assembled before March last year, the report said.
Sanctions experts said the findings were not surprising even though for years the United States has led international efforts to restrict North Korea’s ability to obtain parts and funding for its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
CAR said its findings showed both how difficult it is to control the export of commercial electronic components, and how reliant countries such as North Korea, Russia and Iran are on imported technology.
“North Korea (and Russia and Iran) are experts in avoiding UN and US sanctions through front companies and other efforts,” said Anthony Ruggiero of Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, who directed North Korea sanctions efforts in the Trump administration.
“While US sanctions are robust on paper, sanctions must be enforced to be effective,” he said, stressing the need for Washington and it allies to continually update sanctions lists and spend on enforcement.
“We are not doing either one on North Korea sanctions,” he said, adding that the Biden administration particularly needed to do more to target Chinese companies, individuals, and banks aiding sanctions evasion.
CAR said it was working with industry to trace the missile components and identify the entities responsible for their diversion to North Korea, so would not identify the companies linked to their production. It also did not identify specific components.
Martyn Williams of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project, said many components made by US firms were easily available online or from electronics markets around the world.
“That North Korea can get these is not surprising at all, and I don’t think anyone imagined the sanctions regime would be able to stop the flow of common components,” he said.
“There are however much more specialized components in missiles and some of those are not a click away on the Internet. Those are also the type of thing that sanctions are meant to stop, so the presence of more specialized components would be more worrying.”
Katsu Furukawa, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts in charge of monitoring UN sanctions against North Korea, said the bulk of the components shown in a photo in the CAR report appeared to be widely available commercial items.
However, in past UN investigations, he said, there were usually a few specific items such as pressure transmitters and flight control computers that enabled investigators to track procurement routes and identify the perpetrators.
38 North director Jenny Town said such specialized items could only be obtained from a small number of vendors and should have more of a procurement paper trail.
The US State Department said Washington uses export controls, sanctions, and law enforcement actions to prevent North Korea from acquiring technology for its weapons programs and to prevent Russia from acquiring such weapons.
“We work closely with the US private sector, as well as foreign allied and partner states, in these efforts,” a spokesperson said.