NEWS AT A GLANCE: A RESPIRATORY DISEASE VACCINE, OBSERVING INTENSIFYING CYCLONES, AND SHAKING A TALL WOODEN BUILDING
A 10-story wooden building survived two severe, simulated earthquakes intact this week as scientists sought to show that wood can rival steel and concrete to safely support tall buildings. The structure is the tallest ever tested at the University of California, San Diego’s earthquake simulator. As part of a project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the machine subjected the building to the equivalent of the 1994 6.7 magnitude Northridge, California, quake. A few minutes later it re-created a 1999 7.7 magnitude temblor that struck Taiwan.
The building is reinforced by narrow wooden panels running from the ground to the top of each of its four sides. These “rocking walls” are pinned in place by metal rods anchored to the ground and running through the panels to the top. They enable the walls to sway during a quake, then return to vertical. Scientists say using wood to construct tall buildings could lower their environmental footprint.FDA approves first RSV vaccine
A decadeslong effort to develop a vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory pathogen that targets infants and the elderly, succeeded last week when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) green-lighted one made by manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline. The vaccine, the first ever approved, will become available to people ages 60 and older if, as expected, an advisory committee at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it next month. A similar vaccine by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is also expected to win approval for use in older people this month. And FDA has committed to deciding by August whether to allow use of the Pfizer vaccine in pregnant people, who pass protective antibodies to their newborns. Annually, RSV kills an estimated 33,000 people ages 60 and older in hospitals in high-income countries. It also kills an estimated 46,000 infants younger than 7 months old, most of them in developing countries.Minisatellites eye cyclones
A pair of small satellites funded by NASA to study how hurricanes rapidly intensify launched this week from New Zealand, carried on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. The Tropics satellites, each about the size of a shoebox, sport miniature microwave sensors like those typically carried on larger, more expensive weather satellites, allowing them to see through clouds to measure water vapor, precipitation, and temperature. The two CubeSats will be joined by a second pair later this month; the constellation will fill in the 6-hour gaps in data from larger weather satellites. The first two Tropics satellites were lost in June 2022 when the rocket company Astra failed to deliver them into orbit. That prompted NASA to select Rocket Lab for the two remaining launches.CDC chief to step down
Rochelle Walensky, who directed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through a turbulent pandemic era, will leave her job at the end of June, she announced last week. Walensky took up her post in January 2021 after leading the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital. During the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC was buffeted by criticism, including that it bowed to former President Donald Trump’s administration’s political agenda; after President Joe Biden named Walensky director, she made communications missteps seen as further eroding public trust in the agency. Last summer, she launched a reorganization that included a focus on making CDC’s public communications better and faster. The timing to nominate a successor is uncertain. Beginning on 20 January 2025, the U.S. Senate will need to confirm any new nominee for the position.Human ‘pangenome’ released
Researchers presented this week the first draft of the human pangenome—a collection of sequenced genomes belonging to individuals of diverse ancestry that aims to eventually represent as many as possible of the DNA sequences found across our species. Scientists have been using a single reference human genome—mostly representing people of European ancestry—since it was unveiled 20 years ago. The Human Pangenome Reference Consortium diversified that reference by sequencing the genomes of 47 individuals from all continents except Antarctica. Published in a series of papers in Nature, the pangenome adds 119 million base pairs to the current reference genome and doubles the known number of structural variants. Researchers hope to identify potentially harmful variants present only in some populations, enabling more equitable health care.WHO fired COVID-19 investigator
The World Health Organization (WHO) has dismissed Peter Ben Embarek, the scientist who led its probe of the origins of COVID-19, following findings he committed sexual misconduct. The dismissal occurred last year but was reported by the Financial Times only last week. The allegations concern incidents in 2015 and 2017 and were first received by WHO investigators in 2018, and the organization followed due process, a spokesperson says. WHO did not disclose additional details. Ben Embarek told Reuters that he “contests the qualification of harassment” and that he was “quite hopeful in the defense of my rights.” In March, WHO adopted a revised policy to stop sexual harassment and misconduct. It aimed to address what it called shortcomings in its response to allegations that its workers sexually exploited and abused women and girls during an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2018 to 2020.