ScienceScope

Science  24 Aug 2001:
Vol. 293, Issue 5534, pp. 1413
  1. North and South

    The West Nile virus continues to march across the North American continent at a breathtaking pace. This summer it has appeared in many places in the southern U.S. and in southern Canada, and local health authorities everywhere are stepping up surveillance and control efforts. The virus has also claimed its first victim this year, a 71-year-old woman from downtown Atlanta who died on 11 August. Three other elderly people—two in Florida, one in New York City—have fallen ill so far.

    West Nile is a mosquito-borne virus that primarily infects birds but can be spread to humans and other mammals. Its first outbreak hit New York City in the summer 2 years ago. Last year it spread north to most states in New England and as far south as North Carolina. Now, the agent has also been found in dead birds in Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. “It's made a big jump,” says virologist Robert Tesh of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

    Canadian scientists who detected the virus in two dead birds from southern Ontario were still awaiting confirmation from an independent lab at press time. Although mosquito activity dwindles in the northern U.S. and Canada by fall, southern states may also see the disease through the winter, Tesh says. And at the rate the virus is advancing, he adds, “I wouldn't be surprised to see it in Houston by the end of the summer.”

  2. Stemming Research

    Confusion is rife in the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's 9 August decision to allow limited stem cell research. Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says there are 60 lines of embryonic stem cells in existence, many researchers are skeptical of that number. Only seven of the lines have actually been described in the scientific literature. And Science, after conducting its own informal survey, came up with a maximum of 34.

    Now the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Science) is calling on NIH to let the world know promptly where the cell lines are that can be studied under the new guidelines.

    “We believe it is essential that confusion over the actual number available be resolved as soon as possible,” says the AAAS statement. “We strongly urge, therefore, that the administration make public immediately the identities of the sources of those stem cell lines.” NIH officials say the White House will set up a registry, which lists all cell lines and how to obtain them, but no timetable for its completion has been set.

  3. Red Flight

    NASA engineers are celebrating the success of a prototype plane that one day could swoop over martian dunes and canyons, looking for water and providing a detailed view of the planet's complex surface. The small glider was dropped 9 August from a helium-filled balloon that carried it to an altitude of more than 30,000 meters above the Oregon coast. Designed at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, the glider has a long, straight wing nearly 3 meters long to help it stay aloft high in Earth's atmosphere, an analog to the thin martian atmosphere at low altitudes. Both the recent flight and a low-altitude mission last month by another model met engineering expectations, agency officials say. But don't expect scheduled flights soon; NASA still must develop a craft with wings that could be folded up to fit inside a spacecraft as well as a suitable propeller propulsion system.

  4. Going Nowhere

    Negotiations over measures to ensure compliance with the 30-year-old Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention have come to an ignominious end. Last month the U.S. delegation at the talks announced its staunch opposition to the measures, set out in a draft treaty protocol (Science, 20 July, p. 414). So the representatives from 55 nations instead tried to craft a consensus statement to preserve the current draft protocol as a basis for future discussions.

    But even that document landed in the wastebasket in the final minutes of a monthlong negotiating session that ended 18 August. The U.S. delegation objected to language that hinted at its opposition to the protocol. The disagreement doesn't bode well for a November review conference at which treaty states are meant to take stock of potential bioweapons threats that have emerged during the past 5 years. Bioweapons expert Graham Pearson of the United Kingdom's University of Bradford predicts “a lot of recrimination” at that meeting. Others share the pessimism. “I hate to think you can't get countries to act unless a disaster strikes,” says Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chair of the Federation of American Scientists' biological weapons working group.

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