ScienceScope

Science  27 Aug 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5688, pp. 1225
  1. Plum Island Breaches Assailed

    Officials at a federal biosafety lab on Plum Island in New York are beefing up security procedures after six animals inadvertently became infected with foot-and-mouth virus this summer. Although the animals were within the biocontainment area, the cases, which became public last week, have added to concerns that such accidents may become more common as biodefense research expands.

    The incidents occurred at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Long Island, a biosecurity level (BSL) 3 facility that is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). On 24 June, two cattle were found to be infected with a virus strain being used in a separate part of the lab, says DHS spokesperson Donald Tighe. About 4 weeks later, four pigs in a clean room were discovered to be infected with a different strain.

    DHS officials informed local activists soon after the second incident. But in a 2 August letter, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Representative Timothy H. Bishop (D-NY) called the infections “alarming breaches.” Virologist Frederick Murphy of the University of California, Davis, says that although such accidents aren't surprising, they suggest a “serious need” to review safety. Lab officials say they have implemented new procedures, such as an extra decontamination shower for workers and additional equipment sterilization, to avoid future problems.

  2. Poll Shows Voters Split on California Stem Cell Initiative

    A California ballot initiative to raise $3 billion for stem cell research is ahead in a recent poll—but that may not be enough to ensure victory. A 15 August Field Poll of 1034 Californians found that 45% of likely voters supported Proposition 71, which would create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and authorize the sale of bonds to fund research. Forty-two percent oppose the measure and 13% are undecided. The poll had a margin of error of ±4.5%.

    Democrats favor the proposition by a 2-1 margin, whereas Republicans are opposed by roughly the same proportion. College graduates and those with a postgraduate education overwhelmingly favor the initiative, whereas voters with no more than a high school education are opposed.

    If history is any guide, the divided electorate suggests that the proposition will fail, say California voting analysts. But proponents still have room to find new supporters, noting that the poll showed that just 40% of Californians were aware of the measure.

  3. The Beagle Hasn't Landed

    Blame it on the weather. A report released this week by the British consortium that built the ill-fated Beagle 2 Mars lander (Science, 28 May, p. 1226) speculates that the failure may have been due to unusually low pressure in the atmosphere during its descent to the planet's surface on Christmas Day of last year. Low pressure between 40 and 20 kilometers above the surface may have led the spacecraft to plummet too fast, resulting in a catastrophic crash on the martian sand and rocks, according to the 276-page study (ebulletin.le.ac.uk/news).

    Other possible causes include electronics failure due to the intense cold of space, heat-shield breakup due to damage during testing on Earth, or problems with the parachute and air bags designed to smooth the landing. “A large number of failure modes are possible,” states the study, but clear and compelling evidence for any single explanation is lacking. The report notes that a future lander should not be treated simply as an instrument and recommends that more time and resources be poured into better engineering and testing. The team concludes that it wants to “refly the payload as soon as possible” with a new and innovative design, but how and when remain up in the air.

  4. Polio Campaign Suffers Setback

    With new cases of polio reported for the first time in years in Mali and Guinea, and additional cases in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, the World Health Organization and African officials are acknowledging that they will not meet their goal of wiping out polio in 2004.

    Last spring, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in Geneva tried to erect a firewall of immunizations around Nigeria and Niger (Science, 2 July, p. 24). Mali and Guinea are outside that wall, “telling us that barrier needs to be much stronger and broader,” says initiative chief Bruce Aylward. At the same time, within Nigeria, “we are still seeing the most intense transmission that we have seen anywhere in the world in years,” he says.

    The partners will now redouble immunization efforts in Mali, Guinea, and Chad as part of a synchronized campaign planned for 22 African countries in October and November. They still hope to knock out polio in the rest of Africa—and indeed the world—by year end. But with 476 cases to date in Nigeria, and at least 1000 expected by year end, Aylward concedes that they have to plan for continued transmission in Nigeria and Niger throughout 2005.