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Ethical research on COVID-19

Scientists debate the use of fetal tissue in coronavirus experiments

A laboratory scientist cultures coronavirus for testing at U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick in Maryland earlier this month. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

Ethical research on COVID-19

Some researchers are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to promote research on the body parts of aborted babies.

The Trump administration does not allow scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research on fetal tissue, nor does it fund outside experiments using specimens from aborted babies. Immunologist Kim Hasenkrug at the NIH Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana appealed for an exemption from the rule. He wants to test treatments for COVID-19 on mice that non-NIH scientists engineered to have humanlike lungs. The mice were developed using human fetal tissue.

But far more effective and ethical ways exist to accomplish the same purpose, said David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Researchers have developed dozens of types of mice with humanlike organs without using fetal tissue. Those mice are ethically and scientifically superior as test subjects, according to Prentice.

Researchers can also conduct experiments using cells from umbilical cord blood or newborn tissue obtained during surgeries. Prentice said using newborn tissue to test treatments much more closely approximates the real-life situation: “If you are testing a drug that you are going to use for an already born individual, better to have born tissue to test it on, not unborn.”

He also questioned the timing of the request. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently opened nominations for an ethics board that would reconsider grants for research involving fetal tissue.

“It really strikes me as that old phrase, never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Prentice said.

In a recent column in USA Today, Irving Weissman and Joseph McCune, medical researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area, argued religious beliefs motivated the ban on research using fetal tissue and transgressed the separation of church and state.

But Prentice said the policy has nothing to do with church-state issues.

“It is a matter of ethics, plain and simple,” he said. “Whether you are going to provide dignity to individuals who have been killed or whether you will treat them like parting out a car to use their parts for various experiments.”

Polaris shining bright in the night sky

Polaris shining bright in the night sky

A heavenly mystery

When it comes to the North Star, astronomers disagree on its size, its age, and its distance from Earth. Polaris, the star’s formal name, sits directly above the North Pole, pulses regularly in both diameter and brightness, and outshines its sister, Polaris B, which orbits around it once every 26 years. Traditional methods of measurement indicate the North Star is nearly seven times larger than the sun, Hilding Neilson, an astrophysicist at the University of Toronto, told Live Science. But other calculations that factor in the orbit of Polaris B and new measurements from the Hubble Space Telescope indicate the star is only 3.45 times larger than the sun. And astronomers can only calculate a star’s distance from Earth if they know it’s size.

Stars in binary systems, like Polaris and Polaris B, usually formed at about the same time. But calculations show Polaris B is much older than its bigger sibling. In a recent study, researchers generated a massive set of computer models trying to make sense of the conflicting data but did not succeed.

Studying Polaris poses a special difficulty because it lies outside the field of view for most telescopes and is too bright for the type of instruments that can precisely measure a star’s properties. “It’s blinding for them,” Neilson said.

He also noted, although unlikely, the North Star may have originated from two stars that slammed together and produced a rejuvenated star that appears younger than it is.

“It is challenging to draw significant conclusions beyond the fact that Polaris continues to be an enduring mystery, and the more we measure the less we seem to understand,” the researchers said. —J.B.

Polaris shining bright in the night sky

Polaris shining bright in the night sky

Stomach trouble

Initially, doctors considered COVID-19 a strictly respiratory illness, but some studies now suggest it may also manifest in the gastrointestinal tract.

A paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association published on Feb. 7 reported that 10 percent of the COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China—where the new coronavirus originated—experienced abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea before having a fever or breathing issue. Another study in the journal Gastroenterology found that among 73 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, 53 percent tested positive for the virus in their stool. For 25 percent of those patients, stool samples tested positive one to 12 days longer than respiratory samples.

Those results do not necessarily indicate the infection can spread through feces, David Johnson, chief of gastroenterology at the Eastern Virginia Medical School told Medscape. No one has studied that yet. Johnson said experts may need to consider these studies in deciding how long infected individuals should isolate from other people and what level of disinfecting procedures to employ. —J.B.

Polaris shining bright in the night sky

Polaris shining bright in the night sky

Monkey business

Humans aren’t the only ones inconvenienced by the COVID-19 outbreak. On March 12, a monkey turf war broke out in the ancient city of Lopburi, Thailand. A sharp drop in tourism due to the new coronavirus means less food left out for local monkey gangs, Thai news site Khaosod English reported.

The street fight started when a group of monkeys around a Hindu shrine complex began to forage for food too close to monkeys who live around the ruins of a former Buddhist temple and eat offerings people leave there.

The brawl held up traffic for about 10 minutes and involved thousands of monkeys, but no animals appeared to die. Local residents then began putting out food at both sites. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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