As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth year as a global health emergency, researchers will continue pushing to help make the disease manageable and ordinary. They will track hundreds of subvariants of Omicron, the highly transmissible but seemingly less lethal strain of SARSCoV-2 that dominated in 2022. Virologists will watch the virus’ evolution this year to see whether it has finally slowed or a more dangerous variant pops up, evading much of the immunity that humanity has built up to previous ones. Vaccine researchers hope to develop new shots that provide broad protection against a variety of coronaviruses. Another priority is to introduce nasal vaccines that prompt immune responses within the body’s mucosal linings; compared with shots in the arm, these should elicit a stronger, quicker defense against initial infection. But public health specialists worry widespread vaccine hesitancy may persist, with long-lasting consequences for battles against both COVID-19 and other diseases. The search for effective treatments for COVID-19 will reboot because the evolution of the virus has made several existing antibody-based drugs ineffective. Randomized trials of potential drugs to treat Long Covid may yield their first results, benefiting millions of people suffering from fatigue and other debilitating symptoms.
In the rest of this section, Science’s News staff forecasts other areas of research and policy likely to make headlines in the coming year.
This year, diplomats from two dozen countries will debate the terms of an agreement requiring wealthy nations, responsible for most historical greenhouse gas emissions, to help pay for damages caused by climate change. The commitment was the only substantive new policy to emerge from the U.N. climate summit in Egypt in November 2022. A new fund would pay for economic losses and property damage linked to heat, flooding, and other effects of climate change. But signatories put off details, such as which countries should pay, which should benefit, and how the money should be spent. Those details could come into focus at this year’s U.N. climate summit in the United Arab Emirates. Observers are skeptical about the deal’s prospects, noting that wealthy nations have failed to honor past promises to provide such financial support.
Two of the world’s largest biomedical research sponsors—the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust—will likely get new directors this year. Researchers have grown impatient waiting for the White House to nominate a successor to Francis Collins, who stepped down as director of the $47.5-billion-a-year NIH in December 2021. The agency’s next leader, who will require Senate confirmation, will oversee NIH’s efforts to boost diversity in the research workforce and likely face a grilling by Republican lawmakers over the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also awaiting a permanent director is NIH’s $6.6 billion National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Anthony Fauci led for 38 years before he stepped down last month. In addition, Wellcome, a nonprofit organization that provides more than £1 billion annually for research, will seek a replacement for Director Jeremy Farrar, who announced he will leave early this year after a decade in that role to become chief scientist of the World Health Organization.
The new year could bring a milestone for medicine: the first approved medical treatment based on gene editing. People with sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia carry defects in the gene for hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in blood. The biotech companies Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics have run clinical trials in which they remove a patient’s blood stem cells, use the CRISPR gene-editing tool to switch on a healthy gene for fetal hemoglobin, which cells shut off after birth, and reinfuse the modified cells. The one-time treatment has ended most patients’ severe pain episodes and the need for blood transfusions. The companies are seeking approval from U.S. and European regulators, and a decision on at least one side of the Atlantic could come by year’s end. The next concern will be cost. Gene therapy, an older approach that treats genetic disorders by adding rather than modifying genes, has come with price tags from $850,000 to $3.5 million.
Scientists have sequenced and studied thousands of human and microbial genomes, but the complete deciphering of the DNA of other multicellular organisms has lagged. A new chapter will begin this year, when a surge of nonhuman genome sequences will be unveiled, the fruits of cheaper, more precise technologies. The Earth BioGenome Project, an umbrella effort that encompasses more than 50 sequencing efforts covering a broad range of organisms, expects to see 2000 sequences released this year. Many groups under that umbrella have focused on particular types of animals: For instance, the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Darwin Tree of Life Project has been studying insects and other invertebrates, and the Zoonomia Project has scrutinized mammals. Two other consortia will release sequences of more than 200 nonhuman primates, many of which have been designated threatened or endangered. Scientists expect the new data will boost comparative genomics studies and provide insights into evolution and life history.
Health authorities will strive this year to eliminate human-to-human transmission of mpox (previously known as monkeypox), which in 2022 exploded across the globe for the first time. More than 80,000 people were sickened, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. As the year ended, the number of new cases had declined steeply, but hundreds of cases were still reported every week. Experts hope to better understand how much of the decline stems from immunity built up through infections and immunizations and how much can be explained by behavior change in the most affected group: gay men and their sexual networks. Studies underway could reveal how well the one vaccine, a repurposed smallpox shot, protects against the disease and compare different doses and ways to administer the shots. Whether the vaccine will be available in African countries that have long experienced mpox outbreaks will be a crucial test of global health policy.
China’s space science efforts will continue to mature with the launch of three missions this year, including the Chinese Survey Space Telescope, also called Xuntian (“sky survey”). The 2-meter telescope, China’s first space-based optical probe, is not quite as big as the 2.4-meter Hubble Space Telescope, but it will have a field of view 350 times larger, benefiting astronomical surveys. It will study exoplanets, star formation, and galaxy evolution, as well as dark matter and dark energy, mysterious phenomena that control the expansion of the universe. The telescope will fly in the same orbit as China’s Tiangong-3 space station and be able to dock for maintenance. Xuntian is scheduled to launch in December and start observations in 2024. The Chinese Academy of Sciences’s National Astronomical Observatories has promised to share the data. China’s other two missions are x-ray observatories—the Space Variable Objects Monitor, a joint project with France, and the Einstein Probe, in cooperation with the European Space Agency.
Researchers will soon announce their choice of a site to serve as the “golden spike” for the Anthropocene epoch, a controversial proposal to designate an official geological span of time marked by humanity’s indelible effects on the planet. The Anthropocene Working Group, assembled by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, already picked the 1950s, an era of surging fossil fuel use, as the start of the epoch. And the group has reviewed 12 candidate sites around the world that contain lake muds, ice cores, or other features that clearly document the shift in emissions and could be used to formally define the new epoch. After the working group announces its choice, three more committees will have to approve it. Should the definition be voted down, it cannot be reconsidered for 10 years. Passage is far from guaranteed. Many geologists acknowledge the unprecedented changes wrought by human activity but question the need to change a system that describes millions of years of geologic time to mark shorter lived events driven by humanity.
A new vaccine against dengue won approval in Europe last month and may soon become widely available in Indonesia, protecting far more people than a product currently on the market. Only people previously infected by the virus can safely take a dengue vaccine marketed since 2015, Sanofi Pasteur’s Dengvaxia. Now, the pharmaceutical company Takeda has shown in multicountry studies of more than 28,000 people that its vaccine, Qdenga, can safely protect people never infected by dengue. The virus causes fever and other debilitating symptoms in an estimated 100 million people a year, and, in rare cases, can be fatal. Some scientists want to see more data about Qdenga’s safety. Their wariness comes from experience with Dengvaxia: Children who had never been infected by the virus and received the vaccine had a higher risk of severe symptoms. This problem—which may be linked to an unusual phenomenon in which antibodies to one group of dengue viruses “enhance” the ability of a distinct second group to infect cells—has not occurred in Qdenga trials.
Brazil’s new left-wing president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, is expected this year to renew efforts to protect the Amazon and fight climate change—a reversal from the pro-development agenda of his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, who presided over record deforestation. Lula, who was also president from 2003 to 2010, has promised to end illegal deforestation. He may start by revoking hundreds of laws and decrees issued by Bolsonaro that weakened policing of illegal logging and mining. Enforcement may be limited by other demands on Brazil’s budget, however, such as fighting rising poverty. But other countries might help by reinstating subsidies to support conservation that were suspended during Bolsonaro’s term. Norway and Germany both resumed such contributions days after Lula’s election in October 2022.
New analyses this year could lend support to the idea that key events in the evolution of our genus, Homo, happened in South Africa. Researchers working in Kromdraai Cave say they plan to publish descriptions of newly unearthed fossils of Homo that may date to earlier than 2 million years ago—soon after the date of the earliest Homo fossils, 2.7 million years ago in east Africa. Distinctive features of the Kromdraai fossils, including rarely found lower limbs, could bolster a controversial hypothesis that fossils discovered last year at nearby Drimolen quarry belonged to H. erectus, a direct human ancestor—which might indicate that the species first appeared in South Africa rather than in east Africa or Asia, as many have thought. Analyses of other new South African fossils, including forerunners of Homo, could also help untangle the histories and relationships of hominin species that lived in the area.
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