Wednesday, March 18, 2020

US contract for Coronavirus research: 'It is unclear when (or if) these efforts will be successful'

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking steps to modify an existing FDA Ebola research contract with Public Health England (PHE) to include a near-term analysis of 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), according to contract documents released March 3.

On Jan. 31, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a Public Health Emergency Declaration pursuant to section 319 of the Public Health Service (PHS) Act “as a result of confirmed cases of 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)”. The emergency gives HHS authorization to take appropriate actions in response to the emergency including providing grants, entering into contracts; and conducting and supporting investigations into the cause, treatment, or prevention of the disease or disorder.

“An urgent requirement now exists for additional research in order to aid in the development of effective medical countermeasures (MCMs) to combat this emerging threat,” FDA said in contract documents. “PHE has a demonstrated and unique expertise in performing research with similar viruses and is the only known source that can undertake required research in a timely, safe and effective manner. This contractor is known to have sufficient facilities to safely experiment and develop synthetic viruses, and the capability to document and deliver all research objectives within a compressed timeline.”

The purpose of this acquisition is to rapidly leverage current expertise, facilities, agreements, and other resources currently under contract for Ebola study, in order to execute urgent research to address near term knowledge gaps for the emerging 2019 novel coronavirus.

“Presently, there are limited MCMs due to several factors including a paucity of information on infection in humans, the absence of diverse animal models to ensure licencing, the difficulty in accessing samples from human patients with disease and the frequency of outbreaks,” FDA officials said in the contract.

PHE was awarded contract number HHSF223201510104C in 2015 for the total amount of $3.2 million through the FDA for the study of Ebola virus. Over the course of the contract, PHE has demonstrated not only their ability to successfully execute their technical approach, but also to respond in an effective and timely manner to the Ebola outbreak at that time. In 2016, the contract was extended through Sept. 13, 2020 at no additional cost to the government.

“The current outbreak of novel coronavirus constitutes a public health emergency in part due to the unknown aspects of the virus,” contract documents state. “Presently, the U.S. government is engaged in a multilateral effort to source and characterize viral isolates, however, it is unclear when (or if) these efforts will be successful.”

NASA begins work on four new astrophysics missions

NASA has selected proposals for four missions that would study cosmic explosions and the debris they leave behind, as well as monitor how nearby stellar flares may affect the atmospheres of orbiting planets.

Following detailed evaluations, the agency intends to select two proposals in 2021 to be the next astrophysics missions under the Explorers Program. The selected missions will be targeted for launch in 2025.

"From studying stars and planets outside our solar system to seeking answers to the largest cosmic mysteries, I look forward to the breakthrough science from these modest size missions,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Two astrophysics Small Explorer (SMEX) missions and two Missions of Opportunity (MO) proposals were competitively selected.

Excluding the cost of launch, SMEX mission costs are capped at $145 million each, and MO costs are capped at $75 million each.

Each SMEX proposal will receive $2 million to conduct a nine-month mission concept study. The selected proposals are:

The Extreme-ultraviolet Stellar Characterization for Atmospheric Physics and Evolution (ESCAPE) Mission
  • ESCAPE would study nearby stars, watching for rapid, strong ultraviolet flares. It aims to determine how likely such flares are to strip the atmosphere from a rocky planet orbiting the star, affecting conditions for habitability.
  • Principal investigator: Kevin France at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI)
  • COSI would scan our Milky Way galaxy, measuring gamma rays from radioactive elements produced during stellar explosions to map the recent history of star death and element production. It would also measure polarization, to improve our understanding of how distant energetic cosmic explosions produce gamma rays.
  • Principal investigator: John Tomsick at the University of California, Berkeley.
MO proposals will each receive $500,000 to conduct a nine-month implementation concept study. The selected proposals are:

The Gravitational-wave Ultraviolet Counterpart Imager Mission
  • The Gravitational-wave Ultraviolet Counterpart Imager consists of two independent small satellites, each scanning the sky in a different ultraviolet band. It would detect the light from hot gas in the explosion that follows a burst of gravitational waves caused by merging neutron stars or a neutron star merging with a black hole. Between these events, the mission would map the sky in ultraviolet light, finding other bright objects such as exploding stars.
  • Principal investigator: Stephen (Brad) Cenko at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
LEAP – A LargE Area burst Polarimeter
  • Mounted on the International Space Station, LEAP would study the energetic jets launched during the explosive death of a massive star, or the merger of compact objects such as neutron stars. LEAP's measurements of polarization in gamma-ray bursts could distinguish between competing theories for the nature of the jets, which move out at close to the speed of light. LEAP would complement NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, scheduled to launch in 2021.
  • Principal investigator: Mark McConnell at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Monday, March 16, 2020

New Jersey closing all casinos due to coronavirus

On Monday morning, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy ordered the temporary closure of all casinos within the state of New Jersey.

“The safety and well-being of our guests and team members is top priority,” said Mark Giannantonio, president & CEO of Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. “Resorts Casino Hotel will comply with this order and temporarily close starting at 8:00 p.m. EST on Monday, March 16.”

All reservations booked between now and March 31 will be canceled with no fees. “We look forward to welcoming you back soon and we will keep you updated regarding our opening date and upcoming events and promotions,” Giannantonio said in an email to customers.