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COVID-19 bill would scale up ability to spot virus mutations

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COVID-19 bill would scale up ability to spot virus mutations

WASHINGTON — US scientists would gain vastly expanded capabilities to identify potentially deadlier coronavirus mutations under legislation advancing in Congress. A House bill headed for floor debate would provide $1.75 billion for genomic sequencing.

The US now maps only the genetic makeup of a minuscule fraction of positive virus samples, a situation that some experts liken to flying blind. It means the true domestic spread of problematic mutations first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa remains a matter of guesswork.

Such ignorance could prove costly. One worry is that more transmissible forms such as the UK variant could move faster than the nation’s ability to get the vaccine into Americans’ arms.

“You’ve got a small number of academic and public health labs that have been basically doing the genomic surveillance,” said David O’Connor, an AIDS researcher at the University of Wisconsin. “But there is no national coherence to the strategy.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to shepherd those efforts, aligning with the government’s own advanced detection work, but the COVID-19 legislation would take the hunt to another level.

Besides money, the House bill that cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee last week calls for the CDC to organize a national network to use the technology to track the spread of mutations and guide public health countermeasures.

In the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin has introduced legislation that would provide $2 billion. Baldwin says the US should be using gene-mapping technology to analyze at least 15% of positive virus samples. That might not sound like much, but the current rate is believed to be 0.3% to 0.5%. Analyzing 15% of positive samples would expand surveillance by at least 30 times.

“Variants represent a growing threat,” said Baldwin. “At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing our testing capacity was essential to our ability to track and slow the spread of the virus — the same is true for finding and tracking these variants.”

Genomic sequencing essentially involves mapping the DNA of an organism, the key to its unique features. It’s done by high-tech machines that can cost from several hundred thousand dollars to $1 million or more. Technicians trained to run the machines and computing capacity to support the whole process add to costs.

In the case of the UK variant first detected in England, the changes in the virus allowed it to spread more easily and are also believed to cause deadlier COVID-19 disease. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle reports that transmission of the UK variant has been confirmed in at least 10 US states. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told governors on Tuesday that it could become dominant by the end of March.

Sequencing 0.3% to 0.5% of virus samples, as the US is now doing, “just doesn’t give us the ability to detect strains as they develop and become dominant,” said Dr. Phil Febbo, chief medical officer for Illumina, a San Diego-based company that develops genomic sequencing technologies.

The Biden administration has to “set a very clear goal,” he added. “What’s the hill that we are going to charge?”

“We need that data. Otherwise, in some ways, we’re flying blind,” said Esther Krofah, who directs the FasterCures initiative of Milken Institute. “We don’t understand the prevalence of mutations that we should be worried about in the US.”

Even more worrisome than the UK variant is a strain first detected in South Africa that scientists suspect may diminish the protective effect of some of the coronavirus vaccines. That variant has also been identified in the US in a limited number of cases.

White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients has called US tracking of virus mutations “totally unacceptable,” saying the nation ranks 43rd in the world. But the Biden administration has not set a target for what level of virus gene mapping the country should be striving for.

At the University of Wisconsin, AIDS scientist O’Connor said he and his colleagues started sequencing coronavirus samples from the Madison area “because that’s where we live.”

His colleague, virology expert Thomas Friedrich, said a national effort will require more than money to purchase new genomic sequencing machines. The CDC will have to set standards for state health officials and academic research institutions to fully share the information they glean from analyzing virus samples. Currently, there’s a hodgepodge of state regulations and practices, and some of them restrict access to key details.

“We need to look at this as a Manhattan Project or an Apollo program,” said Friedrich, invoking the government-led scientific endeavors that developed the atomic bomb and landed humans on the moon.

The United Kingdom was able to identify its variant because the national health system there has a coordinated gene mapping program that aims to sequence about 10% of samples, he added. Since that happened, there’s been greater urgency about genetic sequencing on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The utility of doing this may not have been as apparent to as many people until these variants started popping up,” Friedrich said.

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How do I get back into the workforce after a long gap?

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How do I get back into the workforce after a long gap?

I’ve been out of the job market for years, caring for an elderly relative who recently passed. How do I explain this big gap, and how do I make myself relevant? I used to work in a bank, but the job I did is basically obsolete now.

I’m going to tell you what you already know. The job search is hard enough for people with jobs, so transitioning back after being away is that much more difficult. I say this not to discourage you but to prepare you. “More difficult” doesn’t mean “impossible.” You have to prepare differently so that you can overcome the challenge. Your first goal is to just get back into the workforce and not try to pick up where you left off in the same job at the same level. It’s far easier to navigate your way to the job you want over time while you are employed. Make sure your skills are up to date by taking online courses. Stay positive, be persistent, flexible and leverage your contacts. As for explaining the gap, just tell the truth. It has the benefit of being true, and people can relate.

A friend of mine was told she could work remotely full time but has to take less money. Is that lawful?

Oh, the old “asking for a friend” routine. No worries, your secret is safe with me, and it’s not like your question is so unique that your “friends” will know it’s you. Basically, unless your employment is governed by some contract or collective-bargaining agreement, the terms of employment are between you and your employer and subject to change at the discretion of your employer, including compensation, responsibilities and work arrangements. Many employers and employees are considering the trade-offs for working remotely and the savings in the form of reduced office space and commuting expenses, respectively. For many employees, it includes more flexibility, too. You can choose to accept the new arrangements, or decline and continue with your current ones. If your employer isn’t offering you an option and you decline, you should be eligible for whatever layoff benefits the company provides, as well as unemployment benefits. I hope this works out for your “friend.”

Gregory Giangrande has over 25 years of experience as a chief human resources executive and is dedicated to helping New Yorkers get back to work. E-mail your questions to [email protected] Follow Greg on Twitter: @greggiangrande and at GoToGreg.com.

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Bill Gates said to be growing potatoes for McDonald’s fries

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Bill Gates said to be growing potatoes for McDonald's fries

Next time you savor a McDonald’s french fry, remember to thank Bill Gates for the tasty spud.

As reported in The Post, the soon-to-be single computer magnate happens to own more farmland than anyone else in the United States. Known for loving fast food — although his burger of choice comes from the Washington-based chainlet Burgermaster — Gates, according to NBC News, grows potatoes for McDonald’s in fields so vast they can be scoped from outer space.

Although Gates has focused his energies on saving our climate, he has made clear that the tater patches are strictly money-making operations.

“My investment group chose to do this,” stated Farmer Bill during an AMA on Reddit. “It is not connected to climate.”

Considering that Gates is said to own 269,000 acres of fertile land in 18 states, it’s easy to imagine him keeping track of it all on some souped-up series of spreadsheets. If so, gangs of divorce lawyers — including some who worked on the Jeff Bezos bust-up — have surely been scrutinizing the potato haul. Gates, the fourth-richest person in the world, married his impending ex, Melinda, without a prenuptial agreement, so they will be splitting property via a so-called “separation contract.”

No word on whether or not she will soon reign as McDonald’s potato queen.

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Honeybee worker can produce millions of identical clones, study shows

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Honeybee worker can produce millions of identical clones, study shows

A South African subspecies of the honeybee is reportedly able to produce millions of clones of itself. 

According to new research published in the journal Current Biology and Proceedings of the Royal Society B, one such insect – known as the Cape honeybee or Apis mellifera capensis– has managed to do so many times over the past 30 years. 

It’s a process called thelytokous parthenogenesis, which a group of international scientists said is akin to the “virgin birth of a female.” 

While asexual reproduction is fairly common, genetically identical offspring is not. 

The exchange of genetic material between different organisms, or “recombination,” normally leads to the production of offspring with combinations of different traits.

If there even is only one parent, New Scientist noted, offspring born from thelytokous parthenogenesis will still be born with a slightly different genetic makeup.

And yet, the worker Cape honeybee has reportedly found a way to reduce recombination and remain genetically healthy, whereas asexual reproduction has been lethal in honeybees before, resulting in inbred larvae that don’t survive. 

“For workers, it is important to reduce the frequency of recombination so as to not produce offspring that are homozygous.”

In order to learn more, the paper’s authors “experimentally manipulated” Cape workers and Cape queens to reproduce thelytokously.

“The two female castes of the Cape honeybee, Apis mellifera capensis, differ in their mode of reproduction. While workers always reproduce thelytokously, queens always mate and reproduce sexually,” the researchers explained in the paper’s abstract.

Performing fieldwork at South Africa’s Plant Protection Research Institute in Stellenbosch, the team instrumentally inseminated a queen with the semen of a single male and then introduced a brood comb holding several hundred eggs laid by the queen into a colony to be reared. 

Queens were made to reproduce asexually using what researchers said amounted to a “chastity belt.”

“When the queens were 5 days post eclosion we constrained them in an artificial insemination apparatus [37] without narcosis. We then glued a 5 mm piece of surgical tape (Micropore, 3M, Minnesota) over the sting chamber using nail varnish,” the paper explained. 

The researchers monitored the queens, confirming the chastity belts were intact after each flight around the colony and, eventually, compared asexually reproduced larvae of the queen to those of the workers.

“We monitored the queens closely for the next two weeks, to determine if and when oviposition had commenced. We collected larvae as soon as they appeared into ethanol,” the researchers wrote.

“Not all queens flew, not all returned from mating flights, and not all laid. In the end, we were able to harvest one queen and 25 of her larval progeny into ethanol.”

The group also genotyped four workers and 63 of their larvae.

Ultimately, the authors found that the queen showed levels of genetic recombination 100 times more than seen in the cloned offspring of the worker bees.

“Using a combination of microsatellite genotyping and whole-genome sequencing we find that a reduction in recombination is confined to workers only,” the abstract concluded.

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