Berkeley in the News

Berkeley in the News is a daily selection of articles and commentaries in the news media that mention UC Berkeley. The views and opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of the campus.

Friday, 14 February 2020

1. Scientists Find Over 300 'Huge' Viruses With Strange Abilities
Gizmodo (UK)

"Scientists are continuing to discover weird-as-hell viruses all over the world," this reporter writes, covering a new study co-authored by earth and planetary science professor Jill Banfield. The team has identified more than 300 types of phages -- viruses that infect and replicate within bacteria -- that are vastly bigger than usual. "The genomes [we found] are large, some very much larger than 'typical' phages," Professor Banfield says. Some of the large phages have genes that may be important to CRISPR gene-editing technology, and graduate plant and microbial biology student Basem Al-Shayeb, one of the first co-authors of the study, says the CRISPR-relevant genes might be used by the huge phages to amplify the defenses of their hosts. Remarking on one of the big takeaways from the study, Professor Banfield says that the world of viruses, whether they infect amoebas, people, or bacteria, "is much more complicated and interesting than was previously believed." For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News. Stories on this topic have appeared in dozens of sources around the world.
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2. What makes bats the prefect host for deadly coronaviruses? Scientists reveal
International Business Times (Singapore)

Amid speculation that the new coronavirus, like SARS and MERS, may have incubated in bats, a new Berkeley study suggests that it's the animal's immune response that's to blame for making it such an amenable host for deadly viruses. According to the researchers, the bat's immune system protects itself from infections while promoting the virus's replication and evolution. When the virus jumps from bats to hosts with weaker immune systems, the virus is devastating. "The bottom line is that bats are potentially special when it comes to hosting viruses," says integrative biology professor Mike Boots, one of the study's co-authors. "Some bats are able to mount this robust antiviral response, but also balance it with an anti-inflammation response," says postdoctoral fellow Cara Brook, the study's first author. "When you have a higher immune response, you get these cells that are protected from infection, so the virus can actually ramp up its replication rate without causing damage to its host," she says. "But when it spills over into something like a human, we don't have those same sorts of antiviral mechanism, and we could experience a lot of pathology." For more on this, see our press release at Berkeley News.
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3. To slow a disease outbreak, focus on handwashing confirms new study
Continuity Central

Improving handwashing rates in just 10 of the world's key airports could significantly quell the spread of many infectious diseases, a new study co-authored by an international team of scientists, including associate city and regional planning professor Marta Gonzalez. The study was completed just before the new coronavirus outbreak, but the authors say the results would certainly apply in this case too. Looking at data from prior studies, the researchers estimated that only 20 percent of people in airports have washed their hands properly -- with soap and water for at least 15 seconds -- and therefore have clean hands. The other 80 percent could be contaminating everything they touch with germs they may be carrying. If that 20% rate were tripled to 60% of travelers, the researchers estimated that global disease spread could be reduced by almost 70%.
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4. Coronavirus: The global race to patent a remedy
San Jose Mercury News (*requires registration)

Gilead Sciences applied for a Chinese patent for its drug Remdesivir, which targets a spectrum of coronaviruses, in 2016, but it still hasn't received a patent. Now, Chinese scientists have filed for a patent on the drug, saying they've improved and targeted its use for the new coronavirus. In an article questioning who would own the cure, Mark Cohen, director of the Asia Intellectual Property Project at Berkeley Law's Center for Law and Technology, says that China's approach "could be more efficacious. ... It could be that putting 'this' and 'that' together has a synergism that makes it more effective. There is nothing inherently wrong with a research organization filing for a patent on an existing pharmaceutical compound for a new use." And even if the Chinese contribution is minor, it could benefit patients, he says. "There are things we work with every day that are better because of incremental improvements." However, he is suspicious that Gilead's application sat for three years, and then, "in a matter of weeks, China asserts the discovery of a novel application." He adds that the "track record for Western pharmaceutical companies in China isn't good ... due to long regulatory delays, China's challenges to patent validity, and the fast introduction of generic drugs."
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5. The coronavirus and the long history of blaming 'the other' in public health crises
Washington Post (*requires registration)

The association of diseases with places has a long history, and many public health officials argued against calling the new coronavirus the "Wuhan Coronavirus," says public health professor Fengyong Liu, an infectious disease expert, in a story about the xenophobia accompanying the current epidemic. As this article points out, Jews were blamed for bubonic plague in the 1300s, the Irish for typhoid in the 1800s, and the Germans for influenza in the 1900s. "We really need to unite together, we're on the same team, we have the same fight," Professor Liu says. "Openness, transparency and a united attitude is the key because disease can affect everybody." A related story at Berkeley News links the anti-Asian xenophobia arising with the new coronavirus to discriminatory policies and racism that have long targeted immigrants from Asia.
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6. Berkeley Law puts Shylock in the docks

Describing a Berkeley Law-sponsored mock trial performance coming up this weekend, this columnist writes: "Everyone needs a good lawyer. But Shylock, one of Shakespeare's most historically fraught villains, is a special case. The Jewish moneylender at the center of The Merchant of Venice long ago escaped the Elizabethan text, finding a swampy home amid the dark menagerie of anti-Semitic tropes rattling around the Western id. On Sunday afternoon, Berkeley Law takes over Freight & Salvage to give the old usurer another shot at justice with The Shylock Appeal. U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Guilford will preside over the trial, Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky will play the prosecutor, UC Irvine Law Dean Song Richardson the defense attorney, and four actors from the UC Irvine-affiliated New Swan Shakespeare Festival will play other roles. The audience will be the jury, voting at the end to convict or acquit Shylock. For more on this, visit Freight & Salvage.
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