This Week in Science: HPV vaccine effective, new Delta strain emerges, UK approves COVID pill

HPV vaccines effective in preventing 87% of cervical cancer cases

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has the potential to reduce cases of cervical cancer by 87% and prevent certain cervical abnormalities by 97%, according to a British study recently published in The Lancet. Researchers examined women a decade after their HPV vaccinations and found that there was a reduction in pre-cancerous growths as well as cervical cancer. In 2006, the FDA approved the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, and since then, two other HPV vaccines have been developed and over 100 countries have incorporated the HPV vaccine into their regular inoculation schedules.

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women around the world, and HPV is responsible for about 99% of cervical cancers. Experts recommend vaccinating adolescents before they become sexually active, since the HPV vaccine can only prevent — but not treat — infection. After the widespread implementation of the HPV vaccine in 2008, a catch-up program for teenagers who were slightly older than the ideal age of 11–12 years old for vaccination was put in place; this program reported less efficacy, likely because some of the older teenagers were already sexually active.

Cervical cancer is disproportionately more fatal in low- and middle-income countries as a result of limited access to smear tests used for cervical cancer screenings. With the demonstrated success of the vaccine, experts are now looking to reduce the frequency of smear tests, which are currently recommended every 3–5 years, for vaccinated women. Experts believe that the incredible efficacy of the HPV vaccine could one day eliminate cervical cancer.

— Cindy Zhang

New UK delta variant fuels worry of winter COVID-19 surge

A new, more contagious version of the delta variant has been sweeping through the United Kingdom and may cause an increase in cases with winter fast approaching. This new variant, called AY.4.2, caries two additional mutations and spreads at accelerated rates compared with other delta viruses.

AY.4.2  is a mutation of the current variant AY.4, with a slightly different chemical composition of amino acids. According to microbiologists, the rise of the new variant can be tied to the U.K. failing to practice vigilant health protocols, such as wearing masks and vaccinating adolescents. Coupled with the transition to winter, when people are spending more time indoors, scientists believe the development of a new variant was only inevitable.

Although AY.4.2 seems to be “fitter” than the delta variant with the ability to resist immune therapies and a higher transmission rate, the U.K. hasn’t seen the drastic rise that happened when Delta became dominant in spring 2021. Death rates and hospital care in the U.K. have remained comparatively unchanged since the summer months, which scientists believe is due to the effectiveness of the vaccine and its ability to combat new variants.

— Sophie Wax

UK health regulators approve pill for COVID-19 treatment

The United Kingdom has become the first country to approve a pill that can be taken at home to treat COVID-19. The drug — produced by Merck and called molnupiravir — has been shown in studies to reduce the risk of death and hospitalization in patients considered to be high-risk by about 50%. In the U.K., molnupiravir has been specifically approved for high-risk adult patients with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19, but it’s unclear how early patients need to start taking the drug for it to be effective.

Another challenge that lies ahead for the widespread use of molnupiravir is its price. Both the U.K. and Merck have not yet revealed how much the U.K. is paying for the drug. Many are concerned that low- and middle-income countries will not be able to purchase as many doses of the drug because of the estimated high costs. For example, the US bought 1.7 million doses, which is estimated to cost around $1.2 billion.

The U.S. has not approved the use of molnupiravir for COVID-19 treatment, but it is possible that it could be authorized by the end of 2021.

— Maiah Islam

Scientists may have just found sponge neurons — or no

When people hear the word “sponge” they often think about household spongesin their sink that are used to clean dishes. But sponges — which are multicellular organisms that live in the ocean — are also used in research because they help scientists map out how more complex organisms evolved. In a new study, researchers were able to identify 18 different kinds of sponge cells, including cells that are similar to nerve cells in mammals. The discovery of these cells may help researchers further explore the nervous system in modern-day organisms that have evolved from sponges.

From the 18 sponge cells examined, researchers focused on one cell in an attempt to compare similarities between sponges and humans regarding communication between neurons. Human nerve cells send messages through neurotransmitters, but it is less clear how sponge cells communicate. Using a particle accelerator, the scientists noticed an exchange of chemicals that could be a form of communication between the neuron cells of sponges with their digestive cells. Still, more research is needed to understand the structure of the neuron cells of sponges. 

— Steven Mejia

Whale, whale, whale, look what we have here

Have you ever wondered how much whales eat in a day? After nine years of data collection, a Stanford University research team may have just found the answer. With their large appetites, whales eat significantly more food than previously thought and play a major role in the maintenance of the ocean. 

From 2010 to 2019, scientists ran various tests, such as on how much prey was scooped in a mouthful of 321 individual whales of varying species. The study found that all whales eat three times as much food as past data had shown. To put this into perspective, a North Pacific blue whale will eat about 16 tons of krill — small, shrimp-like crustaceans — a day, which is about the weight of a city bus.

The study gives credence to the theory that krill populations have significantly decreased over the past few years due to the decreasing population of large predators, such as whales, suggesting that whales have a bigger role in the ocean as an ecosystem than previously thought. As a whale feeds and defecates, it mixes tons of nutrients throughout the water. With more nutrients circulated throughout the ocean, more and more plankton (prey of krill) will grow, leading to an increase in krill and carbon dioxide being pulled from the atmosphere, since plankton are photosynthetic. Unfortunately, whale populations have decreased due to practices such as whaling over the past several years.

— Manek Khedia