Explorations in the world of science.
The Evidence: Healthcare pushed out by the pandemic
As all eyes have been on the virus, other serious killer diseases took a backseat.
Resources and staff were diverted, lockdowns were common all over the world and a very real fear of Covid-19 kept people away from clinics and hospitals.
Claudia Hammond and her expert panel from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America look at the devastating impact of the pandemic on illnesses other than Covid, on global killers like tuberculosis, polio, measles and HIV/Aids.
And they hear that the worldwide disruption to cancer care will inevitably lead to late diagnoses, late-stage cancer treatment and more deaths.
Dr Ramya Ananthakrishnan runs REACH, which supports, cares for and organises treatment for TB patients in Chennai, India’s fourth most populous city. She tells Claudia about how hard the pandemic hit the work they do.
Claudia’s guests include Dr Abeeba Kamarulzaman, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the President of the International Aids Society; Dr Lucica Ditiu, respiratory physician originally from Romania, Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership, Geneva, Switzerland; Dr Balcha Masresha, coordinator of the measles and rubella programmes for the World Health Organisation in Brazzaville, Congo and cancer physician Dr Carlos Barrios, Director of the Latin American Clinical Oncology Research Group from Brazil.
Produced by: Fiona Hill and Maria Simons
Studio Engineer: Bob Nettles
Genetic dreams, genetic nightmares
Biologist Matthew Cobb presents the first episode in a series which looks at the 50-year history of genetic engineering, from the concerns around the first attempts at combining the DNA of one organism with the genes of another in 1971 to today’s gene editing technique known as CRISPR.
The first experiments to combine the DNA of two different organisms began at Stanford University in California in 1971. The revolutionary technique of splicing genes from one lifeform into another promised to be a powerful tool in understanding how our cells worked. It also offered the prospect of a new cheap means of manufacturing life-saving drugs – for example, by transferring the gene for human insulin into bacteria, growing those genetically engineered microbes in industrial vats and harvesting the hormone. A new industrial revolution based on biology looked possible.
At the same time some scientists and the public were alarmed by disastrous scenarios that genetic engineering might unleash. What if microbes engineered with toxin genes or cancer genes escaped from the labs and spread around the world?
In early 1974, responding to the public fears and their own disquiet about how fast the techniques were developing, the scientists leading this research revolution called for a global moratorium on genetic engineering experiments until the risks had been assessed.
This was followed by an historic meeting of 130 scientists from around the world in February 1975 in California. Its purpose was to decide if and how the genetic engineering research could be done safely. It was a rancorous affair but the Asilomar conference is held up as an idealist if imperfect example of scientists taking responsibility as they developed a powerful new technology.
(Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTS Design/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)
Listening to coral reefs
Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and also some of the noisiest. Up close, a healthy reef teems with trills, whoops, buzzes, hums and snaps made by the diverse lifeforms that inhabit it. But as many reefs are now degrading due to rising temperatures, their sound signatures are changing.
Conservationist Rory Crawford meets marine scientists who believe these sounds could provide a new way of monitoring the health of coral reefs, and boosting their resilience. He listens in to soundscapes that have been recorded around reefs in diverse parts of the world, and hears a selection of the sometimes surprising noises that have been picked up by researchers’ hydrophones.
Sounds are crucial to underwater species and a healthy-sounding reef will attract fish and other organisms to settle on it, so is it possible to use acoustics to boost the ecosystem on damaged coral?
Underwater recordings courtesy of: Tim Lamont/University of Exeter, Ben Gottesman, The Centre for Global Soundscapes, and Discovery of Sound in the Sea
Producer: Anne McNaught
Editor: Deborah Cohen
Picture: The underwater world of Philippines, Southeast Asia, Pacific Ocean, Credit: Giordano Cipriani/Getty Images
Geoengineering The Planet
Geoengineering is already underway from Australia to the Arctic as scientists try to save places threatened by global heating. It’s time for a global conversation about how we research these powerful techniques, with agreements on how and where to deploy them.
Global temperature today is 1.2°C hotter than preindustrial levels and it is causing climate change and sea level rise, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Coral reef ecosystems are headed for extinction within decades; glacial melt is speeding up with runaway consequences; agriculture has been hit by drought and extreme weather…. And as our carbon emissions rise, it’s only going to get worse, because we’re headed this century for at least 3°C of temperature rise if governments meet their netzero targets.
Faced with this heat emergency, scientists are acting. In Australia, they are brightening clouds to make them more reflective, hoping to save the Great Barrier Reef, and coating the waters with a thin reflective film; in the Arctic, glaciers are being covered with fine glass beads to reflect the sun’s heat and slow melting; on the Asian plains, clouds are being seeded to deliver rain over droughtlands. Beaches are being coated with rock dust to try to “react out” the air’s CO2, and where coral reefs have already been destroyed by bleaching, scientists are creating artificial coral structures inhabited by genetically modified coral organisms.
No global body is overseeing any of this, but it is mostly local and small scale. As temperatures climb further, heatwaves and deadly weather events will kill even more people than today. Scientists want to look at methods of preventing catastrophic temperature rise that could help large regions – potentially cooling global temperature. They want to see if seeding stratospheric clouds with sulphates would be possible, and whether it would have any unwanted affects.
But a large vocal group of environmentalists is opposed even to feasibility studies. They claim that this sort of geoengineering is “unnatural”, and instead are pressing for huge societal change that is difficult to achieve, unpopular, and could cause hardship. Planned experiments have been cancelled after pressure by these campaigners, repeatedly, over several years. Now they are trying to get a moratorium on any research into geoengineering. Many fear that even talking about geoengineering risks reducing efforts to decarbonise.
Meanwhile, the temperature keeps rising. Undoubtedly, there will come a point when society will decide it is no longer acceptable for thousands of people to die from hot temperatures, and seek to deploy cooling technologies. Technologies that we haven’t properly researched. The government of India may decide to unilaterally cool the planet after a deadly heatwave; or the government of the US after an even more violent Sandy; or the government of an island nation after a typhoon that drowns the land…
This is not something that should be decided by a few powerful nations, but equally, ignoring these potential lifesaving technologies because of cultural reticence would be a moral and political failure. Instead, we need to have a conversation about how geoengineering should be researched, governed, regulated and deployed.
This is a programme about how we cool the planet with the latest geoengineering technologies, and the loaded cultural values and politics around the biggest planetary dilemma of our time.
Picture: Rough sea, Credit: Jacob Maentz/Getty Images
Geoengineering The Planet
Even with the best efforts, it will be decades before we see any change in global temperatures through our mitigation efforts. Given the pace of global heating and the time lag before our emissions reductions have any impact, scientists are exploring additional ways of reducing global temperature. Gaia Vince explores ways of actively removing carbon from the atmosphere. She discusses the idea of BECCS, biological energy with carbon capture storage, and DAC, direct air capture with Simon Evans of Climate Brief. Sir David King, Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University, explains how he is planning an experiment in the Arabian Sea that will allow the oceans to take up more carbon. Professor Rachael James of the University of Southampton talks about her experiments in enhanced rock weathering, where she finds ways of speeding up the slow continual process in which carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in rainwater, forming a weak acid that reacts with the surface of rocks. She hopes this will lock up more carbon and bring benefits to farmers and mining companies.
And psychologist Ben Converse of the University of Virginia considers whether we might find geoengineering a socially acceptable approach to tackling climate change.
Editor: Deborah Cohen
Picture: Clouds, Credit: Gary Yeowell/Getty Images
The Evidence: When misinformation kills
A maelstrom of misinformation and its sinister cousin, disinformation, have been swirling all around us about Covid-19. The rumours and conspiracy theories have raced around the globe as fast as the virus itself.
Untruths, half-truths, misunderstandings and deliberate mischief-making aren’t new when it comes to health of course, but a global pandemic with a novel virus means that there is much uncertainty and a lack of definite facts. In that gap, falsehoods flourish and in our super-connected world, they spread far and wide.
Claudia Hammond and her panel of global experts assess the scale of misinformation and its impact and conclude that misinformation really does cost lives.
Dr Brett Campbell, a physician in a dedicated Covid intensive care unit at Ascension St Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, tells Claudia about the unvaccinated patients, many of them close to death, who still cannot accept that the virus is real.
Claudia’s guests include Heidi Larson , Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Dr Saad Omer, Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases in the USA and Robert Kanwagi, a public health specialist and a member of the Global Task Force on Vaccine Confidence and Uptake.
Produced by: Fiona Hill and Maria Simons
Studio Engineer: Jackie Marjoram