Unfortunately, there’s always more
than enough bad news to fill this
category. A few of this year’s notable
flaps, stumbles, and reverses.
STEM CELLS MADE EASY?
Rarely has so dazzling a claim gone down
in flames so quickly. In January, researchers from Japan and the United States
published what purported to be an easier,
more powerful new method for turning
adult cells into stem cells. But within
3 weeks, online commentators spotted
questionable images in the two papers.
Doubts multiplied as other labs around the
world tried and failed to repeat the feat.
Lead author Haruko Obokata was found
guilty of misconduct, Nature retracted
the papers, and in a tragedy that shook
the field, one co-author took his own life.
Officials in Japan radically reorganized the
RIKEN institute where most of the work
was done, cutting staff from more than
500 to 250.
GLIMPSE OF CREATION?
In March, cosmologists working with a
specialized telescope at the South Pole
called BICEP2 claimed they had spotted
in the afterglow of the big bang a sure
signal that the newborn universe had
undergone a bizarre growth spurt known
as inflation. Others suggested the signal
could have come from dust within our
own galaxy, and in September, researchers with the European Space Agency’s
Planck spacecraft showed that most or
all of it probably does. The two teams are
working on a joint analysis, but the bold
claim seems unlikely to hold up.
LAWMAKERS VERSUS NSF
Is the science committee for the U.S.
House of Representatives broken or
simply doing its job as watchdog? The
U.S. research community watched
with dismay this year as the committee, led by Representative Lamar Smith
(R–TX), pummeled the National Science
Foundation and other federal science
agencies at hearings, in press releases,
and with subpoenas and legislation. Smith
says he’s making sure the government
spends tax dollars wisely. His actions have
captured headlines, but many scientists—
remembering the bipartisan, big-picture
policy discussions that used to be the
panel’s bread and butter—might prefer a
return to quiet obscurity.
with the spread. Wobbly health care systems in the three countries—which long
had suffered from political instability, corruption, and staggering poverty—began
to collapse. Overwhelmed clinics had no
beds for the sick, who returned home and
The problem still drew little international attention until two American
missionary health care workers became
infected in late July. On 8 August, WHO
declared the epidemic a “public health
emergency of international concern.”
A month later, U.S. President Barack
Obama announced that
the country would send
in 3000 military troops to
help, millions of dollars
of aid poured in, and an
aggressive push emerged
to develop Ebola drugs
lated in lockstep with
the case counts. WHO
and the international
community took too long to act. No one
effectively coordinated responses. Local
governments played ostrich, fudged case
reports, and imposed counterproduc-
tive quarantines. Frightened health care
workers stayed away from work. Affected
communities attacked aid workers and
ostracized survivors. Sick people refused
to go into isolation or divulge their
contacts. Some cultures resisted changing
dangerous burial practices.
Over and above those factors, the
region’s permeable borders and extensive
transportation routes have complicated
contact tracing and expanded the epidemic’s reach. More vexing still, the sudden
surges of patients in ever-changing locales
have meant a constant shortage of trained
doctors, nurses, janitors, ambulance drivers, and gravediggers.
Although Liberia has
recently made progress
in some places, Draguez,
who recently visited
10 Ebola treatment units
MSF runs in the three
affected countries, says
the end is nowhere in
sight. “We have to keep
on going with the same
level of energy for 6 or
8 or even 12 months,”
he warns. Already the Ebola epidemic
of 2014 has made it starkly clear that
we must move steadily and aggressively
against this virus, or it will continue to
teach us lessons we do not want to learn.
Overwhelmed by Ebola in August, Monrovia converted this primary school classroom
to an isolation ward. The health care worker is disinfecting a corpse.
“I wonder whether
one person in the
world … predicted
Doctors Without Borders