Researchers Want to Hunt Unknown Viruses Before They Cause the Next Pandemic

Searching For Viral Threats

Scientists believe there are more than 1.6 million viruses in birds and mammals that we haven’t discovered yet. Approximately half of those viruses could potentially infect and cause illnesses in humans.

All it would take is one to unleash the next global pandemic.

That’s why a global cooperative, led by researchers at the University of California, Davis, has set out to identify them. In a paper published on Friday, the researchers established their goals for the Global Virome Project, an initiative to identify the unknown viruses lurking on Earth.

Beyond finding these elusive zoonotic threats — meaning the viruses are found in animals but could potentially make the leap to humans — the cooperative also envisions putting a stop to them. By knowing what we’re up against, humanity could be far better prepared to handle deadly viruses outbreaks across large areas; this project might be the key to preventing the next pandemic.

 

The number of viruses known to infect people is less than 0.1 percent of the total that could potentially do so. Image Credit: D. CARROLL ET AL/SCIENCE 2018
The number of viruses known to infect people is less than 0.1 percent of the total that could potentially do so. Image Credit: D. Carroll et al./Science 2018.

“It is time to move from reactionary mode, chasing the last horrible virus, to a proactive one,” said Jonna Mazet, Executive Director of the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and the paper’s lead author in a press release. “We can and will finally be able to identify future threats and take the steps necessary to prevent the next pandemic.”

A Pound of Cure

Over the next decade, the $ 1.2 billion Global Virome Project will work to identify about 70 percent of those potential threats. The cooperative plans to build on previous work done by the United States Agency for International Development’s PREDICT program, once of the agency’s four Emerging Pandemic Threats projects. PREDICT has identified more than 1,000 previously unknown viruses… but that accomplishment falls far short of the Global Virome Project’s ambitious goal.

The are several key pieces of information researchers need to know about a virus in order to establish its “ecological profile”: where it originates, where it thrives, what — or who — it infects, and how it’s transmitted, to name a few.

The sooner the team establish these characteristics, the sooner medical professionals can target people who are at the highest risk of emerging diseases that we don’t even know exist yet.

The number of viruses known to infect people is less than 0.1 percent of the total that could potentially do so. Image Credit: D. CARROLL ET AL/SCIENCE 2018
Image Credit: The Global Virome Project.

With its significant funding, and the commitment of scientists around the world, the Global Virome Project has the potential to achieve far more than what’s been laid out in its initial scope. As stated on the project’s website, the team is excited about the potential for their work to “lead to unrelated and often unexpected advances in human and animal health and in science.”

The benefits of preventing outbreaks go far beyond global health, though: as the team points out, preventing an outbreak could cost less than reacting to one. Pandemics are costly to wrangle — not just in terms of lives lost, but their immediate and lasting impact on a nation’s financial circumstances. Prevention, then, is not only an investment in global health — but also in the global economy.

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Bad News: The Amazon Might Be Past the Point of Saving

The Point of No Return

The world’s forests are shrinking. For years, they’ve withstood a multitude of human impact. But according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances, they may be reaching a crisis point. If deforestation goes beyond 20 percent of its original spread, the Amazon Rainforest will have reached the “point of no return”.

In the study, Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre set out to concretely establish that tipping point, as well as concretely identify what must take place for it to be reached. Essentially, they wanted to know how far deforestation could progress before the rainforest’s water cycle would cease to support the ecosystems within it.

“If the climate changes – by deforestation or global warming – there’s a risk that more than 50% of the Amazon forest becomes a degraded savannah,” Nobre told Euronews, emphasizing that in the last 50 years, deforestation has made its way to about 17 percent of the Amazon’s vegetation.

By their estimates, it would take just an additional three percent to render the rainforest unsalvagable.

While deforestation poses an imminent and severe risk to the rainforest, it is not the only threat to these ecosystems. Climate change and the use of fire also play a major role in this region’s ongoing ruin. In addition to its potentially decimating what’s left of the rainforest (and the wildlife that inhabit it), the degradation of the water cycle would also have a severe impact on South America’s human population.

Despite this grim prediction, we have not yet reached the point where there is no turning back. The Amazon Rainforest may be close to the point of no return, but it has not yet passed it. The right kind of human intervention could help steer the forest away from imminent doom — but in light of the destruction that’s already been done, and the speed of its continuation, putting a stop to it won’t be easy.

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Two Space Hotels Could Open as Early as 2021

Inflatable Space Stations

Since its founding in 1999, Bigelow Aerospace has focused on building inflatable space modules that provide habitats in low-Earth orbit with more breathing room. Now, the Las Vegas-based space company has launched Bigelow Space Operations (BSO), a spinoff venture dedicated to marketing and operating these inflatable space habitats, which could be used as space hotels.

Want to Go To Space? This is How Much It Will Cost You
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According to a BSO press release, the company’s first objective is to quantify the market for orbiting stations. They will spend millions of dollars in 2018 alone to detail the opportunities available on the global, national, and corporate level.

BSO will also market and operate the two B330 inflatable space habitats Bigelow plans to launch by 2021. Both the B330-1 and the B330-2 are designed for low-Earth orbit, and each is capable of housing up to six people inside its 330 cubic meters (nearly 12,000 cubic feet) of expandable space.

Each of the B330 habits is nearly one-third of the volume of the International Space Station (ISS), and as Blaire Bigelow, VP for corporate strategy at Bigelow Aerospace, told The Verge, the company wants to make them available as “on orbit space for science and research at much a lower price than ISS.” Bigelow believes this accessibility to low-Earth orbit could help foreign nations jumpstart their own space programs.

Expanding a Space Economy

In 2016, NASA attached another of Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable space modules, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to the ISS, and in 2017, the space agency decided to extended the BEAM contract for an additional three years. The partnership between Bigelow and NASA shouldn’t come as a surprise since the company’s founder, Robert Bigelow, first got the idea of an inflatable habitat from NASA’s own TransHAB project back in 1999.

Bigelow has their sights set far beyond NASA, though. It’s not difficult to imagine the company’s inflatable space habitats eventually used as space hotels for the growing low-Earth orbit space economy. The industry could be the next big thing, and companies such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are eager to open up space to a wider and more public market.

Bigelow could have an edge over these competitors, though. While the rest focus on designing and building spacecraft to take people on a near-Earth orbit journey, Bigelow is focused on creating a more permanent structure that could actually be cheaper and more accessible to the large segment of the population that isn’t involved in science.

Indeed, the only thing better than taking trips through space could be checking into space hotels that are actually floating around out there. With BSO, we could have the chance to do just that sooner than expected.

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UPS Announces Plans to Add 50 Custom-Built Electric Trucks to Their Fleet

Delivering Sustainability

No longer satisfied to purchase pre-built electric delivery trucks, on Thursday, UPS announced plans to start building the vehicles themselves.

In a first-of-its-kind partnership, UPS teamed up with Workhorse, an Ohio-based truck maker, to design 50 plug-in electric delivery trucks. The vehicles, to be delivered by Workhorse in 2018, will produce zero tailpipe emissions and have a per-charge range of 160 kilometers (100 miles).

Artistic rendering of plug-in electric delivery truck. Image Credit: UPS
Artistic rendering of plug-in electric delivery truck. Image Credit: UPS

“This innovation is the result of Workhorse working closely with UPS over the last four years, refining our electric vehicles with hard fought lessons from millions of road miles and thousands of packages delivered,” Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse Group, said in a UPS press release.

“We see this vehicle as being a game changer in the electric truck arena,” Carlton Rose, president of global fleet maintenance and engineering at UPS, told Reuters. “It’s also an industry first because the acquisition cost is comparable to gas and diesel.”

Electric Future

UPS has 35,000 gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles in their fleet, so 50 new electric trucks may seem underwhelming. However, the company is slowly but surely making the transition away from fossil fuels.

In the U.S. and Europe, UPS has already deployed 300 electric vehicles and 700 hybrid vehicles, and more are on the way. Back in September, UPS placed an order with Daimler for three medium-duty electric trucks. In December, they reserved 125 of Tesla’s highly publicized electric semis — the largest order the company had received to date.

By 2025, UPS hopes to reduce their global ground operations’ greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent and meet 40 percent of their ground fuel needs from sources other than gasoline and diesel. Electric vehicles will play a huge part in reaching those goals.

If all goes well with the first 50 Workhorse trucks, UPS will likely add many more of the vehicles to their fleet in the future. In addition to costing about the same to procure as traditional trucks, the vehicles are expected to have a lower cost of ownership. Those savings could go a long way toward helping UPS stay competitive in the delivery space — especially if Amazon’s new shipping service takes off.

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A Tax Incentive Might Finally Make Carbon Capture a Thing

Here’s a cool idea for you. Wouldn’t it be great to remove the excess atmospheric carbon dioxide responsible for warming our planet, and deposit it into underground rocks? It would be, right?

That’s carbon capture, and it’s (kind of) a real thing. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a promising idea, or an enormous failure.

Soon, though, carbon capture may meet its long-theorized potential. The most recent budget deal, which President Trump signed on February 9, contains tax incentives for companies to invest in carbon capture. The incentive isn’t much, but it might just be enough to help the technology mature, which could lead to more widespread adoption — and, ultimately, could achieve the desired effect on the climate.

Can We Come Back from Climate Change’s Brink?
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Yes, carbon capture facilities already exist. There’s a big one in Texas, and another in Canada.

But the overall consensus is that the technique, as it stands today, is nowhere near mature enough to slow or offset the process of global warming. Some fear that it will never get there, and that the time and money we spend developing it could be better used on techniques already known to work – like reducing emissions from their source. Others say we won’t be able to mitigate the effects of climate change without it.

The new budget initiative gives companies a $ 50 tax credit for every metric ton of carbon they capture and bury underground. For every metric ton they capture and use in other ways, the government gives the company a $ 35 tax credit. It’s a significant increase over the previous tax credits ($ 20 and $ 10, respectively). But it still doesn’t offset the cost of carbon capture, which could run between $ 60 and $ 70 per metric ton, according to a 2015 report from the Office of Fossil Energy. Companies will need to spend an additional $ 11 per ton to transport and store the carbon.

A tax incentive like that may encourage companies to put carbon capture systems into place, but the technology is still far from efficient enough to put a serious dent in our emissions. Carbon capture itself requires energy, as does converting the carbon into a liquid and transporting it. So as it stands now, carbon capture might actually be adding to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

For carbon capture to make sense, we need technology that is much more efficient and cheaper. There’s a chance that companies seeking to make the most of this substantial tax incentive will invest in the research and development to make carbon capture worthwhile. But, then again, maybe the incentive will simply encourage companies to use this inefficient technology, exacerbating the use of fossil fuels, and driving global warming.

In the end, we’d be better off focusing on cutting our emissions altogether, and employing the carbon capture technology that already exists. That’s the only surefire way to limit the effects of climate change.

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