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Webb telescope in homophobia row & Omicron study tests negative — 2022’s science controversies

From researchers retracting study tracing origins of Omicron to Modi govt sparring with WHO over excess Covid deaths, the global scientific fraternity was hit by many a controversy.

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New Delhi: A peer-reviewed study on the origins of the Omicron variant was retracted, NASA refused to rename the James Webb Telescope even after the former administrator it was named after was accused of discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community, and a French researcher who had claimed to have found a cure for Covid-19 was called out over alleged ethical violations in his research papers. There were some of the biggest science controversies of 2022.

Then there was also the conflict between the Indian government and the World Health Organisation (WHO) after the latter claimed that India had over 8 lakh excess Covid-related deaths in 2020 and over 47 lakh such fatalities in 2021.

ThePrint brings you a list of science controversies that made headlines this year.

NASA & the James Webb controversy

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope spearheaded space science by expanding the limits of humankind’s access to deep space. As the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor, it allowed the world to get a closer look at the cosmos. But its name was embroiled in controversy since its namesake — former NASA Administrator James Webb — was allegedly involved in supporting the then US administration’s homophobic policies. 

Webb was the administrator of NASA from 14 February 1961 to 7 October 1968, and is credited for overseeing the first human flight to space launched from the US in 1961. 

However, Webb was also accused of being complicit in the “witch hunt” of the LGBTQIA+ community during his tenure at NASA. 

In his 2004 book The Lavender Scare, historian David K Johnson had highlighted evidence that allegedly indicated that Webb, along with others in the US State Department leadership at the time, was involved in government discussions that ultimately led to a set of policies aimed at preventing the LGBTQIA+ community from joining the workforce. 

In response to the scientific community’s call to change the name of the telescope, NASA carried out an internal investigation, reviewing over 50,000 documents.

In a press release published this November, however, the US space agency said that it had found no evidence to indicate that Webb was either a leader or proponent of firing government employees for their sexual orientation. 

As a result of the investigation, the agency refused to change the name of the telescope. 

Also Read: How are stars like Sun formed? James Webb Space Telescope images hold key to new investigations

Study on Omicron origins retracted

In November  this year, a peer-reviewed study published in the prestigious journal Science claimed that the ancestors of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus — which spread rapidly across the world in January this year — had been circulating in Africa for months before it was detected. 

According to the international team of researchers including those from the UK, France and Canada, the variant had been circulating in the continent since August 2021, at least three months before the alarm was raised by researchers in South Africa and Botswana in November. The team had studied some 13,000 virus samples taken from people who had Covid-19 between mid-2021 and early 2022 that had not been sequenced at the time of collection. 

The team developed a rapid test to identify the BA.1 Omicron variant and the Delta variant, and concluded that the Omicron variant had gone undetected for months. 

The authors also proposed that its unchecked circulation had contributed to the development of immune escape in the variant. 

However, several scientists raised concerns on social media stating that the samples did not look like they were part of the same evolutionary chain — that is, they did not fall into an expected pattern of sequential order. Moreover, several samples unexpectedly showed mutations that were characteristic of the Delta variant, they claimed. 

When the research team re-analysed the samples, it realised that they had been contaminated with genomic fragments of the Omicron variant. On 20 December, the authors retracted their article, with senior author Felix Drexler saying, “We made a mistake and that is bitter.” 

Israel writer Yuval Noah Harari: ‘Fake or real scholar’

Ahead of the release of his latest book Unstoppable Us, Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari — who also wrote the best-selling Sapiens — became the centre of much criticism on social media after behavioural neuroscientist Darshana Narayanan said that he had “sacrificed science for sensationalism,” and that “his work is riddled with errors”.

The books explore the scientific concepts related to human evolution, philosophy, biology and culture, and the confluence of human behaviour and natural science.

Evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and many other experts have pointed out that a species does not have collective memory of feelings from millennia ago, nor does it behave purposefully with the objective of not being underdogs on the evolutionary tree.

Earlier, in 2015, John Sexton, a former student at the Committee on Social Thought, an academic body specialising in the study of philosophy and history, had written that Sapiens was “fundamentally unserious and undeserving of the wide acclaim and attention it has been receiving”, echoing many in the scientific community.

Also Read: Scientists identify molecule that may have been key to formation of life on Earth

French scientist in dock for ‘ethical violations’  

In early 2020, French scientist Didier Raoult made headlines when he claimed that the low-cost drug Hydroxychloroquin (HCQ) — which was used widely to treat malaria — could cure Covid-19. His statement, made without a proper clinical trial, caused a huge rise in demand for the drug and led to indiscriminate use of the antiviral as a preventive measure against the infection

However, multiple trials later showed that the drug did not work against Covid, with the WHO halting its trial mid-way. Despite growing scientific evidence against HCQ, Raoult continued to advocate the use of the drug against Covid. His actions and statements raised concerns on how he administered drugs to his patients. 

This year, as many as 49 of Raoult’s peer-reviewed research papers were flagged by the prestigious journal PLOS for ethical violations. This was a part of an ongoing investigation into more than 100 papers in the journal, all of which involved research using homeless people in France as subjects. 

This came after whistleblowers claimed that several of Raoult’s papers reused the same ethical approval code. 

This year, Raoult also retired as director of IHU-Méditerranée Infection, the hospital and research institution in Marseille that he had overseen since 2011, following an inspection by the French National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) that found “serious shortcomings and non-compliance with the regulations for research involving the humans” at IHU-Méditerranée Infection and another Marseille hospital. 

WHO vs India on Covid deaths

A major controversy erupted over estimates of Covid-related deaths between the Indian government and the WHO, after the latter published a report which stated that India had over 8,30,000 excess Covid-related deaths in 2020 and 47,40,894 in 2021. This was in sharp contrast to India’s own data which estimated excess deaths in 2020 to be 4,74,806. Data for 2021 has not been released. 

WHO’s estimates were the result of a global collaboration supported by the work of the Technical Advisory Group for Covid-19 Mortality Assessment, and consultations with the governments of the respective countries. This group consisted of many of the world’s leading experts, who developed a new methodology to generate comparable mortality estimates even where data is incomplete or unavailable.

The Modi government raised objections to the use of this estimation model for India, when it had made the data of excess deaths available earlier the same week.

In particular, India objected to being categorised among countries who death reporting was not considered robust by the WHO. As the WHO released its reports at a press conference, the health ministry simultaneously released its rebuttal. 

About a month before the release of the WHO’s estimates, The New York Times had reported that the Indian government’s objections to the methodology was stalling the global health agency’s efforts to make Covid death estimates public.

(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)

Also Read: Covid-19 vaccine alters menstrual cycle, finds study & a Cretaceous era turtle the size of a car


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