Every week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases its regular report of the latest developments on emerging diseases—a living record documenting decades of medical history, known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). In May 1981, former MMWR editor Michael B. Gregg got a call about an unusual deadly pneumonia, seen in young gay men in Los Angeles. The tip was from epidemiologist Wayne Shandera, Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. He described the cases of five men, ages 29 to 36, who had developed Pneumocystis carinii, a kind of pneumonia typically seen in cancer and immunosuppressed patients. These men were previously healthy, yet they struggled to fight off the illness with treatment. Two of the patients died. All five were gay.
Gregg didn’t know what to make of the cases, but he and CDC experts were compelled to publish the observations in the June 5, 1981 issue of MMWR. Soon after, clinicians around the country began to flag similar cases. The number of infected people rose, as did awareness of the strange collection of symptoms. That summer, the media ran stories about the mysterious disease; the New York Times ran the headline, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” At that time, Ira was a science correspondent for NPR, and was in the thick of covering the nuances of the illness.
Today marks 40 years since the first official report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, and the beginning of a long-puzzling medical mystery. “I was totally baffled, and did not know what was going on. I thought it was a fluke,” recalls Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during an interview this week with Science Friday. Read more at sciencefriday.com.
Where Did Watermelon Come From?
You may think of watermelon as a red, sweet taste of summer. The watermelon itself is ancient—paintings have been found in Egyptian tombs depicting a large green-striped object resembling a watermelon next to grapes and other sweet, refreshing foods. But if you look at many of the melon’s biological cousins, its red, sweet pulp is nowhere to be found—most close relatives of the watermelon have white, often bitter flesh. So how did the modern watermelon become a favorite summer snack?
Back in the 1960s, Russian researchers suggested that one sweeter melon species found in south Sudan might have been a close relative of the modern watermelon. Now, a detailed genetic analysis of a handful of wild melon species, and 400 modern varieties of watermelon from around the world, has concluded that the Kordofan melon from Sudan is, in fact, the closest living relative of the watermelon.
Susanne Renner, an emeritus professor at the University of Munich and an honorary professor of biology at Washington University in St Louis, explains the work on the origins of the modern melon—and how knowing the history of the watermelon could lead to new varieties.NASA Plans Two New Trips To Venus
This week, President Biden announced the U.S. will donate 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries via the COVAX global vaccine program. The U.S. has promised to promptly send it’s surplus to South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where countries are experiencing major shortages.
Plus on Wednesday, NASA announced plans to launch not one, but two new missions to explore Venus by the end of 2030. It’s the first time the agency has devoted any mission to Venus in 30 years.
MIT Technology Review editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to discuss the biggest science stories of the week.