March 26 - April 1  2023: Issue 577

The housing and homelessness crisis in NSW explained in 9 charts

Hal Pawson, UNSW Sydney

Whatever the result of the New South Wales election on March 25, rising housing stress is a problem the new state government will have to confront.

Soaring rents and an extraordinary lack of rental vacancies are intensifying housing stress in Sydney and elsewhere. Many low-income households are spending well over 30% of their income on housing costs.

The numbers of people seeking help are pushing social housing and homelessness systems to the brink.

But how did these sectors end up in such a vulnerable place? And why are some of their problems worse than in other states?

Population has outpaced social housing supply

The stock of social housing in Australia has hardly changed in 25 years. It has fallen further and further behind the supply needed to keep pace with population growth.

Social housing accounted for more than 6% of occupied dwellings in 1996. By 2021, it was barely above 4%. Rather than reflecting active policy – such as large-scale privatisation or demolition – this is mainly a case of simple neglect.

At first sight, NSW did relatively well during the 2010s. Social housing stock apparently rose by 9% compared with 12% for population.

Unfortunately, this is a somewhat misleading impression. It reflects the NSW government’s 2016 decision to widen its definition of social housing to include less-subsidised affordable rental housing managed by community housing providers. While this housing meets an important need for low-paid “essential workers”, it is no substitute for housing that very low-income earners can afford.

If not for this redefinition, the NSW chart would more closely resemble the national post-1996 picture.

Social housing supply

Social housing construction numbers aren’t directly published in any official series but can be estimated from Australian Bureau of Statistics data on housing commencements. The 2010s began with a dramatic spike as the federal Rudd government invested in social housing as part of its emergency response to the Global Financial Crisis.

But then national and state governments largely stepped back from new social housing investment. NSW annual commencements ran at only 500-1,000 for most of the 2010s. This is less than half the minimum number needed to maintain social housing’s share of all housing.

Unlike other states such as Victoria and Queensland, the NSW government resisted calls for state-funded social housing investment as part of pandemic recovery plans in 2020 and 2021. In contrast with those states, NSW expects to achieve only a minimal net increase in social housing in the first half of the 2020s.

Not only is expected construction modest in scale, it is mainly associated with large-scale demolition of “obsolete” public housing to liberate land. Some is then sold to generate investment funds.

Unlike Victoria, the NSW government has continued to insist new social housing cannot be funded from general government revenue.

The trends are even more problematic than stock numbers suggest, because the system’s capacity to generate lettable vacancies continues to decline. Very few newly built properties are coming up for let. And the flow of existing tenancies being ended has dwindled as tenants struggle to find alternatives in the private rental market.

Social housing lettings in 2021-22 were down 13% compared with 2014-15. And a growing share of scarce lettings has to be devoted to priority applicants – those with the most urgent and severe needs. Priority lets grew by 37% over the past four years and made up nearly two-thirds of all lettings (64%) by 2021-22.

Vacancies remaining for non-priority applicants have almost halved since 2014-15 – down 47%.


Many of those assigned priority status are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless. The latest official statistics that directly measure homelessness are from the 2016 census when 38,000 people were homeless in NSW. Relative to population, homelessness was higher than in any other mainland state.

Measured by the average monthly caseload of specialist homelessness services agencies, homelessness has more recently been rising relatively slowly in NSW. It was up 5% in the four years to 2021-22 compared with 8% nationally.

But rising numbers are being turned away – nearly 10,000 people in 2021-22 – up by 22% in three years. This suggests the system is increasingly overloaded.

The wider point is that homelessness is rising while social housing capacity is shrinking.

After several years of stability or slight reductions, the social housing waiting list (excluding existing tenants) grew by 15% in 2021-22 to 52,000 households. But annual snapshot statistics mask large numbers joining and leaving the list each year.

By our calculations, 17,000 households newly enrolled on the NSW social housing register in 2020-21, nearly double the number given a tenancy. That’s another powerful measure of shortage.

Note that the rules on waiting list eligibility are strict. The weekly household income limit in 2022 was $690 – well below the full-time minimum wage of $812.60.

Far greater numbers of people are homeless or living with rental stress than are on the list. Many people who could qualify realise their chances are so slim it isn’t worth the trouble. Others drop off when they realise they face a wait of years or even decades.

Our recent census-based analysis shows there were well over 200,000 NSW households with an unmet need for social or affordable housing in 2021. Some 144,000 of them would probably qualify for social housing.

True, some of these needs could be met in other ways, such as a major increase in rent assistance. But even if that happened and if no-grounds evictions were outlawed in NSW, private tenancies will remain far less secure than social housing. Arguably, that makes them fundamentally unsuitable for vulnerable people and low-income families.

What lies ahead?

The extraordinary rent spike of 2021-2022 has been the main cause of rising housing need. This happened while immigration all but stopped during the pandemic.

With migration rebounding, there is a serious worry rent inflation will continue to rage, placing even more low-income Australians in financial stress.

Somewhere on the horizon is modest help via the Albanese government’s Housing Australia Future Fund. The target is 30,000 new social and affordable dwellings over five years, with NSW likely to get a large share.

However, the HAFF legislation remains under review. Even when new homes begin to flow through, numbers will be quite small relative to need.

In NSW, party leaders are touting rival plans to assist first home buyers, but have long neglected arguably more serious policy challenges at the lower end of the housing market. Hundreds of thousands of households are struggling as a result.The Conversation

Hal Pawson, Professor of Housing Research and Policy, and Associate Director, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tackling the housing crisis: new report outlines comprehensive strategy

March 20, 2023
COVID turbo-charged Australia’s existing housing problems, but policy solutions are available, says a new report.
A newly-published UNSW Sydney research report provides a comprehensive roadmap to confront Queensland’s housing and rental crisis, with many of its recommendations applicable and adaptable Australia-wide.

The report, A blueprint to tackle Queensland’s housing crisis, was commissioned by the Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS) with support from a coalition of partner agencies. It is one of the most wide-ranging housing policy reviews to date.

“The report lays out an evidence-backed reform package that tackles the housing crisis at state level, with suggestions on federal input as well,” says Professor Hal Pawson, Housing Research and Policy expert from UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre and lead author on the report.

“In a nutshell, the housing crisis comprises declining home ownership, growing private rental stress, rising homelessness and shrinking social housing capacity,” says Dr Andrew Clarke, lecturer in sociology and social policy at UNSW’s School of Social Science and co-author of the report.

“The pandemic exacerbated all these problems, but Premier Palaszczuk’s action in convening her Queensland Affordable Housing Summit last year is really encouraging evidence that the state recognises the gravity of the challenge and has the ambition to tackle it.”

“Our report for QCOSS highlights a wide range of feasible and realistic policies that can effectively confront aspects of the housing policy challenge affecting Queensland and other states – many of which can be actioned at no cost to the government,” says Prof. Pawson.

Australia-wide trends of higher intensity in Queensland
As emphasised by the report, problems such as the declining rate of young adult home ownership have been gradually intensifying for decades. Equally, recent years have seen a new surge in housing stress in Queensland, more marked than in any other part of the country.

“In Queensland, a majority of new private lets are unaffordable to low-income households, and homelessness has been rising faster than in any other mainland state,” says Prof. Pawson.

“Governments have failed to grow the social housing portfolio in line with population, and private rent inflation has been recently rampant.

“These negative trends are happening in most parts of the country but are of a higher intensity in Queensland, partly due to high rates of migration from other states and partly due to other factors such as the conversion of long-term rentals into short-term lettings through platforms like Airbnb.”

Unlike most other states, Queensland’s population is evenly split between region and city – and it’s regional Australia where the post-COVID housing crisis has generally been most intense.

“Our report adds to the evidence of the scale and the profile of unmet housing need,” says Prof. Pawson. “It also reveals the uneven geography of rental stress, indicating that several coastal and central mining areas in Queensland have experienced the most intense rent increases and declines in rental affordability over the past few years.”

“The sheer scale of housing issues facing regional Queensland is quite alarming,” says Dr Clarke, who conducted stakeholder interviews as part of the report. “There’s a lot of anecdotal chatter about a post-COVID housing crisis, but it’s glaringly apparent from our hard evidence that the regional housing problem is worse than we thought.”

Key findings of the report – all specific to Queensland – include:
  • A recent burst of rental inflation has seen private rents growing at rates faster than in any other Australian jurisdiction.
  • Homelessness in Queensland rose by 22 per cent in the four years to 2021-22, compared with only 8 per cent across Australia.
  • Rising homelessness has been particularly evident in regional areas, where the average monthly number of Specialist Homeless Service users increased by 29 per cent from 2017-18 to 2021-22.
  • Declining rental affordability for low-income households has been most marked in regional Queensland, where this trend has been ongoing since at least 2017-18, with the proportion of lettings affordable to this population cohort falling from 36 per cent to 17 per cent over this period.
  • The sharpest private rent increases have been seen in regional markets, where over the past five years, median rents rose by 80 per cent in Gladstone, by 51 per cent in Noosa, and by 33 per cent in the Gold Coast.
  • Overall, there are approximately 150,000 households across Queensland whose needs for affordable housing are currently unmet – that is, they are either homeless by ABS Census definitions or otherwise low-income recipients living in private rental housing and paying more than 30 per cent of household income in rent. As of the 2021 census, this ‘backlog need’ includes over 102,000 households who would typically be eligible for social housing.
Ad hoc housing policy approach to date
The report argues that Australia is in urgent need of a coherent housing policy reform package.

“Right now, we have a piecemeal approach in housing policy that involves isolated housing initiatives that only look at specific aspects of the housing problem,” says Dr Clarke. “These alone are not enough to make a significant difference.

“Our report is pushing policymakers to think of housing as a system and address the root of the housing problem, recognising that both levels of government need to give greater priority to tackling the issue and to do so collaboratively.”

“Tax reform and co-contributions at a federal level can greatly assist states in tackling the housing crisis,” says Prof. Pawson. “Extraordinary, although it might seem, it is only in 2023 that Australia’s first-ever national housing strategy is being developed.

“We just have to hope that the Albanese Government’s National Housing and Homelessness Plan, currently taking shape in Canberra, turns out to be fit for purpose.”

Snapshot of policy recommendations
  • Meet social housing need by further expanding housing investments funds (state and federal responsibility), phasing in meaningful inclusionary zoning, examining scope for land value extraction via public housing estate renewal, mandating the inclusion of social/affordable housing for non-estate public land disposal, building community housing capacity, with special emphasis on Indigenous community housing organisations and establishing a permanent supportive housing funding framework.
  • Both state and Commonwealth governments can assist with affordability and security for low-income private tenants by reforming rent assistance, further strengthening rental regulation, reviewing the scope for stronger short-term rental regulation and facilitating build-to-rent development. 
  • The Commonwealth government should reform private landlord tax concessions that negatively impact broader housing affordability.
  • State governments should phase out stamp duty and replace it with a broad-based land tax. 
  • State and Commonwealth governments to re-establish housing entity within government.
  • Establish annual publication of key social and affordable housing statistics.

Real-world studies confirm effectiveness of bulevirtide to treat chronic hepatitis D

March 20, 2023
In 2020,bulevirtide (BLV) was conditionally approved for treating chronic hepatitis delta (CHD), an inflammation of the liver caused by hepatitis D virus (HDV). Now real-world studies of patients treated outside of clinical trials confirm that long-term suppressive therapy with BLV monotherapy has the potential to reduce viral replication and improve liver tests of these difficult-to-treat patients for the first time in 45 years, report investigators in the Journal of Hepatology and its companion journal JHEP Reports.

Two of the studies, led by Pietro Lampertico, MD, PhD, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Foundation IRCCS Ca' Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, Milan, Italy, were designed to assess the effectiveness and safety of patients with advanced HDV-related compensated cirrhosis being treated with BLV 2mg monotherapy and the consequences of discontinuing this treatment.

"HDV is the most severe form of chronic viral hepatitis," explained Dr. Lampertico. "For many years, the only therapeutic option was the off-label administration of pegylated-interferon-alpha (PegIFNa), an approach characterized by suboptimal efficacy, an unfavorable safety profile and several contraindications."

In a study of 18 patients with HDV-related advanced cirrhosis treated with BLV 2 mg/day for 48 weeks, Dr. Lampertico and colleagues demonstrated significant virological, biochemical and combined response rates associated with improvement of liver function.

"The efficacy and safety of BLV monotherapy in patients with advanced compensated cirrhosis were unknown before this study. Virological and biochemical responses to BLV monotherapy that we observed in our difficult-to-treat patients with HDV-related compensated cirrhosis were similar to those shown in the phase III registration study," Dr. Lampertico noted.

In a case report, Dr. Lampertico and co-investigators demonstrated that HDV could be successfully eradicated from both serum and liver following a three-year course of BLV monotherapy, despite the persistence of HBsAg, in a patient with HDV-related compensated cirrhosis and esophageal varices. During the 72-week off-BLV follow-up, liver biopsy, intrahepatic HDV RNA and hepatitis D antigen were undetectable, less than 1% of hepatocytes were HBsAg positive and all were negative for hepatitis B core antigen.

"We were surprised to demonstrate that HDV can be eradicated following a finite course of an entry inhibitor administered as monotherapy such as BLV 2mg/day, despite the persistence of HBsAg positivity," commented Dr. Lampertico.

In a study in JHEP Reports led by PD Dr. med. Katja Deterding, MD, Department. of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Endocrinology at Hannover Medical School, Hannover, Germany, investigators report the first data from the largest multicenter cohort of patients to date who were treated with BLV under real-world conditions, including 50 patients with signs of significant portal hypertension, elevated pressure in the major vein that leads to the liver.

The retrospective analysis of 114 cases covered 4,289 patient weeks of BLV treatment. Viral response was observed in 87 cases while hepatic inflammation improved, and treatment was well tolerated. More than 50% of patients showed a virologic response with less than 10% of patients not achieving an HDV RNA drop of at least 90% after 24 weeks. An improvement of biochemical hepatitis activity as measured by the liver enzyme alanine transaminase (ALT) values was observed regardless of virologic response. Investigators concluded that treatment was safe and well tolerated and associated with improvements in liver cirrhosis and portal hypertension with prolonged treatment.

"In line with other real-world cohorts and clinical trials our real-world study confirms the antiviral activity of BLV," noted Dr. Deterding. "We were surprised to see an improvement in biochemical hepatitis activity even in cases without viral response. Potential explanations for this phenomenon include anti-inflammatory properties of BLV."

"This is the first time that patients with HDV-related chronic advanced liver disease can be treated with an antiviral therapy since 1977 when HDV was discovered. Long-term suppressive therapy with BLV 2 mg/day has the potential to improve survival, of these difficult-to-treat patients for the first time in 45 years," concluded Dr. Lampertico. "We also found that BLV treatment can be successfully discontinued in some HDV patients who achieved long-term viral suppression while on therapy."

HDV infection occurs when people become infected with both hepatitis B and D virus either simultaneously (co-infection) or acquire the hepatitis D virus after first being infected with hepatitis B (super-infection). According to the World Health Organization, HDV affects nearly 5% of individuals with a chronic infection resulting from hepatitis B virus (HBV). Populations that are more likely to have HBV and HDV co-infection include indigenous populations, recipients of hemodialysis and individuals who inject drugs.

Elisabetta Degasperi, Maria Paola Anolli, Sara Colonia Uceda Renteria, Dana Sambarino, Marta Borghi, Riccardo Perbellini, Caroline Scholtes, Floriana Facchetti, Alessandro Loglio, Sara Monico, Mirella Fraquelli, Andrea Costantino, Ferruccio Ceriotti, Fabien Zoulim, Pietro Lampertico. Bulevirtide monotherapy for 48 weeks in patients with HDV-related compensated cirrhosis and clinically significant portal hypertension. Journal of Hepatology, 2022; 77 (6): 1525 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhep.2022.07.016

High rates of physical and mental health problems found in children held in detention on Nauru: study

March 21, 2023
Paediatric clinicians observed a range of health difficulties in children and young people seeking asylum who were subjected to offshore processing.

A sample of asylum seeking children and young people (CYP) held on Nauru were found to have high rates of physical and mental health problems around the time of transfer from Nauru, according to new research. The study also found that most had multiple adverse childhood experiences in their lifetime, including disruptions to education, family separation and witnessed trauma.

For the study, researchers retrospectively analysed detailed health assessments of 62 CYP completed by paediatricians and child and adolescent psychiatrists from 10 health services across Australia.

The research, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, found physical and/or mental health difficulties in almost all CYP in the sample. The CYP were subjected to Australia’s offshore immigration policy for asylum seekers arriving by boat with more than half of the sample held on Nauru for four or more years.

Lead author of the study Dr Lahiru Amarasena, a paediatrician and PhD student at the School of Women’s and Children’s Health, UNSW Medicine & Health, says the research adds to the evidence that immigration detention is a harmful practice for children.

“These poor health outcomes were almost universal in our sample of CYP who experienced forced migration and were exposed to the policy of indefinite mandatory detention.” Dr Amarasena says.

Immigration detention is a known adverse childhood experience and may contribute to or exacerbate detrimental outcomes in CYP seeking asylum. Previous studies have documented harmful consequences of the practice, including physical, psychological, neurodevelopmental and educational difficulties.

Of those in the current study, physical health problems were present in 55 CYP (89 per cent), most commonly malnutrition (24 per cent), dental disease (21 per cent) and abdominal pain (16 per cent). Mental health conditions were also formally diagnosed in 27 CYP (44 per cent), but most of the study sample had one or more mental health symptom (79 per cent) – including self-harm ideation or attempts (45 per cent).

“Poor health outcomes were almost universal in our sample of CYP who experienced forced migration and were exposed to the policy of indefinite mandatory detention.”

The rates are comparable to previous studies of CYP exposed to immigration detention and far higher than in non-detained refugees or general Australian populations.

“Our study involves a small sample of detained CYP, but contextualised in other national and international studies and reports, we know that no time in detention has been determined to be safe, and the United Nations recommends avoidance of detention practices for children.” Dr Amarasena says.

The research also found 58 CYP (94 per cent) had exposure to one or more adverse childhood experience (ACE) in their lifetime, including 13 CYP (21 per cent) with exposure to four or more ACEs. Twenty-five CYP had exposure to one or more types of abuse or neglect (40 per cent). Most (63 per cent) had witnessed trauma in their lifetime.

Most school-aged children had also experienced disruptions to their schooling (77 per cent). Eleven CYP (18 per cent) were separated from one or more primary relative on Nauru.

“For health services, it also highlights the need to be aware of these adversities when caring for kids already exposed to immigration detention and forced migration,” Dr Amarasena says.

The researchers also acknowledge the study design with recruitment through health services, while necessary to minimise further trauma, has limitations given the challenges of working with vulnerable, mobile populations, particularly during COVID-19 restrictions.

Since mid-2013, under offshore immigration policy, all of those seeking asylum by boat, including children, were sent offshore and were prevented from ever permanently resettling in Australia regardless of their refugee status.
The majority of asylum-seeking CYP were transferred to Nauru, where a maximum of 222 were held at any one time, between 2013 to 2019. Some were released into the Nauruan community after Nauru recognised their refugee status and a small proportion were eventually resettled in other countries.

Most were transferred to Australia on temporary visas. All children were transferred from Nauru by early 2019 but the policy of offshore processing and indefinite mandatory detention continues to be in effect.

“Some recipient countries continue to employ immigration detention for children and young people, even though it breaches international human rights conventions. Immigration detention of children is a preventable adverse childhood experience,” Dr Amarasena says.

Humans are altering the diet of Tasmanian devils; which may accelerate their decline

March 2023
The Tasmanian devil roams the island state of Australia as the apex predator of the land, feeding on whatever it pleases as the top dog -- or the top devil. But some of these marsupial scavengers could be starting to miss out on a few items from the menu.

According to a study led by UNSW Sydney, living in human-modified landscapes could be narrowing the diet of the Tasmanian devil. The research, published recently in Scientific Reports, suggests devils have access to vastly different cuisines depending on the type of environment they live in.

"We found Tasmanian devil populations had different levels of variation in their diet depending on their habitat," says Anna Lewis, a PhD candidate at UNSW Science and lead author of the study. "The more that habitat was impacted by humans, the more restrictive the diet became."

A previous study by the team found most devils are individual specialists, feeding on the same food items consistently over time. But human impacts could be influencing whether they have access to their favourite foods.

"How humans change the environment impacts the animals within them," says Professor Tracey Rogers, an ecologist at UNSW Science and senior author of the study. "Even small changes can have significant consequences for devils, so we need to be mindful of the consequences of our actions."

The devil is in the details
For the study, the researchers investigated the diets of devil populations across habitats of differing levels of disturbance, from cleared pasture to undisturbed rainforest. They did this by analysing chemical stamps called stable isotopes in whisker samples taken from Tasmanian devils in different environments.

"It's similar to how tree rings capture chemical signals about atmospheric elements over time. We're doing the same thing with the devils, matching up the biochemical signatures in the whiskers to the prey so we can learn more about what the devils are eating," Prof. Rogers says.

They found devils in human-impacted landscapes, such as cleared land and regenerated native forests, fed on the same food items, primarily medium-sized mammals. Meanwhile, in environments like rainforest areas, devils ate a broader range of prey and incorporated smaller animals, such as birds, into their diets.

"We found devils in heavily altered areas like cleared land fed on a smaller range of prey compared to populations living in ancient undisturbed regions, who had much more variety in their diet," Ms Lewis says. "They may be turning to human-derived sources of food, such as highway roadkill, which are more readily available."

Interestingly, devils living in regenerated native eucalypt forests also ate a smaller variety of food items. Comparatively, their diets were closer to the devils in cleared agricultural land than those from undisturbed forest regions.

"These regenerated forests not logged for many decades may look like natural landscapes to us, but the devils that live there have similar simple diets to the devils that live on cleared agricultural pastures," Prof. Rogers says.

"The regenerated land doesn't have the complex features such as tree hollows in large old trees to support diverse bird life and small mammals that the devil eats in the rainforest."

Restrictive diets could increase threat
Devils that all maintain the same diet run the risk of interacting more frequently around carcasses, which is of particular concern for spreading the highly contagious and fatal cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). The disease has already reduced local devil populations by 82 per cent and spread to most of Tasmania.

"The highest rate of cancer transmission other than during the mating season occurs when they're feeding around these large carcasses," Ms Lewis says. "So, there could be an increased chance for the disease to spread amongst devils, and the devils themselves are also at risk of being hit while feeding."

The researchers say the findings highlight the urgent need to protect what remains of untouched landscapes for both the devils and the species they eat.

"It's apparent there is much more diversity of species available in these old-growth forests, and the devils are shining a light on how vital these pristine areas are, and the urgent need to preserve what remains from the constant threat of clearing and mining," Prof. Rogers says.

In the next stage of the research, they hope to investigate the eating habits of devils in native grasslands to better inform conservation efforts across more habitats.

"By better understanding what is impacting devil diets, we can work to protect this iconic Australian animal and ensure their continued survival in the face of ongoing environmental change," Ms Lewis says.

Anna C. Lewis, Channing Hughes, Tracey L. Rogers. Living in human-modified landscapes narrows the dietary niche of a specialised mammalian scavenger. Scientific Reports, 2023; 13 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-30490-6

The study found the diet of Tasmanian devils became more restrictive the more their habitat was impacted by humans. Photo: Ariana Ananda.

Bird flu associated with hundreds of seal deaths in New England in 2022

March 2023
Researchers at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found that an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was associated with the deaths of more than 330 New England harbour and grey seals along the North Atlantic coast in June and July 2022, and the outbreak was connected to a wave of avian influenza in birds in the region.
The study was published on March 15 in the journal Emerging Infectious Disease.

HPAI is more commonly known as bird flu, and the H5N1 strain has been responsible for about 60 million poultry deaths in the U.S. since October 2020, with similar numbers in Europe. The virus was known to have spilled over from birds into mammals, such as mink, foxes, skunk, and bears, but those were mostly small, localized events. This study is among the first to directly connect HPAI to a larger scale mortality event in wild mammals.

The co-first authors on the paper -- virologist and senior scientist Wendy Puryear and post-doctoral researcher Kaitlin Sawatzki, who both work in the Runstadler Lab at Cummings School -- have been researching viruses in seals for years. They credit their findings in the new study to a unique and robust data set made possible by a collaboration with wildlife clinics and rehabilitation and response organisations in the region, in particular with Tufts Wildlife Clinic and director Maureen Murray, V03, associate clinical professor at Cummings School, and an author on the paper.

"We have a better resolution and greater depth of detail on this virus than before because we were able to sequence it and detect changes almost in real time," said Puryear. "And we have pairings of samples, sometimes literally from a bird and a seal on the same beach."

The clinic has been conducting avian influenza surveillance on birds and some mammals since January 2022, shortly after this strain of avian influenza took a trans-Atlantic journey from Europe into the U.S. Through this testing, the team found a wide range of flu viruses, including at least three strains that crossed the Atlantic, and they witnessed consistent waves of infection in birds.

At the same time, in collaboration with NOAA's Greater Atlantic Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network, they were able to screen nearly all seals that came through the network, whether or not the animal appeared sick. The stranding network is composed of experts from state and federal wildlife and fisheries agencies, non-profit rehabilitation and response facilities, aquariums, and academic institutions who respond to strandings.

"Because of the genetic data that we gathered, we were the first to see a strain of the virus that's unique to New England. The data set will allow us to more meaningfully address questions of which animals are passing the virus to which animals and how the virus is changing," said Sawatzki.

How HPAI Is Transmitted
In addition to poultry, H5N1 also has had a huge impact on wild birds, especially sea birds. Multiple locations around the globe have experienced large die-offs, such as recently in Peru, where the virus killed 60,000 pelicans, penguins, and gulls.

At the time of the seal mortality event in New England, the virus was hitting gulls particularly hard, the researchers found. There are lots of ways gulls and other birds may transmit the virus to seals, they said. Seals and sea birds are coastal animals living in the same areas that have environmental contact, if not direct contact, since they share the same water and shoreline. A seal may contract the virus if it comes in contact with a sick bird's excrement or water contaminated by that excrement, or if it preys upon an infected bird.

The accepted knowledge is that H5N1 is nearly 100% fatal for domestic and wild birds other than waterfowl, and the same is proving true when it comes to spillover in wild mammals. All the seals that tested positive for HPAI were deceased at the time of sampling or succumbed shortly after. None of the animals that tested positive recovered. However, it's possible some asymptomatic or recovered cases never came into the stranding networks.

In addition to the seal mortality event in New England, which was the first time H5N1 was detected in marine mammals in the wild, other locations have lost marine mammals to the virus. Peru announced about 3,500 sea lions died from the virus, Canada reported a seal mortality event along the St. Lawrence Estuary, and there was a similar event with seals in the Caspian Sea, according to news reports from Russia.

A hotly debated topic among scientists is whether there has been mammal-to-mammal transmission of HPAI between seals.

"It's not surprising that you might have transmission between the seals, because it has happened with low pathogenic avian influenza," said Puryear. "However, we can't say definitively whether or not there has been mammal-to-mammal transmission of HPAI."

"To get strong evidence of mammal-to-mammal transmission, you need two things: lots of infected animals and time," explained Sawatzki. "Time for the virus to mutate, and time for the mutated virus to be transmitted to another seal. As the virus acquires mutations, we can see shared mutations in the sequences that are specific only to mammals and that haven't been seen in a bird before. We had the numbers, but this outbreak didn't last long enough to provide evidence for seal-to-seal transmission."

The research team found evidence that the virus mutated in a small number of seals. But fortunately, they have not seen a case of bird flu in seals along the Atlantic coast since the end of last summer. However, stranding season is about to start for harbour seals and grey seals, so they are bracing themselves for what might happen.

Prevention and Risk to Humans
The risk to the public remains low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since December 2021, less than 10 human cases of H5N1 have been reported globally, and those cases occurred in people with direct exposure to infected poultry. There are no documented cases of human transmission for this variant.

However, there is the possibility it could become a larger issue for human health. Avian influenza emerged in 1996, and since 2003, 868 cases of human infection with H5N1 have been reported worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, 457 were fatal, roughly a 50% fatality rate.

"And that's why people get nervous about it," Puryear said.

There is a single-dose vaccine available for poultry, but it's not currently administered on a large scale -- in part because of cost and logistics, and in part because there's some concern it may make future surveillance of the virus more difficult. There's not much that can be done in terms of responding to the virus for wildlife, particularly given the scale at which infection is occurring.

Biosecurity is important in limiting the ways in which the virus can spread between and within species, the researchers said. For example, wild birds should be kept separate from domestic birds, such as backyard chickens. In addition, thorough and timely surveillance of domestic animals and wildlife is key to understanding how the virus is evolving to prepare the best possible vaccines and treatments.

Research reported in this article was supported by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease under award 75N93021C00014. Complete information on authors, funders, and conflicts of interest is available in the published paper.

Puryear W, Sawatzki K, Hill N, Foss A, Stone JJ, Doughty L, et al. Highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) virus outbreak in New England seals, United States. Emerg Infect Dis., 2023 DOI: 10.3201/eid2904.221538

Jellyfish size might influence their nutritional value

March 20, 2023
Drifting along in ocean currents, jellyfish can be both predator and prey. They eat almost anything they can capture, and follow the typical oceanic pattern of large eats small. Now a recent University of British Columbia study on these gelatinous globs suggests jellyfish may get more nutritious as they get bigger.

As jellyfish grow, their size changes largely due to the chances of prey encounter, the length and number of tentacles, and their bells (the umbrella-like part of them). As a result, smaller jellyfish eat phytoplankton, microzooplankton, and eggs, while larger jellyfish can eat all of that plus shrimp and even fish. However, jellyfish are also largely preyed upon by animals in and out of the water. Jellyfish are important prey because they are easy to digest due to their high water content, and they are easy to catch.

"Our study looked more closely to see if there was any information we could draw about nutrition in jellyfish," said Jessica Schaub, lead author and a UBC PhD student at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the Department of Earth, Oceans and Atmospheric Sciences.

"This information helps us understand the true value of jellyfish as food. We looked at how the energy that moves through a food web might look as it moves through jellyfish. What they eat, what they are composed of, and how this might affect what eats them." In Heriot Bay, B.C., for example, the moon jelly may often find themselves being eaten by other jellyfish, fish and other invertebrates.

Schaub, and her team, which includes associate professor Dr. Brian Hunt, who heads the Pelagic Ecosystem Lab at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, took a look at how jellyfish size, diet and nutritional quality all mesh together. Nutritional quality can reflect an organism's life history -- the composition of a jellyfish can change in response to individual changes in diet and physiological changes.

The team, over two one-day periods in July and September 2019, collected 150 moon jellyfish and measured their size. After drying them, they measured the jellyfish for specific compositional elements.

Schaub described what they discovered.

"First, we confirmed what was already known: jellyfish eat bigger prey as they grow, which means they also occupy a higher position in the food web as they grow," she said. "We also found that some of the concentrations of 'healthy fats,' increase as jellyfish grow. We found some evidence that these changes might be influenced by their diet, and as they feed on bigger prey with higher levels of fatty acids, the jellyfish accumulate more of these fatty acids."

"This means bigger jellyfish might be considered more nutritious," said Schaub.

The study found size-trends which emphasize just how important it is to consider jellyfish size when we are talking about marine food webs. Including these creatures will not only help their representation in food web models, but can also inform other studies.

Looking towards the future, Schaub described what may come next.

"Our recommendation for future studies on jellyfish predators is to consider size more thoroughly. Feeding on a young, small jellyfish is different than feeding on a larger and older jellyfish."

Jessica Schaub, Anna K. McLaskey, Ian Forster, Brian P. V. Hunt. Size‐based changes in trophic ecology and nutritional quality of moon jellyfish ( Aurelia labiata ). Ecosphere, 2023; 14 (3) DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.4430

Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) at Gota Sagher (Red Sea, Egypt). Photo: Alexander Vasenin 

Recycling: Researchers separate cotton from polyester in blended fabric

March 20, 2023
In a new study, North Carolina State University researchers found they could separate blended cotton and polyester fabric using enzymes -- nature's tools for speeding chemical reactions. Ultimately, they hope their findings will lead to a more efficient way to recycle the fabric's component materials, thereby reducing textile waste.

However, they also found the process need more steps if the blended fabric was dyed or treated with chemicals that increase wrinkle resistance.

"We can separate all of the cotton out of a cotton-polyester blend, meaning now we have clean polyester that can be recycled," said the study's corresponding author Sonja Salmon, associate professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at NC State. "In a landfill, the polyester is not going to degrade, and the cotton might take several months or more to break down. Using our method, we can separate the cotton from polyester in less than 48 hours."

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, consumers throw approximately 11 million tons of textile waste into U.S. landfills each year. Researchers wanted to develop a method of separating the cotton from the polyester so each component material could be recycled.

In the study, researchers used a "cocktail" of enzymes in a mildly acidic solution to chop up cellulose in cotton. Cellulose is the material that gives structure to plants' cell walls. The idea is to chop up the cellulose so it will "fall out" out of the blended woven structure, leaving some tiny cotton fiber fragments remaining, along with glucose. Glucose is the biodegradable byproduct of degraded cellulose. Then, their process involves washing away the glucose and filtering out the cotton fiber fragments, leaving clean polyester.

"This is a mild process -- the treatment is slightly acidic, like using vinegar," Salmon said. "We also ran it at 50 degrees Celsius, which is like the temperature of a hot washing machine.

"It's quite promising that we can separate the polyester to a clean level," Salmon added. "We still have some more work to do to characterize the polyester's properties, but we think they will be very good because the conditions are so mild. We're just adding enzymes that ignore the polyester."

They compared degradation of 100% cotton fabric to degradation of cotton and polyester blends, and also tested fabric that was dyed with red and blue reactive dyes and treated with durable press chemicals. In order to break down the dyed materials, the researchers had to increase the amount of time and enzymes used. For fabrics treated with durable press chemicals, they had to use a chemical pre-treatment before adding the enzymes.

"The dye that you choose has a big impact on the potential degradation of the fabric," said the study's lead author Jeannie Egan, a graduate student at NC State. "Also, we found the biggest obstacle so far is the wrinkle-resistant finish. The chemistry behind that creates a significant block for the enzyme to access the cellulose. Without pre-treating it, we achieved less than 10% degradation, but after, with two enzyme doses, we were able to fully degrade it, which was a really exciting result."

Researchers said the polyester could be recycled, while the slurry of cotton fragments could be valuable as an additive for paper or useful addition to composite materials. They're also investigating whether the glucose could be used to make biofuels.

"The slurry is made of residual cotton fragments that resist a very powerful enzymatic degradation," Salmon said. "It has potential value as a strengthening agent. For the glucose syrup, we're collaborating on a project to see if we can feed it into an anaerobic digester to make biofuel. We'd be taking waste and turning it into bioenergy, which would be much better than throwing it into a landfill."

Jeannie Egan, Siyan Wang, Jialong Shen, Oliver Baars, Geoffrey Moxley, Sonja Salmon. Enzymatic textile fiber separation for sustainable waste processing. Resources, Environment and Sustainability, 2023; 13: 100118 DOI: 10.1016/j.resenv.2023.100118

Mind-control robots a reality

March 20, 2023
Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) have developed biosensor technology that will allow you to operate devices, such as robots and machines, solely through thought control.

The advanced brain-computer interface was developed by Distinguished Professor Chin-Teng Lin and Professor Francesca Iacopi, from the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT, in collaboration with the Australian Army and Defence Innovation Hub.

As well as defence applications, the technology has significant potential in fields such as advanced manufacturing, aerospace and healthcare -- for example allowing people with a disability to control a wheelchair or operate prosthetics.

"The hands-free, voice-free technology works outside laboratory settings, anytime, anywhere. It makes interfaces such as consoles, keyboards, touchscreens and hand-gesture recognition redundant," said Professor Iacopi.

"By using cutting edge graphene material, combined with silicon, we were able to overcome issues of corrosion, durability and skin contact resistance, to develop the wearable dry sensors," she said.

A new study outlining the technology has just been published in the peer-reviewed journal ACS Applied Nano Materials. It shows that the graphene sensors developed at UTS are very conductive, easy to use and robust.

The hexagon patterned sensors are positioned over the back of the scalp, to detect brainwaves from the visual cortex. The sensors are resilient to harsh conditions so they can be used in extreme operating environments.

The user wears a head-mounted augmented reality lens which displays white flickering squares. By concentrating on a particular square, the brainwaves of the operator are picked up by the biosensor, and a decoder translates the signal into commands.

The technology was recently demonstrated by the Australian Army, where soldiers operated a Ghost Robotics quadruped robot using the brain-machine interface. The device allowed hands-free command of the robotic dog with up to 94% accuracy.

"Our technology can issue at least nine commands in two seconds. This means we have nine different kinds of commands and the operator can select one from those nine within that time period," Professor Lin said.

"We have also explored how to minimise noise from the body and environment to get a clearer signal from an operator's brain," he said.

The researchers believe the technology will be of interest to the scientific community, industry and government, and hope to continue making advances in brain-computer interface systems.

Shaikh Nayeem Faisal, Tien-Thong Nguyen Do, Tasauf Torzo, Daniel Leong, Aiswarya Pradeepkumar, Chin-Teng Lin, Francesca Iacopi. Noninvasive Sensors for Brain–Machine Interfaces Based on Micropatterned Epitaxial Graphene. ACS Applied Nano Materials, 2023; DOI: 10.1021/acsanm.2c05546

The technology was recently demonstrated by the Australian Army, where soldiers operated a Ghost Robotics quadruped robot using the brain-machine interface. Photo supplied by Australian Army.

Origin and evolution of the grapevine

March 20, 2023
Cultivation and growth of grapevines have strongly influenced European civilizations, but where the grapevine comes from and how it has spread across the globe has been highly disputed so far. In an extensive genome project, researchers from the Chinese Yunnan Agricultural University have determined its origin and evolution from the wild vine to today's cultivar by analysing thousands of vine genomes collected along the Silk Road from China to Western Europe. The collection of wild vines of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) played an important role in the project.

Grapevine is among the world's oldest crops. Wine was one of the oldest products traded all around the world. It pushed the exchange of cultures, ideas, and religions. At the end of the Ice Age, grapevine originated from the European wild vine, of which only a few relic populations have survived to date.

One of these populations can be found on the Ketsch peninsula on the Rhine river between Karlsruhe and Mannheim. So far, the traces of when and where exactly wild vines were domesticated, of whether grapes for wine production and table grapes have the same origin, and how thousands of vines developed have been hidden in the mist of the prehistoric era. Still, it is clear that grapevine survived partly drastic climate changes and gathered a number of genes from Asia as a result of early human migration movements. 

Vines (from the left, grapes of wild vine, table grapes, and grapes for wine production) have accompanied civilizations for thousands of years. A genome project has now determined the origin and evolution of vine. (Photo: Karlheinz Knoch, KIT)

"For some years now, it has been known that today's Silk Road once was a wine road. The Chinese symbol for alcohol is derived from Georgian wine jugs, so-called Qevri," explains Professor Peter Nick of KIT's Joseph-Gottlieb Kölreuter Institut for Plant Sciences (JKIP). 

Nick, who had already cooperated with Chinese researchers in a previous project to determine grapevine genomes, suggested to collect grapevines along the previous Silk Road and to analyze their genomes.

Most Detailed Model of the Evolution and Domestication of Grapevine So Far

Nick's idea gave rise to a network of researchers from 16 countries, who contributed not only wild vines and old species from their regions, but also knowledge on their origin and history. Under most difficult circumstances resulting from the global political situation, DNA samples of more than 3500 vines, including more than 1000 wild species, were sent to the State Key Laboratory for Conservation and Utilization of Bio-Resources of Yunnan Agricultural University. 

There, the genomes were decoded under the direction of Dr. Wei Chen and the most detailed model of the evolution and domestication of grapevines so far was generated. As a result, a number of new findings have been obtained. 

Now, the origin of winegrowing can be dated back to earlier than 11,000 B.C. in the South Caucasus. This means that wine is older than bread. Winegrowing technology very quickly spread across the Mediterranean to the west. Within shortest terms, cross-breeding with local wild vines produced a large variety of vines that were reproduced using cuttings. About 7000 years ago in the Middle East, large-berry species developed to table vines.

Domestication was accompanied by climatic changes, i.e. the end of the Ice Age, as well as by the warm and moist Atlantic, a climate period between 8000 and 4000 B.C. The resulting human migration movements left their traces in the genome of the vines. Medieval vines in Southwest Germany, for instance, contain genes of vines from Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

Yang Dong, Shengchang Duan, Qiuju Xia, Zhenchang Liang, Xiao Dong, Kristine Margaryan, Mirza Musayev, Svitlana Goryslavets, Goran Zdunić, Pierre-François Bert, Thierry Lacombe, Erika Maul, Peter Nick, Kakha Bitskinashvili, György Dénes Bisztray, Elyashiv Drori, Gabriella De Lorenzis, Jorge Cunha, Carmen Florentina Popescu, Rosa Arroyo-Garcia, Claire Arnold, Ali Ergül, Yifan Zhu, Chao Ma, Shufen Wang, Siqi Liu, Liu Tang, Chunping Wang, Dawei Li, Yunbing Pan, Jingxian Li, Ling Yang, Xuzhen Li, Guisheng Xiang, Zijiang Yang, Baozheng Chen, Zhanwu Dai, Yi Wang, Arsen Arakelyan, Varis Kuliyev, Gennady Spotar, Nabil Girollet, Serge Delrot, Nathalie Ollat, Patrice This, Cécile Marchal, Gautier Sarah, Valérie Laucou, Roberto Bacilieri, Franco Röckel, Pingyin Guan, Andreas Jung, Michael Riemann, Levan Ujmajuridze, Tekle Zakalashvili, David Maghradze, Maria Höhn, Gizella Jahnke, Erzsébet Kiss, Tamás Deák, Oshrit Rahimi, Sariel Hübner, Fabrizio Grassi, Francesco Mercati, Francesco Sunseri, José Eiras-Dias, Anamaria Mirabela Dumitru, David Carrasco, Alberto Rodriguez-Izquierdo, Gregorio Muñoz, Tamer Uysal, Cengiz Özer, Kemal Kazan, Meilong Xu, Yunyue Wang, Shusheng Zhu, Jiang Lu, Maoxiang Zhao, Lei Wang, Songtao Jiu, Ying Zhang, Lei Sun, Huanming Yang, Ehud Weiss, Shiping Wang, Youyong Zhu, Shaohua Li, Jun Sheng, Wei Chen. Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution. Science, 2023; 379 (6635): 892 DOI: 10.1126/science.add8655

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