Hot Topics

Below are the ‘hot topics’ summaries which the office is keeping a watching brief on. They are designed to be short, easy to read and to capture the main themes of a topic in the New Zealand context.

The number of summaries will keep growing as our work continues – so make sure to check back.

Novel coronavirus (COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2)

A new virus has emerged in Wuhan City, China. The virus was identified after more than 40 people developed pneumonia in December 2019. Its source has been traced to an animal and seafood market.

Visit the Ministry of Health website for updates related to New Zealand

The number of confirmed cases now exceeds 69,000, with 1671 deaths reported and 9883 patients officially recovered. Cases have emerged in 20 countries outside China including Australia and the United States. These ‘exported’ cases occurred in individuals who had recently travelled to Wuhan. The Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, has said that the likelihood of cases arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand is high, but the likelihood of a sustained outbreak here is low.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a public health emergency of international concern. The declaration is accompanied by seven recommendations. WHO has also given the virus the official name COVID-19. Read the WHO statement and recommendations here

From 3 February 2020, foreign travellers arriving from China will be refused entry to Aotearoa New Zealand. New Zealand citizens and permanent residents will be required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival from China. The travel restrictions will be in effect for 14 days and reviewed every 48 hours. Read the Government release on travel restrictions

We are still learning about the novel coronavirus. Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed. Read more about the virus in this interactive on The New York Times

The new disease is part of the coronavirus family, a diverse group of viruses that includes the common cold. The novel coronavirus appears to be related to SARS, which caused an outbreak in 2003, and MERS, which emerged in 2012.

Read more:

Last updated: 17 February 2020

5G and Health

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

The roll out of 5G has begun in Aotearoa New Zealand and will become more widespread in the following years.  We’ve had a lot of questions about this so have put together some accessible information which you can read by clicking the button below.

Read the PMCSA information sheet

You can also download the information sheet here.

Ministry of Health

Even before the announcement that New Zealand’s first 5G network will start operating in December, questions had been raised about whether this technology might have any consequences for health.  The Ministry of Health has been following this issue and has published an information sheet.  The Ministry’s website also has information about existing cellsites and results from independent monitoring of sites around the country.

Download the Ministry of Health report on 5G

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom has produced an independent and accessible briefing for 5G technology here.

The World Health Organisation has summarised electromagnetic fields and public health concerns here, or for a more detailed analysis, read the 5G briefing paper from the UK House of Commons.

Genetic Editing

The Royal Society Te Apārangi

The Royal Society Te Apārangi has released its report on Gene Editing on the RSNZ web pages.  You can read Juliet’s briefing to the Prime Minister on the report here.

Microplastics

World Health Organisation

Microplastics have been in the news this year, most recently with the release of a report from the World Health Organisation.  You can download a very handy information sheet on this topic here and access the full report here or you can download the complete report using the button below. 

Download the WHO report on microplastics

For what this means in Aotearoa New Zealand, check out this interview with one of our #rethinkplastic planet members, Dr Olga Pantos here.

Resources for science education

The Science Learning Hub has written two articles relating to microplastics: microplastics and How harmful are microplastics?. The article Thinking about plastic – planning pathways explores plastic as a wicked problem and contains an interactive map that curates many of our resources.

Myrtle Rust

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

Myrtle Rust arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2017 and is a threat to a number of native plant species. We’ve pulled together some accessible summary information on myrtle rust in the New Zealand context.

Read the information sheet

You can also download the information sheet here.

Ministry of Primary Industries and Department of Conservation

Biosecurity New Zealand and the Department of Conservation have developed the myrtlerust.org.nz website for information and developments regarding Myrtle Rust.

You can also visit the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation pages for additional information, or read about the symposium on Myrtle Rust hosted by the Ministry of Primary Industries in August 2019.

Resources for science education

The Science Learning Hub has written an article which explores the symptoms, origins, biosecurity response and subsequent approaches taken by MPI. It contains a two column timeline Detecting myrtle rust in New Zealand that details a chronology of myrtle rust in New Zealand and the collaborations that took place between science and industry partners to monitor and attempt to control the disease.

Antimicrobial Resistance

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

Antimicrobial resistance is an imminent threat to Aotearoa New Zealand. You can read the information sheet about this topic and the implications for New Zealand. In addition, our Office has collated a resource sheet which gives information what antimicrobial resistance is, what the impacts may be and what workstreams are in place nationally and internationally.

This work was produced by the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and it is endorsed by the Science Advisory Network.

Read the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor information sheet with the button below.

Read the PMCSA information sheet

Resources for science education

The Science Learning Hub has written an article which covers an introduction to the history of antibiotics, reasons behind resistance, common-sense approaches we can take, and research looking at novel solutions. It also curates Hub resources on the topic, houses 3 Royal Society Te Apārangi videos and features student work on antibiotic resistance posters.

Kauri dieback

Kauri dieback disease is threatening kauri trees (Agathis australis) with extinction. It is caused by the pathogen Phytophthora agathicida and there is no known cure.

Keep Kauri Standing
Keep Kauri Standing is a one-stop shop for information about kauri dieback, containing the latest research, how to guides and background on mātauranga Māori.

The website is an initiative of the Kauri Dieback Programme, a partnership between Biosecurity New Zealand (Ministry for Primary Industries), Department of Conservation, Auckland Council, Waikato Regional Council, Northland Regional Council, Bay of Plenty Regional Council, Te Roroa and Tangata Whenua Roopu.

Further information is available directly from the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Primary Industries, the Waikato Regional Council, the Northland Regional Council and the Auckland Council.

Kauri Rescue
Kauri Rescue is a project bringing together scientists, social scientists, iwi and community groups to implement citizen science tools for community control of kauri dieback. The project is funded by the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge and the Auckland Council.

Science education resources
The Science Learning Hub has several resources on kauri dieback:

Vaping

A vaping device, sometimes known as an e-cigarette, is a handheld device that uses battery power to heat a liquid, creating a vapour that can be inhaled. The vapour may contain nicotine, the addictive compound found in conventional tobacco cigarettes. Vaping is generally considered less harmful than tobacco smoking but there is insufficient evidence to say that vaping is safe. At least 80 chemical compounds have been detected in e-cigarette vapour and we don’t know how all of them affect human health when inhaled. Because vaping is new, we also don’t know the long-term health impacts. This is the focus of ongoing research.

While the long-term health impacts of vaping are unclear, the safest approach is for non-smokers to avoid vaping. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance. There are concerns about the wide availability of vaping products in an unregulated market, and how easily young people can access nicotine-containing products as a result. A recent study of Year 10 students (aged 14–15 years) in Aotearoa New Zealand shows that 3.1% vape daily. Regular (but not daily) use of e-cigarettes has increased from 3.5% in 2014 to 12% in 2019. The proportion of non-smoking youth experimenting with vaping has also increased, from 11.1% in 2014 to 24.6% in 2019.

In contrast, for heavy smokers, vaping may be one useful strategy to reduce harm and help people to quit smoking (when combined with other support mechanisms). While vaping is likely to have long-term health impacts, the growing body of evidence suggests that vaping is less harmful than smoking.

Ministry of Health – Manatū Hauora

The Ministry of Health states that vaping may contribute to Aotearoa New Zealand’s Smokefree 2025 goal, by helping people quit smoking—as long as it does not act as a ‘gateway’ for children and non-smokers to develop a nicotine habit.

Read the Ministry of Health’s position statement on vaping

The Vaping Facts website, produced by the Ministry of Health and the Health Promotion Agency, provides information for smokers who want to quit about the risks and possible benefits of vaping.

Visit the Vaping Facts website

Read more:

Heat-not-burn (HNB) tobacco products

HNB products heat tobacco but do not burn it. Evidence suggests that HNB products are less harmful than conventional cigarettes. However, as they still use tobacco as an ingredient, they likely carry more risk than non-tobacco e-cigarettes.

Vaping-associated pulmonary injury (VAPI)

In September 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States reported an outbreak of lung injury associated with the use of vaping products. More than 2700 cases and 60 deaths have been reported up to 21 January 2020. Current evidence suggests that the outbreak is linked to vaping THC/cannabis products, and in particular to the additive vitamin E acetate. Cannabis/THC-containing e-liquids are currently illegal in Aotearoa New Zealand and there have been no reports of VAPI here.

Read more about VAPI on the CDC website

Read the New Zealand Science Media Centre’s expert reactions to VAPI

PFAS contamination in Aotearoa New Zealand

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances are a group of man-made chemicals used widely since the 1950s. Known for their water- and heat-resistant properties, they are used in products such as furniture and fabric protectants, manufacture of electrical equipment, and as an ingredient in firefighting foam.

The PFAS family comprises nearly 5000 known chemicals, which poses an analytical challenge, but two are of particular interest: perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOS was banned in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2011 and use of PFOA is restricted.

There are concerns about the health and environmental impacts of PFAS. These substances are very resistant to degradation, persist in the environment, and can accumulate in living organisms including humans. The complexity of the group of compounds makes determining levels in the environment difficult. Studies suggest that build-up of PFAS in tissue may be associated with adverse health effects.

However, everyday exposure in New Zealand is generally very low and the Ministry of Health advises that PFAS do not pose a significant public health risk.

An All of Government programme has been established to investigate potential contamination sites (e.g. training areas for firefighters, or areas affected by leachate from landfill) and examine health and environmental impacts specific to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Read more on the Ministry for the Environment website

A workshop on PFAS, involving academics and staff from government agencies from Australia and New Zealand, was held in September 2019 at the University of Auckland, identifying challenges and steps forward in managing PFAS in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Download the University of Auckland School of Environment’s workshop summary (PDF, 192KB)

Folate Supplementation

Ministry of Primary Industries public consultation

The public consultation of folate in food was recently announced by deputy director-general for New Zealand Food Safety Bryan Wilson. The Ministry of Primary Industries is seeking feedback on the proposal document Folic acid fortification: Increasing folic acid availability in food which you can read here.

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

A co-written report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and the Royal Society of New Zealand explored the health benefits and risks of folate. You can also find background information on the Ministry of Health website here.

Download the full report from Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor with the button below.

Download the PMCSA report

1080

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment reported on the use of 1080 in 2011. You can see download the complete report, a FAQ and an updated commentary at the PCE website here.

Newshub also recently interviewed the former commissioner for the environment, Jan Wright, and you can see that interview, and read a summary of her interview on the Newshub Web page here.

Download the full PCE report as a PDF with the button below.

Download the full PCE report on 1080

Resources for science education

The Science Learning Hub has written an article which covers resources on the science of 1080. It contains a 3 column timeline, which explores the history and science of mammalian pest control in New Zealand. It includes the pedagogical article 1080 – a wicked problem. This article helps guide teachers and students with using the science capabilities in a real-life context – specifically ‘use evidence’ and ‘critique evidence’.

Climate Change

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

The previous Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, authored a report on climate change in 2013, and you can find that on our publications page or you can download the complete report using the button below.

Download the PMCSA report on Climate Change 2013

Productivity Commission Report on transitioning to a low emissions economy

The productivity commission recently reported on transitioning to low emissions economy, available on the Productivity commissions website.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi

The Royal Society Te Apārangi has written a number of reports and fact sheets on climate change, including a report on the health impacts of climate change. You can find all of these resources on the RSNZ website.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has a number of reports on various aspects of climate change available on their publications page. You can search their publications by topic. The PCE’s most recent full report on climate change was on Stepping Stones to Paris and Beyond:Climate change, progress, and predictability or you can download the complete report using the button below.

Download the PCE’s report on Climate Change

Resources for science education

The Science Learning Hub has written an article which contains pedagogical advice about teaching aspects of climate change. It contains an interactive map that curates many of our climate change resources.

Contacts

  Phone: + 64 9 923 6318

Mailing Address

Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor
The University of Auckland
Private Bag 92019
Victoria Street West
Auckland 1142
New Zealand