Emerging hot topics

The Office keeps a watching brief on several “hot topic” issues. Below you’ll find brief, accessible summaries on a selection of hot topics in addition to links to reputable sources.

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

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

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a pandemic in the wake of the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19. There are 1503 cases (confirmed and probable) in Aotearoa New Zealand, with 1452 recovered.

Aotearoa New Zealand now has a four-level alert system to guide the response to the pandemic. We are currently at alert level two.

Read about the alert levels and more on the official New Zealand Covid-19 website

Visit the Ministry of Health website

The number of confirmed cases worldwide now exceeds 5.1 million, with 334,039 deaths reported and 2,078,204 patients officially recovered. Cases have emerged in 210 countries and territories.

New Zealand borders are currently closed to all foreign travellers. New Zealand citizens and permanent residents can return but must undergo two weeks of mandatory quarantine or managed self isolation.

Watch a Q&A video with Juliet, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Dr Michelle Dickinson on Covid-19

The virus originated in Wuhan City, China and was identified after more than 40 people developed pneumonia in December 2019. The virus is a member of the coronavirus family. This is a diverse group of viruses that includes the common cold. Named SARS-CoV-2, it is related to SARS, which caused an outbreak in 2003, and MERS, which emerged in 2012.

2. 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 Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Vaping) Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament on Monday 24 February 2020. 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 Vaping Amendment Bill and 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.

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

Last updated: 24 February 2020

3. 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.

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 topic sheet on 5G (PDF, 152KB)

Read more

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

Download the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology briefing (PDF, 604KB)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has summarised electromagnetic fields and public health concerns in a backgrounder information sheet.

Or for a more detailed analysis, the UK House of Commons Library has produced a briefing paper on 5G.

Download the UK House of Commons briefing paper (PDF, 828KB)

4. PFAS contamination

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)

5. 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.

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.

6. 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:

7. 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.

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.

8. Genetic editing

The Royal Society Te Apārangi

In 2019, the Royal Society Te Apārangi released a comprehensive report on gene editing.

Read the report ‘Gene editing in Aotearoa’

Juliet provided commentary on the report for the Prime Minister.

Read Juliet’s briefing to the PM on gene editing

9. Microplastics

World Health Organization

Microplastics were a hot news topic in 2019, with the release of a report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Read the WHO microplastics information sheet

Read the full WHO report ‘Microplastics in drinking-water’

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

Watch the microplastics interview on 1 NEWS

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.

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

For more on plastic, including microplastics in the Aotearoa New Zealand context, see our ‘Rethinking plastics’ report.

Visit the ‘Rethinking plastics’ section of our site

10. Folate supplementation

Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor

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.

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

Ministry for Primary Industries

The public consultation of folate in food was announced in late 2019 by deputy director-general for New Zealand Food Safety Bryan Wilson. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) sought feedback on the proposal document Folic acid fortification: Increasing folic acid availability in food.

Read the MPI proposal on folic acid fortification (PDF, 2.26MB)

Ministry of Health

The Ministry of Health website includes an information page about folate and folic acid supplementation for reducing neural tube defects.

Read the Ministry of Health folate information sheet

11. 1080

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

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

Read the PCE report on 1080

Newshub also interviewed the former commissioner for the environment, Jan Wright, in 2018.

Watch and read the interview on Newshub

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’.

12. 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.

Productivity Commission Report on transitioning to a low emissions economy

The Productivity Commission reported on transitioning to low emissions economy. The final report and other associated documents are available on their website.

See the Productivity Commission’s work around low emissions economies

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.

Explore the Royal Society Te Apārangi climate change resources

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 ‘Stepping Stones to Paris and Beyond:Climate change, progress, and predictability

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.