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Letter from the editor

Stolen heritage

Illegal fossil extraction is poorly reported and a more common problem than you would think. Developing nations whose soils are rich in prehistoric records often suffer from limitations such as insufficient security and oversight, leading to increased smuggling of valuable artifacts, which frequently end up in the hands of private collectors or even in museums.

Since 1970, a UNESCO convention to which Brazil is a signatory has prohibited and prevented the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Each state is responsible for deciding what they constitute as their own cultural property, a concept that encompasses objects of paleontological interest, among other categories.

Pieces originating from the Araripe basin in Northeast Brazil, a region rich in fossils of prehistoric animals with well-preserved soft tissue, which is very rare, are especially coveted. The scientific community, the federal police, and the public prosecution office have collaborated to locate artifacts illegally removed from the country, identifying when they are sold at auctions and working to have them repatriated. The movement also involves pressuring scientific journals not to publish research results based on smuggled or unethically obtained fossils. The removal of these pieces not only represents a loss of heritage for the country of origin, it also affects the education of scientists and researchers and is a lost opportunity for the public, who no longer have access to these cultural assets.

In the last month, Brazil has surpassed two terrible milestones in the novel coronavirus pandemic: 10 million cases and 250,000 deaths. Pesquisa FAPESP continues to follow events and report on public policies and scientific advances related to COVID-19. There are three articles about vaccines in this issue: one explaining the difference between vaccines that simply prevent the disease and those that also stop the virus from entering the body; another showing why Brazil and South Africa are in the spotlight among the BRICS countries regarding development of their own vaccine; and the third describing the progress of the Brazilian candidates to date.

As a result of the health crisis, researchers from many fields have established professional networks with the public authorities, offering scientific support to help formulate public policies and contribute to decision-making. A survey by Pesquisa FAPESP identified at least 20 initiatives, from methodologies for anticipating how the virus will spread to data being collected on vulnerable populations to ensure they are adequately served by policies created to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.

Virologist Eurico Arruda, who has been studying coronaviruses since the 1980s, reassures readers in an enlightening interview on page 34, pointing out that from an evolutionary perspective, the successive mutations that the novel coronavirus will undergo are likely to make it less harmful to its human host. At the same time, he warns of the need to strictly monitor the variants circulating among the population in all corners of the country. Without monitoring and testing, there is no way of knowing whether these variants are resistant to the antibodies induced by vaccines as the population is immunized.

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