Daily briefing: The potential for repurposing existing drugs to fight COVID-19 coronavirus

Time is of the essence — here’s what we’ve already got. Plus, biology’s cryo-electron microscopy boom and why Scotland is bringing back bogs.

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MRC LMB Tritan Krios cryo-electron microscope.

A cryo-electron microscope at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK.Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Biology’s cryo-electron microscopy boom

Labs around the world are increasingly using a revolutionary technique known as cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, to determine the 3D shape of proteins. Such structures are useful for uncovering how proteins work, how they malfunction in disease and how they can be targeted with drugs. The technique involves bombarding flash-frozen proteins with electrons to produce images of individual molecules that can be used to reconstruct a 3D shape. Last week, a database of protein structures determined by cryo-EM, received its 10,000th entry. The popularity of the database is largely driven by the growth in the number of labs with cryo-electron microscopes, say researchers.

Nature | 4 min read

Cash bonus for null results and replications

The Berlin Institute of Health’s 7,000 researchers are being offered an extra €1,000 (US$1,090) in funding if they publish null results, replication studies, pre-registered preclinical studies or papers that reuse data previously published by others. There are also financial incentives available for scholars who publish their raw data. “We are trying to nudge the process to get them to consider different factors and ideas,” says neurologist Ulrich Dirnagl. “We are perhaps rewarding things that should be normal process, but it needs to be done.”

THE | 4 min read

Oldest ever fossil evidence for modern bees

Nests that are 100 million years old seem to offer the oldest fossil evidence for modern bees. The tunnels and structures inside the nests closely match those created by modern bees in the Halictidae family — also called sweat bees — and particularly to the Halictini tribe. The finding supports other evidence showing that bees and flowers diversified around the same time, during the early Cretaceous.

National Geographic | 7 min read

Reference: PLOS One paper

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

Disinfection personnel wearing protective clothing spreading high dense anti-virus spray in China

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19

• The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses has proposed the name SARS-CoV-2 for the coronavirus that was provisionally called 2019-nCoV. The name highlights the virus’s similarity to the SARS virus identified in 2003, says the committee's coronavirus study group. (bioRxiv | 10 min read)

• Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially named the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus: COVID-19. “COVID-19 stands for coronavirus disease in 2019,” said Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO. “The virus itself is named by an international group of virologists … but it is important to have a name for this disease that everybody uses.” (Yesterday I wrote that COVID-19 replaced the provisional name 2019-nCoV — that was incorrect. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus previously called 2019-nCoV; COVID-19 is the name for the disease it causes.) (Nature | continuously updated)

• Antiviral researchers Guangdi Li and Erik De Clercq explore the potential to fight COVID-19 by repurposing treatments for HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and influenza. The analysis focuses on approved drugs or those that have already gone through clinical trials. It also includes a longer list of anti-coronavirus agents, including preclinical compounds, that could be considered for screening or as starting points for optimizing antiviral agents against SARS-CoV-2. (Nature Reviews Drug Discovery | 7 min read)

• As coronavirus spreads, the time to think about the next epidemic is now, argues a Nature editorial. We should strengthen the weakest links in our global defences by investing in universal health care in the most vulnerable countries. (Nature | 4 min read)

• Are you a researcher who has been affected in some way by COVID-19? We’d like to hear from you to inform our news coverage. Please take our short survey.

Features & opinion

Pools of water in peatland under a cloudy sky with a hill in the background

Scotland’s Flow Country is the world’s largest area of blanket bogs.Credit: David Robertson/Alamy

Scotland is bringing back bogs

Across the globe, drained peatlands are emitting billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Scotland — the first country to declare a climate emergency — is taking the lead in restoring bogs to health. Restoration is tough work that takes years to bear fruit, but the rewards could be enormous: scientists are investigating whether the process could go beyond just stopping the drained peatlands emitting carbon and reviving them such that they can suck up more.

Nature | 15 min read

For peat's sake: a map of peatland in Scotland.

Sources: Z. Yu et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L13402 (2010); Scottish Natural Heritage

A grand tour through all time

Physicist Brian Greene’s new book offers a grand vision of the Universe, rooted in physics, that lifts it above many accounts of the cosmic story. The resulting journey through space and time is sometimes breathtaking, necessarily selective — and occasionally superficial, writes reviewer Philip Ball.

Nature | 6 min read

Quote of the day

“I said ‘Oh hey, we have a [dinosaur] jaw at our house, you should come see it. And he said ‘What?!’”

Fossil hunter Sandra De Groot found a treasure trove of tyrannosaur bones in 2008 that have just been named as a new species — Thanatotheristes degrootorum, or ‘Reaper of Death’. (The New York Times)

I’m horrified that I wrote yesterday that NASA astronaut Jessica Meir had recently returned from the International Space Station. It was, of course, Meir’s all-female spacewalk companion Christina Koch who completed the longest-ever single spaceflight by a woman last week. Meir is still on the ISS, smashing it.

In abject apology, I offer a bumper bonus of delightful science sign-off links (since so many of you have written to tell me this is your favourite part!) Please enjoy this stunning naturally pink manta ray and the wing-tip vortices of two raptors as they pass through a mist of helium-filled bubbles. Hats off to ArrrStats — a Twitter account that translates tweets about Rstats into pirate talk. And finally, if you fancy following Meir and Koch onto the ISS, NASA astronaut applications open on 2 March.

Thanks to all the readers who spotted my blunder. Your feedback is always welcome at

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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