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Daily briefing: The best books on past pandemics to read now

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Illustration of Asteriornis maastrichtensis on a beach

Artist’s reconstruction of the world’s oldest known modern bird, Asteriornis maastrichtensis, in its original environment.Phillip Krzeminski

Primordial poultry rewrites evolution of birds

An extraordinary fossil skull belonged to the oldest modern bird ever found. The duck-sized Asteriornis maastrichtensis lived 66.7 million years ago, just 700,000 years before the asteroid impact that killed off all non-avian dinosaurs. Paleontologists were staggered to discover the skull when they used a computed tomography scan to look inside a rock found in Belgium in 2000 by an amateur fossil hunter.

National Geographic | 7 min read

Read more: Go deeper with the expert view in the Nature News & Views

Reference: Nature paper

Three-dimensional image of Asteriornis maastrichtensis skull

Three-dimensional image of the skull of the world’s oldest modern bird, Asteriornis maastrichtensis.Daniel J. Field, University of Cambridge

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

Coronapod: “Test, test, test!”

• In the first of Nature’s new coronavirus podcast series, Coronapod, we explore why testing and contact tracing — which are key to controlling the coronavirus outbreak — are not being done around the world. (Coronapod | 21 min listen)

• On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global trial of existing drugs that offer the most promise against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Remdesivir was unsuccessful as a drug candidate for Ebola, but targets an enzyme in a way that might hinder SARS-CoV-2. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are decades-old antimalarials that show some thin promise against the new virus. And a combination of three drugs — ritonavir, lopinavir and interferon beta — has shown an effect in animals against a different coronavirus, MERS. The trial, called SOLIDARITY, will not be double-blind, but it will be easy to enroll in and carry out. (Science | 11 min read)

• Iceland has tested a huge number of people per capita for COVID-19 compared with other nations: as of today, more than 10,000 out of its population of 364,000. And, unlike in many other places, that includes many people who show no symptoms of the disease. The effort would be difficult to reproduce for more populous nations, but the resulting data reveals much about the disease — including “that about half of those who tested positive are non-symptomatic”, says Thorolfur Guðnason, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist. (BuzzFeed News | 8 min read)

Read the latest coronavirus news, continuously updated on Nature.

Notable quotable

“I can't jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”

Immunologist Anthony Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the face of the scientific response to COVID-19 in the United States, describes the reality of doing press briefings with US President Donald Trump. (Science | 9 min read)

The best books on past pandemics to read now

From the Black Death to the 1918 influenza pandemic, COVID-19 is not humanity’s first brush with outbreaks. Discover what we can learn from history with Nature’s pick of the best histories and analyses of past pandemics.

• Historian Frank Snowden argues that infectious diseases have shaped social evolution no less powerfully than have wars, revolutions and economic crises. (5 min read, from 2019)

• The story of the race to stop a plague epidemic in San Francisco that broke out in 1900 is a rich history of epidemiology, political wrangling and scientific denialism. (6 min read, from 2019)

• The 1918 influenza pandemic probably infected 500 million people — one-third of the world’s population at the time. There was a wide-ranging failure of medicine and governments — which is one reason why its history has been long neglected. (5 min read, from 2017)

• An analysis of the fraught campaign to contain the 2013–16 Ebola crisis reveals the common threads of dysfunction that run through responses to epidemics. (5 min read, from 2018)

• Rediscover pioneering epidemiologist and anaesthesiologist John Snow and his meticulous mapping of the cholera epidemic in London. (5 min read, from 2013)

Features & opinion

Science on the eastern steppe

A new book by groundbreaking field biologist George Schaller enumerates the rare delights and thorny political challenges of field work in Mongolia.

Nature | 4 min read

Shorter science careers set women back

Male and female scientists have similar rates of publication and citation, when controlling for the difference in their career lengths. An analysis of the publishing careers of almost 8 million scientists from 1900 to 2016 finds that women tend to have shorter careers — and the gap is growing. “Women are pretty similar to men, as long as they stay in the system and do not drop out,” says computational social scientist Roberta Sinatra.

Nature Index | 5 min read


In case you missed it on Friday, Briefing photo editor Tom Houghton hid a Rockhopper penguin in the scientifically fascinating Škocjan Caves in Slovenia for you. Can you find the penguin?

When you’re ready — here’s the answer!

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Good luck! Your feedback is always welcome at Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

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