Daily briefing: Coronavirus could have killed 40 million people if the world had not taken action

The COVID-19 pandemic could have infected an estimated 90% of the world’s population and killed 40.6 million people if no mitigation measures were put in place to combat it. Plus: meet the scientists who are redeploying to fight the virus, and what DNA might say about why some people don’t get very ill from COVID-19.

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Source: NASA Ozone Watch

Unprecedented ozone hole opens over Arctic

A rare, and vast, ozone hole — probably the biggest on record in the north — has opened in the skies above the Arctic. Cold temperatures and a strong polar vortex have allowed high-altitude clouds to form. These clouds include ozone-destroying chemicals that linger in our atmosphere, despite having been mostly banned in 1987. The hole will probably be short-lived, and it doesn’t threaten people’s health because the Sun is just starting to rise above the horizon in high latitudes.

Nature | 4 min read

Reference: Nature paper

Rochester settles sexual harassment lawsuit

The University of Rochester in New York has agreed to pay a US$9.4-million settlement to researchers who sued the institution over how it handled allegations of sexual harassment against a cognitive-science professor. The settlement brings to a close one of the most prominent harassment cases at a US university. “We want other universities to know that when people come forward with sexual harassment complaints, it’s important to take them seriously and to find resolution for them that doesn’t require people to seek justice through the court system,” says cognitive-neuroscientist Jessica Cantlon, who was one of nine plaintiffs.

Nature | 2 min read

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

Michelle Cipicchio (right), process development manager on the Genomics Platform R&D team, trains two lab technicians.

Michelle Cipicchio (right) trains two lab technicians at the Broad Institute to extract viral RNA from patient samples.Credit: Scott Sassone/Broad Institute

40 million dead if we had done nothing

• The COVID-19 pandemic could have infected 90% of the world’s population and killed 40.6 million people if no mitigation measures were put in place to combat it. Estimates from an influential modelling group at Imperial College London highlight the importance that acting early had on suppressing the outbreak. (Nature | Continuously updated)

• As labs shut down around the world, researchers are finding creative ways to donate their time, supplies and expertise. Meet a few of the tens of thousands of scientists who are redeploying to fight coronavirus. (Nature | 4 min read)

• Why do some people infected with the SARS-COV-2 virus feel OK, while others — even those who are healthy and relatively young — get very ill? Some researchers are gearing up to search huge national genetic databases, such as the UK Biobank for the DNA variations that might give the answers. Others are recruiting patients with COVID-19 directly within hospitals, who are willing to share their genetic and health data. (Science | 6 min read)

• There is a clear divide among nations when it comes to the public use of face masks — from commonplace in much of Asia, to strongly dissuaded in the United States, to obligatory in the Czech Republic. There is only meagre evidence that mass mask-wearing will help to slow the spread of COVID-19, and there are downsides — whether from a false sense of security or a shortage of masks for health workers who sorely need them. Science outlines the arguments on both sides. (Science | 6 min read)

Read the latest coronavirus news, continuously updated on Nature.

The outbreak insights to read now

Memoir and science fiction have a role to play in illuminating our current situation. Here are some of Nature’s recommendations for the best books about outbreaks and the researchers who study them.

• Peter Piot’s No Time To Lose is a passionate account of his leading roles in the discovery of Ebola and in the global response to HIV and AIDS. It was selected by Chikwe Ihekweazu, director of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, as his choice for a classic to catch up on. (Nature | 16 min read)

• The medical autobiography of epidemiologist Mary Guinan, a pioneer in the field of HIV/AIDS research and global smallpox eradication, is a rip-roaring read, says reviewer Tilli Tansey. (Nature | 5 min read)

• In 2013, Margaret Atwood concluded her sweeping trilogy about a dystopian world devastated by a global pandemic with MaddAddam. “Atwood's book is a warning but also, in its final accounting, a hopeful meditation on the cycle of life, death and the possibility of life anew,” says reviewer Paul McEuen. (Nature | 4 min read)

• Science fiction authors including Lauren Beukes and Kim Stanley Robinson share the books they recommend for making sense of the world (circa 2017). “Science fiction is the realism of our time,” argues Robinson. (Nature | 14 min read)

Last week we shared Nature’s selection of the best histories and analyses of past pandemics. Find that list here.

Notable quotable

“It isn’t enough for Korea alone to survive.”

Dermatologist Min Pok-kee, who leads the public health strategy in Daegu, South Korea, as a volunteer civil servant, outlines the country’s aggressive response to COVID-19 and his worries about the US and UK approach. (Wired)

Features & opinion

A red Hydrozoa showing tentacles on a black background

A new treaty will govern uses of organisms from the open ocean, such as this hydromedusa brought up from a depth of about 2,700 metres in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.Credit: David Shale/NPL

High-seas treaty could stymie some research

Some researchers are fretting that an upcoming international treaty could harm the development of novel drugs. The treaty will regulate for the first time the exploitation of the high seas — those beyond countries’ 200-mile-wide exclusive economic zones. But anti-biopiracy provisions currently under discussion could have unintended consequences, reducing access. Research on marine organisms has led to the discovery of several drugs, including for AIDS and cancer.

Nature | 10 min read

Replication is more than we think it is

Science should move towards a more inclusive definition of replication, which is not a housekeeping activity but an “exciting, generative, vital contributor to research progress,” write Brain Nosek and Timothy Errington of the Center for Open Science. Any study that provides evidence about a previous claim should be considered replication, the authors propose.

PLOS Biology | 13 min read

Quote of the day

“Two magnets ended up in my left nostril while the other one was in my right. At this point I ran out of magnets.”

Astrophysicist Daniel Reardon is good-spirited about his attempt to invent a face-touching warning device that ended up with him in hospital. (The Guardian)

On Friday, Briefing photo editor Tom Houghton hid our imperturbable Rockhopper penguin in the coral reefs of Papua New Guinea. Can you find the penguin? When you’re ready — here’s the answer!

Keep smiling with one of the most-loved Quirks of Nature cartoons ever: Enter here for a chance to win a framed print featuring the poetry stylings of a ‘haemato-poetic’ stem cell.

Good luck! Your feedback is always welcome at

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Smriti Mallapaty and Davide Castelvecchi.

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