Daily briefing: Why Germany’s coronavirus death rate is so low

Trust, testing, treatment and a quirk of fate have kept Germany’s death rate an order of magnitude lower than those in nearby nations. Plus: step through the coronavirus’s full genome and rediscover the polio epidemic that invented intensive care.

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Researcher Mark Meekan swims underwater with a large whale shark

Researcher Mark Meekan diving with a whale sharkWayne Osborn

Nuke isotopes reveal whale sharks’ age

Growth rings in whale-shark vertebrae have shown specimens to be up to 50 years old at the time of death — implying that some whale sharks could live for more than 100 years, and perhaps up to 150 years. Researchers have found spikes in carbon-14 concentrations corresponding to years when above-ground thermonuclear tests peaked, at the height of the cold war. “It suggests that these things are probably intensely vulnerable to over-harvesting,” says fish biologist Mark Meekan.

BBC News | 3 min read

Reference: Frontiers in Marine Science paper

COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak

A pair of medical volunteers in full protective outfits who hold samples while walking down a street

Sean Gallup/Getty

How Germany is keeping people alive

• Germany has the fourth-highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections — more than 100,000. But its death rate is an order of magnitude lower than those in nearby Italy and Spain. One reason is a quirk of fate: many of the first to be infected were young, healthy people who caught the virus in Austrian and Italian ski resorts. Germany has also tested many people with few or no symptoms, lowering the death rate on paper. And the country has a robust free public-health system with lots of intensive-care beds, a trusted government whose social-distancing guidelines are widely observed and an aggressive approach to early testing and treatment. (The New York Times | 10 min read)

• The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is less than 30,000 letters long — short enough that The New York Times can spell it out in this infographic-packed feature. Take a journey through the virus’s full genome, the proteins it encodes, what they do and a few mysteries. (The New York Times | 7 min read)

• Staying at home is not an option for scientists working on potential vaccines or caring for research animals. Four scientists offer advice on the precautionary measures necessary to continue essential research in the face of the pandemic. (Nature | 9 min read)

• The Copenhagen polio epidemic of August 1952 was the outbreak that invented intensive care — the approach so important in fighting COVID-19. It was one of the worst polio epidemics that the world had ever seen, and half the victims were children. A heroic community effort brought to life the idea of anaesthesiologist Bjørn Ibsen: that a new type of ventilator could breathe for a person for hours or days. (Nature | 7 min read)

• A tiger at a zoo in New York City is the first known wild animal to test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Veterinarians guess that the big cat probably caught the coronavirus from a zookeeper. The finding adds to concerns that vulnerable wild animals, including great apes, could be at risk from the illness. (National Geographic | 6 min read)

Read the latest coronavirus news, continuously updated on Nature.

Notable quotable

“We all just need to be careful to indicate how certain we are and not pretend like we know everything. And if your opinion goes against guidelines from agencies like CDC, I think you need to be extra careful with sharing that opinion and using your ‘credentials’ to be critical.”

Evolutionary computational biologist Pleuni Pennings chimes in on an opinion piece by computational biologist C. Brandon Ogbunu, which offers tips for spotting smart people who don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about when it comes to COVID-19. (Wired | 9 min read)

Features & opinion

The Moon, again? Maybe do this instead

What could US$35 billion — the amount NASA plans to spend to land on the Moon again — buy you in space? Ars Technica’s list of ten alternatives includes boosting the tracking of near-Earth objects and learning how to deflect the scariest ones; replacing NASA’s ageing fleet of Earth-observation probes to understand the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions; and launching a new generation of telescopes to study the cosmos. Quirkier ideas also made the list, such as developing nuclear space propulsion or sending people to Mars — although it’s unclear whether that would cost less than NASA’s Moon programme.

Ars Technica | 15 min read

Mentoring during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mentors must change their approach during an outbreak that has left many of us feeling frightened, worried and overwhelmed. Ruth Gotian, the assistant dean for mentoring at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, offers her tips for mentors: check in and chat (accepting that children, pets and pajamas might be there too), suggest a different type of ‘to do’ list and don’t forget to just listen.

Nature | 5 min read

Quirks of Nature

Quote of the day

“We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver a healthy ocean to our grandchildren, and we have the knowledge and tools to do so.”

Marine ecologist Carlos Manuel Duarte led a review that found ocean habitats, populations and ecosystems could be restored within 30 years — if we choose to do it. (The Guardian | 5 min read)

Reference: Nature review article

On Friday, Briefing photo editor Tom Houghton hid our cunning Rockhopper penguin among the zebras in the great Serengeti migration. 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.

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Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Davide Castelvecchi

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