Daily briefing: The wildly complicated immune response to COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2 seems to interact with the immune system in some unusual ways. Plus: the first cancer tumour seen in a dinosaur and the study that has tracked the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs for decades.

Search for this author in:

Hello Nature readers, would you like to get this Briefing in your inbox free every day? Sign up here

Tropical rainforest hardwood trees felled in the Congo Basin, with villagers in the background

Controlling deforestation (shown here, in a tropical rainforest in the Congo Basin) could decrease the risk of future pandemics, experts say.Credit: Patrick Landmann/Science Photo Library

We make havens for disease-harbouring animals

The way we are changing landscapes might increase the probability of pathogens jumping from animals to humans. Researchers reviewed data from nearly 7,000 sites where humans have altered natural ecosystems, such as by clearing land. They found that small creatures such as rodents, which can harbour agents that cause human disease, are more likely to move into these areas than larger animals are. (It’s not known why pathogens are more abundant in these smaller animals.)

The study lends crucial weight to a rising number of voices calling for governments and international agencies to take a holistic view of public health, animal health, the environment and sustainable development. Last week, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services hosted a workshop on the nexus between biodiversity loss and emerging diseases. And on 24 July, an interdisciplinary group of scientists, including virologists, economists and ecologists, published an essay in Science arguing that governments can help to reduce the risk of future pandemics by controlling deforestation and curbing the wildlife trade.

Nature | 6 min read

Go deeper with the expert view in the Nature News & Views article.

Reference: Nature paper & Science essay

Cancer diagnosed in a dinosaur

Roughly 76 million years ago, a Centrosaurus that lived in what is now Canada was walking around with a malignant tumour in its lower leg. The deformed fossil bone was diagnosed with osteosarcoma — the first time that cancer has been confirmed in a dinosaur, although scientists have identified benign tumours in Tyrannosaurus rex fossils. Researchers say that the tumour could have eventually been fatal, but considering where the specimen was found, the Centrosaurus probably died in a flood with the rest of its herd.

Science | 2 min read

Reference: The Lancet Oncology paper

Two views of a dinosaur bone, with bone cancer shown in yellow

Two views of the Centrosaurus apertus shin bone (fibula) with malignant bone cancer (osteosarcoma). The extensive invasion of the cancer throughout the bone (yellow) suggests that it persisted for a considerable period of the dinosaur's life and might have spread to other parts of the body prior to death.Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University

COVID-19 coronavirus update

Our immune system’s response to COVID-19 is one of the biggest outstanding questions of the pandemic. Understanding it is key to helping people to get better, developing a vaccine and bringing the global spread of the disease to heel. The problem is that the human immune system is wildly complicated, and the SARS-CoV-2 seems to interact with it in some unusual ways.

The Atlantic | 14 min read

Why pregnancy might make COVID-19 worse

Physicians and health researchers say there is preliminary evidence that pregnancy might make women’s bodies more vulnerable to severe COVID-19. The lungs are crowded, the cardiovascular system is strained and the immune system is altered to preserve the fetus’s health. There is still much that we don’t know, but the prescription for prevention is simple, where it’s feasible: masks and social distancing. And there is good news — fetuses seem to very rarely be infected late in pregnancy, and the disease has not been shown to cause birth defects.

Science | 8 min read

Features & opinion

The long aftermath of nuclear war

This week is the 75th anniversary of the United States’ nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on 6 and 9 August 1945. The survivors came to be known as ‘hibakusha’, translated to ‘survivor of the atomic bombs’. Since the bombings, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) has followed tens of thousands of hikakusha to learn about the long-term effects of radiation on their health. Safety standards around the world are now based in part on their results, and new data are still coming in. But some of the hibakusha, who have faced discrimination on top of a lifetime of health impacts, have seen little in terms of support in return.

Science | 13 min read

Read more: A Nature editorial calls on researchers to help free the world of nuclear weapons (6 min read)

Books & culture

Klaus Fuchs

Klaus Fuchs was arrested for espionage in 1950.Credit: GL Archive/Alamy

Why did the atomic spy do it?

After being detained in internment camps during the war by the United Kingdom, German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs in turn betrayed his adopted country by sharing its nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union. A new book by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan combines the drama of a police procedural (how did they do it?) with the ambiguities of a psychological thriller (why did they do it?), writes reviewer Sharon Weinberger.

Nature | 5 min read

Defence against the statistical dark arts

It was penned before the coronavirus pandemic started, but a book about the contagion of ideas, diseases, norms, information and misinformation couldn’t be more timely. Evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom and data scientist Jevin West offer an entertaining, informative survey that skewers statistical shenanigans and debunks deceptive data. But reviewer Eric-Jan Wagenmakers wishes for more rigorous references and more acknowledgement of how data visualization can be done correctly.

Nature | 4 min read

News you can use

Top tips and tools for making your lab life better:

• Experimental psychologist Dorothy Bishop explains how working with simulated data can help us to stop fooling ourselves over statistics. (Nature | 5 min read)

• Ecologist Fernando Maestre’s six-point plan for tackling COVID-19 anxiety includes postponing all non-essential work, setting up a schedule, reducing exposure to news and social media, focusing on the positive, exercising more and trying to live in the moment. (Nature | 5 min read)

Where I work

Israeli archaeologist Mina Weinstein-Evron outside a cave at the site of Mount Carmel, Nahal Me'arot Nature Reserve

Mina Weinstein-Evron is an archaeologist at the University of Haifa, Israel.Credit: Corinna Kern for Nature

Skhul is one of Israel’s Mount Carmel caves, which have yielded exquisite discoveries from half a million years of human history. “There is no way to be indifferent to it,” says archaeologist Mina Weinstein-Evron of the entrance to Skhul, which is set into an abrupt cliff. “I have a feeling of ownership, but also one of responsibility” for the caves, she says. (Nature | 3 min read)

Quote of the day

“Only a few people can describe the true horror of atomic bombs. Anybody who understands [it], and the scale of their impact on the human body, would never think of using atomic bombs again.”

Kunihiko Iida, who was 3 years old when the bomb exploded over a spot just 900 metres from his home in Hiroshima, explains why he contributes to the long-term RERF study on atomic-bomb survivors. (Science | 7 min video)

Today our wayfaring friend Leif Penguinson is pondering the mysteriously twisted trees of Poland’s Crooked Forest. Can you find the penguin?

The answer will be in Monday’s e-mail, all thanks to Briefing photo editor and penguin wrangler Tom Houghton.

This newsletter is always evolving — tell us what you think! Please send your feedback to

Flora Graham, senior editor, Nature Briefing

With contributions by Nicky Phillips

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.